Grassland 2.0 Learning Hubs Engage Rural Communities on their Turf

Story by Laura Paine, Grassland 2.0 Outreach Coordinator

What if our agricultural system did more than just deliver plentiful, low cost food? What if it also provided a consistent, sustainable income for farmers and environmental benefits like clean water and healthy soil? What if agriculture could help restore the vitality of rural communities hollowed out by an exodus of young people? If we could make that happen, what does it look like?

A University of Wisconsin-Madison based project called Grassland 2.0, now in its second year, is seeking to answer these questions, but they are not approaching it the traditional way. They are turning to local communities across the Midwest and asking them: What do we want and need from our agricultural landscapes and how can we work together to make it a reality?

The project seeks to start a conversation about what we, as a society, need to come together around a shared understanding of what we want our food and agriculture system to do for us. “That’s the relatively easy part,” said Laura Paine, outreach coordinator for Grassland 2.0. “Who doesn’t want clean water and a livable income for farmers?” According to Paine, how you get there is the overwhelming challenge, because it means that some or all of us will need to change something about our lives and livelihoods. Not an easy thing to contemplate, let alone accomplish.

We are creating spaces for these challenging, sometimes divisive conversations to happen within local communities through it’s learning hubs. Learning hubs engage communities in conversations that are rooted in rich local knowledge and allow the community to think and plan beyond day-to-day activities to the future they wish to have for their children and grandchildren. Through these discussions, project partners will gain a sense of how community interactions can sometimes create inertia and sometimes drive innovation on the ground in watersheds in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest

“Participants in each learning hub will work together to create locally-driven plans for change, based on shared community goals,” said Rebecca Power, UW-Madison Extension outreach program manager and Learning Hub team leader. “These local goals will feed into the development of a regional plan for transforming our agriculture system that will be a main product of Grassland 2.0. The voices of farmers, community leaders, and eaters are a central element of these plans.”

To date, three learning hubs have been launched. These include a project centered in the Eau Pleine watershed in Marathon and Taylor Counties called the Clover Belt, a group in the Kickapoo River region including Vernon and Crawford Counties, and a larger regional Driftless Area hub, currently focused on Iowa, Sauk, and Lafayette Counties. Two hubs are forming in Minnesota and Illinois and additional Wisconsin hubs may emerge in the next few years.

The project will eventually have up to seven Learning Hubs in Wisconsin and beyond, but the overall goal is for the learning hub process to spread into other organizations and agencies. Guided by the Grassland 2.0 team and local leaders, each learning hub conversation will develop uniquely, reflecting the character of the local landscape, its people, history, and aspirations.

Learning hubs are just one way that Grassland 2.0 diverges from what people expect from a land-grant university, and this is deliberate. The team recognizes that the university is part of a system that often reinforces the status quo. With this in mind, the group created a flexible, adaptive project that is as much about modeling a new way for the university to work together with partners and the public as it is about creating a plan for change.

“We’ve brought together a diverse team from a dozen university disciplines including the arts and humanities, plus state and federal agriculture and natural resources agencies, the private sector, and partner organizations from around the region to bring together the resources needed to make systemic changes,” said project director Randy Jackson. “Integrating across multiple dimensions is part of the work the team is engaged in. These include everything from federal policy, to building local supply chains, to decision and planning tools to help farmers make changes to their operations and businesses.”

People familiar with the Wisconsin Idea usually think about it as a means for the knowledge generated by the university to influence people’s lives beyond the classroom. This paradigm has led to innovations that have shaped our food system and has made the University of Wisconsin-Madison and its Division of Extension national leaders among land-grant universities.

Carrying that spirit of progress forward into the 21st century, Grassland 2.0 seeks to help evolve the Wisconsin Idea into a new paradigm of engagement that has the capacity to help address the monumental challenges and disruptions our food and agriculture system faces. “We think it starts with an inclusive conversation and we invite you to add your voice,” said Paine. “How should we shape our future agriculture and food system for resilience? How can land-grant universities help facilitate change? Even if you’re not in one of the learning hub sites, we’d love to hear your ideas.”