Friday, January 25, 2013

Anna Duhon: Windows onto the farmscape: Becoming part of the story

FEP researchers Anna Duhon, Conrad Vispo, Claudia Knab-Vispo
How do we help facilitate people’s connection to the land? This is the central question that drives our work at the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, a small, community-based research and outreach initiative on a working educational farm in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Our trio of researchers includes a botanist, a wildlife ecologist and a social scientist. Together we strive to open different windows of knowledge onto our county’s ‘farmscape’--the term we use to describe a landscape that even in its most out-of-the way corners has been shaped by a long history of agricultural land use and for which agriculture continues to be a defining factor.

The windows we open are often very different--a look into the native butterflies and the fields they thrive in, or the industrial history as it impacted land use, or the new farmers that are just marrying their visions to a piece of land. With the landscape as the connecting core of our research, we are always striving to mesh our different disciplines into a more holistic picture. This involves bridging areas of research that are often separate or even at odds, such as the cultural and the ecological, or agronomic and conservation sciences. By opening such different windows, we hope not only to deepen our own perspectives, but also to invite further exploration and engagement with the land from a broad base of interests; creating entry points that might draw in farmers alongside history buffs, or wildflower enthusiasts alongside local food lovers.

Our approach throughout, however, is to frame these many perspectives as part of a larger story of the land and our relationship to it. This framing, and the resulting broad conceptualization of the Program, crystallized early on when my colleagues were surprised by how interested people were to hear ecological stories in an historical context. A basic focus has thus been studying history in order to understand the present, such as through historical ecology that works back from the present to ask: how is what you see in front of you a product of the history that came before? This approach inherently ties present to past (not always an easy link) and, because it’s a process history, easily links to thinking about how the now evolves into future history. We ask in multiple ways: Where has this land been? Where is it now? Where do we want it to be? And by extension: What is our role in this unfolding story?

This approach calls on us to find ways of deeply involving people in this story and conversation, whether through participatory research or sharing our research through community-engaging outreach. For nearly a decade we have been fortunate to be in the unique position of doing place-based research in a rural county with our primary audience being the people who live here. We have honed in on the scale of the county because that seems to be the right scale for storytelling; big enough to contain ecological and cultural diversity, but small enough so it still feels like a place with which people identify. Yet we always are grappling with the challenge of reaching and engaging diverse members of this county in meaningful ways.

Click here for map as PDF
One of our recent projects taught us a lot about the potential for sparking rich community dialogue through shared research. In the New Farmer Narrative Project we interviewed 20 different farmers who had started or taken over farms in the county within the last decade about their journey into agriculture, their current farm and their visions for the future. From these interviews, photographic tours of the farms and aerial and historical photographs of the land, we created a 17-panel moveable exhibit [downloadable as a PDF file] that was displayed at 10 different local public venues (mostly libraries) over the course of four months, usually staying a couple of weeks at each. Initially this was the extent of outreach we had planned, but fortunately we decided to hold a kick-off event in conjunction with the first installation of the exhibit.

That event quickly showed us the potential for gathering a wide group of farmers and community members together and opening up discussions about the story of farming in this area. We ended up organizing a kick-off event for every stop of the county-wide tour, most involving some presentation of the research and a panel of new farmers from the immediate vicinity sharing their experiences and answering questions. We were surprised to find these events filling up to overflowing with 40 or 50 people, including older farmers, longtime residents, more recent transplants, and even local high school students.

The conversations that emerged were noticeably different in different parts of the county. In a hilly corner of the county that has long been dairy country, people grappled with the decline in dairy farms, and the fact that new farmers--even those raised on dairy farms--could not see a path ahead for continuing the dairying tradition. For many people it was a revelation that the number of farms in the county was actually increasing and that there was a whole group of energetic new farmers with small, diversified operations. Large dairy and fruit farms have long been the dominant face of the county’s agriculture, and as these industries have struggled, farming has often been viewed as part of a declining past, not a vibrant future. Through these events we were able to frame the stories of new farmers into the larger context of the changing story of agriculture in this county, and open up a meaningful space for shared conversation amongst diverse community members about how these changes are being experienced and engaged.

