I have a research question!

22 10 2012

…Maybe. If it is good. I haven’t received any feedback on it yet. Either way, I have the basic idea of what I want to do for my daunting undergraduate thesis, or Keystone project as we call them at Quest.

It has been a bit challenging to find time to work on my Keystone, especially while taking five courses, which is more than a full course load by AUC standards (but evidently not Quest standards). Communication with Quest tutors can also be difficult because email never fully replaces a real face-to-face chat and cuppa tea! In light of these challenges, I’m posting it here in hopes of getting some more feedback.

Anyway, without further ado, my research question asks, “What are the mechanisms that facilitate collaboration between small-scale farmers in rural Ontario?” Here is my justification and plan (as taken from the proposal I recently submitted to my advisor):

In light of our globalizing world, food production has become increasingly centralized and controlled by fewer and fewer large transnational corporations. Maximizing profits is the central goal of these monopolies, and as such, equitable distribution and environmental protection often becomes secondary, if on their agenda at all. Responding to this global situation, several individuals and organizations have launched a movement towards “food sovereignty”, an idea launch by La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996 (La Via Campesina, 2011). This movement calls for an increasing number of local, small-scale food producers in order to reduce global dependence on the monopolies. However, farming requires a considerable amount of various types of capital, most notably land, equipment, labour and knowledge, thus making it less accessible. Climate variability and competitive global market prices present further insecurity. 

In the face of these challenge, collaboration emerges as a prospective solution. Bedwell et al. (2012) define collaboration as an evolving process that involves two or more social bodies working towards a shared goal. Furthermore, collaboration emerges as the fifth level on a five-point collaboration scale, following networking, cooperation, coordination, and coalition (Frey et al., 2006). While there is an increasing body of literature on collaboration, including efforts towards quantification, it remains ambiguous, thus an interesting topic of study. As such, my Keystone project asks: what are the mechanisms that facilitate collaboration amongst local, small-scale food producers in rural Ontario?

For my Keystone project, I propose to conduct an empirical study to find out what mechanisms encourage collaboration amongst farmers, and the types of collaboration that precipitate. My population will be local, small-scale farmers in rural Ontario, with my sample targeting farmers who sell at farmers’ market in Grey and Bruce counties. I would like to explore what institutions, formal or informal, are currently available for small-scale farmers, and particularly, what role social capital might play in facilitating these interactions. Other possible mechanisms may include farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture schemes, local organizations, micro-finance or international work exchange organizations. I hope to identify gaps within the present structures that could be the basis for developments in the future. I will use questionnaires and key informant interviews to collect this research. Eriksen and Selboe (2012) provide some insight as to methodology and possible figures. For example, one possible figure would be a chart of collaborative relations, indicating the number of farmers that participate in different forms of collaboration, such as joint farm enterprise, sharing equipment, mutual assistance, rent labour, rent equipment or have a regular substitute (Eriksen and Selboe, 2012). I could create a similar figure showing the number of farmers that collaborated with others as a result of different mechanisms. As time allows, it would also be useful to use my findings to develop an index for collaboration that could be used for wider applications; however, this is a periphery goal.

In addition to the proposed research, I will also draw on previous relevant experiences. Firstly, I have worked extensively with local organizations in the geographic area of study. I have volunteered with two different local environmental groups and started and managed a local farmers’ market for several years. Secondly, for my experiential learning block, I completed an intensive one-month apprenticeship at Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island. This apprenticeship provided insights into the potential challenges that small-scale farmers face and potential mechanisms for collaboration. Lastly, I am currently volunteering with a couple different community garden projects in Amsterdam, an urban environment, whereby I can compare and contrast with the circumstances in rural Ontario. 

Next Steps:

  • Complete and submit application to the Quest Research Ethics Board (Deadline: 13 November 2012)
  • Consolidate and organize previous relevant literature in Zotero and identify gaps
  • Find studies that I might be able to use as a model for my study

So, there it is. All nice and tidy and easy, right? Am I on the right track? Should I focus more? Is this too ambitious considering my timeline? Let me know!

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Pieces of thesis

16 08 2012

Looking back on the past few months, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a rather epic summer – interning at a farm, motorcycling across the country, working (but more like playing) at summer camp, sweating it out in the bakery, volunteering at Hillside and exploring on the beautiful Bruce. But all good things must come to an end…in order to make room for more good things! In a short two days time, I’ll be flying across the pond to Amsterdam, where I will be studying for four months! I’m a bit nervous, but I know that unsettled feeling is necessary for new and exciting experiences!

Despite the flurry of fun summer activities and Amsterdam preparations, my academic pursuits continue to float around in my head. I finished another seminal reading, Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher and have now started reading Ecotopia. In addition, I’ve began pulling together pieces of what will become my thesis, or “Keystone” as we call it at Quest. My experiential learning block at Foxglove Farm really catalyzed the brainstorming process for my Keystone project, as I had hoped it would. Prior to the experience, I had considered doing a research project on collaboration and social capital at farmers’ markets. However, for logistical reasons, I am now thinking about conducting research on the farming community on the Bruce Peninsula, and attempt to measure both the collaboration and social capital that exists within this population. Some questions I might explore are:

  • How collaborative are local farmers?
  • In what ways are they collaborating – sharing equipment, labour, knowledge?
  • How do I measure collaboration?
  • Does geographic distribution affect the level of collaboration that takes place? Are farmers less likely to collaborate when their farms are more spread out?
  • What role does social capital play in facilitating these collaborations?
  • How do I measure social capital?
  • Does social capital reduce the cost of collaboration?
  • What types of institutions promote collaboration and build social capital?
  • How can farming become more accessible to new farmers?

This is my starting point. We’ll see how things develop over the next few months. I’d welcome any feedback, suggestion, ideas or resources, so send ’em my way!