Re-Defining our Places Through Learning Hubs

John Strauser holding a fish in front of a lake

Story by John Strauser

If improving biodiversity, water quality, and soil health are goals shared by so many, and we know about potential solutions, why aren’t these solutions being more aggressively pursued? Reshaping agriculture in ways that provide a spectrum of ecosystem services can feel daunting. The socially defined context in which farming decisions are made impedes transitions to more regenerative forms of agriculture (Stuart & Houser, 2018). For meaningful changes to occur in our agricultural systems, we need to reshape the way we have socially, politically, economically, and biophysically constructed the places where we grow and consume food (Vogeler, 2019). 

Wisconsin farmer implementing a regenerative approach to agriculture.

In a recent conversation, a colleague advising a local watershed organization told me about how he encountered resistance to incorporating more perennial agriculture into farming systems. My colleague had studied the watershed extensively and provided data showing that to reach the target phosphorus runoff goals of the community, farmers in the watershed would need to transform their systems and that rotational grazing was particularly worth prioritizing. However, despite the empirical support, when it came time for a working group to write up the final recommendations for the watershed, rotational grazing was removed as a recommended practice. The reason for this was not because someone else had better research or competing data. The reason was that rotational grazing was seen as a politically untenable position to support because it hadn’t been promoted significantly in the past, and this would confuse farmers who hadn’t been receiving this message. In this instance, the choice not to support rotational grazing seemed driven by the need to comply with socially normative corn and soybean farming. 

Well-managed rotational grazing, a practice that improves water quality and builds soil, was dismissed by the watershed organization simply because it was deemed “unrealistic.” To be fair, watershed groups are not alone; rather, they are complying with a broader societal framework that makes corn and soybean production appear as the only reasonable way forward (Stuart & Houser, 2018). A danger is that if society carries on with the normalization of corn and soybean agriculture, it will continue to be viewed as the only form of “conventional agriculture.” All members of society must be cognizant that they participate in a collective effort that contributes to shaping what is “conventional agriculture” (Reynolds et al., 2021; Stuart & Houser, 2018; Vogeler, 2019). 

If we care about our future, now is the moment to commit to creating a more diverse, perennial agricultural system. To reshape what is considered socially, politically, and economically realistic, it is paramount that we engage in reimagining and redefining the places we call home (Cresswell, 2015; Di Masso & Dixon, 2015; Manzo, 2003). In academic literature, the reshaping of places is referred to as place-making (Pierce et al., 2011). What realistically can occur on any given farm is developed through the interconnection of social processes and biophysical features (Strauser et al., 2022).

Community members gather at a field day in Illinois to envision future farming practices.

Barriers to changing the way we farm are not inherent to our being but are brought about through human actions (Burton, 2004, 2012; Morse et al., 2014; Nassauer, 1988). Economic structures, such as the board price assigned to a bushel of corn, are not innate to life on Earth (Cronon, 1991; Stuart & Houser, 2018). The crop insurance policies that limit the risk of growing corn and soybean are written by a Congress of elected representatives with strong input from corporations positioned to benefit from the system (US Farm Bill). The songs that romanticize big tractors and plowing fields are not the only tunes that can play on an FM radio (Aldean, 2005; Bryan, 2009; Diffe, 1993; Jennings, 1990). Busch beer doesn’t have to have only corn and John Deere tractor images (Busch Press Release). In its current form, our social, political, economic, and biophysical structures normalize the production of corn and soybeans. The normalization of corn and soybean farming can make a well-managed agrarian system that supports communities, farmers, and healthy ecosystems seem like a far-fetched utopia. I would suggest that transformations in farming feel so distant because our society knowingly and unknowingly perpetuates the agricultural industry’s oligopoly that depends on corn and soybean production for the benefit of a select few (Vogeler, 2019).

Caring for our agricultural future means actively contesting what is considered to be “conventional” or “realistic” (Leitschuh et al., 2022). This sort of shift is less about individuals changing their minds and behaviors and more about society demanding systemic change (Reimer et al., 2021; Stuart & Houser, 2018). At an individual level, most farmers, researchers, NGOs, food processors, and consumers agree that they want a food production system that feeds people, supports communities, and protects our environment. It is essential to focus on place-making efforts that bring together a wide range of people willing to disrupt our broken agricultural and food production systems at many scales of resolution – farmscape, regional, and national (Strauser et al., 2022) When I think about developing a vision for the structural shifts that are needed, I am reminded of a quote from the Irish Playwright George Bernard Shaw:

“Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not”

-George Bernard Shaw

Transformational change depends on visions of a better future. The Grassland 2.0 project prioritizes working toward a future in Learning Hubs using a process called Collaborative Landscape Design – an iterative process with five primary elements.