Looking ahead, we are hoping to build on this idea of creating traveling exhibits that can be paired with events and forums in local community venues. One way we’re planning to do that is through a participatory research project that would invite people to share their unique views on the landscape through resident-employed photography and other photo-elicitation methods. Researchers have used such methods with farmers (Beilin 2005; Sherren, Fischer and Price, 2010) as well as other groups with land-specific knowledge (Dandy and Van Der Wal 2011) and the general public (Beckley, Stedman, Wallace and Ambard, 2007) to inquire about different aspects of people’s use and perception of the land. Such methods might easily lend themselves to a photo essay display and conversations sparked by the experience of getting to “see” the landscape through different eyes, opening up another set of windows on the land and its story.

View of Hawthorne Valley Farm from a nearby hill (March 2008)
Of course the story is never complete and we continue to work as a Program on how to truly integrate our different disciplines. For example, at about the same time as I was exploring the perspectives of new farmers, my colleagues were studying the same farms from an ecological perspective--looking at how native plants and animals from the surrounding areas affect agricultural production and what habitats farms provide for native plants and animals. How might we better incorporate these varied perspectives? We are hoping to start answering this question through our current multi-year initiative, the Living Land Project, which will explicitly involve paired ecological and cultural research that will be integrated into exhibits, forums, and ultimately, an eco-cultural field guide.

In his 2002 article making the case for photo-elicitation, Harper describes the effectiveness of using photographs that "break the frames" of people’s normal view in order to elicit deeper reflections in interviews. This is a good description of how we might wish our research to function overall. Whether zooming in to look at the favorite place of a farmer or zooming out to look at the distribution of ground beetles across the landscape, we are hoping to provide new perspectives that might jostle people’s normal views of the land just enough to create reflective space for deeper engagement.

Perhaps one of the biggest frames that can be broken is the present-centered view. By rooting our research in the history of this area while asking what kind of future on the land we want to create, we invite people to see how they might consciously fit themselves into this evolving story as thoughtful and engaged participants.

~ Anna Duhon, Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program

Beckley, T., Stedman, R., Wallace, S. and Ambard, M. (2007). Snapshots of what matters most: Using resident-employed photography to articulate attachment to place. Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 20(10), 913-929.
Beilin, R.J. (2005). Photo-elicitation and the agricultural landscape: ‘seeing’ and ‘telling’ about farming, community and place. Visual Studies, 20(1), 56-68.
Dandy, N. and Van Der Wal, R. (2011). Shared appreciation of woodland landscapes by land management professionals and lay people: An exploration through field-based interactive photo-elicitation. Landscape and Urban Planning, 102, 43-53.
Harper, D. (2002).  Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation.  Visual Studies, 17(1), 13-23.
Sherren, K., Fischer, J., and Price, R. (2010). Using photography to elicit grazier values and management practices related to tree survival and recruitment. Land Use Policy, 27, 1056-1057.


  1. Wonderful post and projects! I found this very inspiring, Anna.

    Themes that leaped out to me included interdisciplinarity, storytelling (again), place, and scale. It seems to me that scale is an important part of our discussion of the role of public history. The food movement deals at various scales - international, what with the impact of globalization; national, at both the level of federal policy and of the infrastructure and food supply; regional, state, and municipal. It's interesting that you found the "county" size in your region to provide an optimum scale on which to make an impact, and yet even within that, it was the activation of networks at the hyperlocal level that was most deeply engaging.

    Looking forward to learning more about the theory behind "photo-elicitation," which is new to me, and considering further this conversation about "frame," and how it relates to these issues of scale.

  2. Yes, I found myself thinking about scale as well. I think this is part of what I was grappling with in my thoughts on Tyler French's post - how to find the right scale at which to operate, and also how to help people link the various scales together in their own thinking? I really like David Bell and Gill Valentine's book "Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat" for this, because they structure their discussions on every scale from the individual body to the global (and show how they are of course all interconnected).

    The other thing I'm thinking about in relation to these projects is the various tools for elicitation, exhibition, and documentation that FEP is so good at using. I wonder if a next step in local food/history collaborations is to blur the lines between producers and consumers of knowledge a bit more and to develop projects where people are doing some of their own collecting and exhibiting? Some of these projects definitely point in that direction, and I'm wondering whether we could think of more of a "potluck" approach in developing programming and exhibits, rather than having the representational tools all in the hands of the "professionals."