  1. Connecting people – Transformational change requires working with a broad coalition of people. A plurality of relationships allows for the diverse perspectives needed to facilitate conversion across scales.
  2. Envisioning novel landscapes – To work toward a future state, people must come together and identify what they want from their landscapes and communities. What is it that people currently like about their landscape, and what needs to change?
  3. Designing supply chains – Directing attention toward developing markets and production systems that reward and care for laborers, farmers, processors, and others. Those who work and care for the land need economic structures that fairly and consistently compensate them for their efforts and stewardship of a valuable resource. 
  4. Planning enterprises – As transformation happens, farmers, businesses, and consumers must work together as they navigate a transition to a new food production system. Tools and expertise is brought to bear on individual farm enterprises to help farmers explore what’s possible – economically, socially, and ecologically – within novel socio-ecological landscapes.
  5. Incentivizing change – As transitions occur, it will be important to encourage or speed up transformational change through social and economic means. Critical here is for communities to develop approaches and systems to Collaborative Landscape Management, an ongoing process of governance that allows for adaptive approaches to problems as they emerge.

By engaging with the elements of Collaborative Landscape Design, people in Learning Hubs are actively engaged in place-making – working toward producing transformational changes in our agricultural systems by constructing a desirable future. Future farming that provides a wide array of ecosystem services is not an unrealistic utopia. Through efforts such as those in the Grassland 2.0 Learning Hubs, we can develop a realistic food production system that cares for our social, economic, nutritional, and ecological needs. 

John Strauser, Grassland and Perennial Agriculture Outreach Specialist with UW-Madison Extension

John earned his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. He currently serves as Grassland and Perennial Agriculture outreach specialist for the UW-Madison Division of Extension. His research and outreach focus on the social processes that drive bio-physical landscape change by employing the concept of place-making. His passion for agrarian landscapes traces its roots back to his childhood growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, and Champaign, Illinois, where he always felt a connection to the Mississippi River, Great Lakes, and Midwestern communities. In his free time, John loves fishing, swimming, biking, and casual conversations with friends and colleagues.

Work Cited

Aldean, J. (2005). Amarillo Sky. Broken Bow.

Bryan, L. (2009). Rain is a Good Thing. Capital Nashville.

Burton, R. J. F. (2004). Seeing through the “good farmer’s” eyes: Towards developing an understanding of the social symbolic value of “productivist” behaviour. Sociologia Ruralis, 44(2), 195–215.

Burton, R. J. F. (2012). Understanding Farmers’ Aesthetic Preference for Tidy Agricultural Landscapes: A Bourdieusian Perspective. Landscape Research, 37(1), 51–71.

Cresswell, T. (2015). Place an introduction. Wiley Blackwell.

Cronon, W. (1991). Nature metropolis: Chicago and the great west. W.W. Norton.

Di Masso, A., & Dixon, J. (2015). More than words: Place, discourse and the struggle over public space in Barcelona. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 12(1), 45–60.

Diffe, J. (1993). John Deere Green. Epic.

Jennings, W. (1990). Where Corn Don’t Grow. Epic.

Leitschuh, B., Stewart, W. P., & van Riper, C. J. (2022). Place-making in the Corn Belt: The productivist landscapes of the “good farmer.” Journal of Rural Studies, 92, 415–424.

Manzo, L. C. (2003). Beyond house and haven: Toward a revisioning of emotional relationships with places. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23(1), 47–61.

Morse, C. E., Strong, A. M., Mendez, V. E., Lovell, S. T., Troy, A. R., & Morris, W. B. (2014). Performing a New England landscape: Viewing, engaging, and belonging. Journal of Rural Studies, 36, 226–236.

Nassauer, J. (1988). The Aesthetic of Horticulture: Neatness as a form of care. Horticultural Science, 23(6), 973–977.

Pierce, J., Martin, D. G., & Murphy, J. T. (2011). Relational place-making: The networked politics of place. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36(1), 54–70.

Reimer, A., Doll, J. E., Boring, T. J., & Zimnicki, T. (2021). Scaling up conservation agriculture: An exploration of challenges and opportunities through a stakeholder engagement process. Journal of Environmental Quality.

Reynolds, J., Bell, M. M., Grace, J., Gratton, J., Gratton, C., Jackson, R. D., Keeley, K. O., & Mayerfeld, D. (2021). An agroecological vision of perennial agriculture. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 45(10), 1470–1479.

Strauser, J., Stewart, W. P., & Leitschuh, B. (2022). Producing regions: Connecting place-making with farming practices. Society and Natural Resources, 35(9), 1012–1020.

Stuart, D., & Houser, M. (2018). Producing Compliant Polluters: Seed Companies and Nitrogen Fertilizer Application in U.S. Corn Agriculture. Rural Sociology, 83(4), 857–881.

Vogeler, I. (2019). The Myth of the Family Farm: Agribusiness Dominance of US Agriculture. CRC Press.