Holistic Pedagogies for Social Change: Reflections from an Urban Agroecology Farmer Training

Ana Galvis Martinez,1 Brooke Porter,2 Paul Roge,' Leah Atwood,4, and Natalia Pinzon Jimenez5

  • 1 Independent Consultant, Founder of www.cafepanamericano.org and www.holisticsustainabilities.org
  • 2 Graduate Student, MSc in Agroecology, Norwegian University of Life Sciences
  • 3 Faculty, Environmental Management & Technology, Merritt College
  • 4 Wild and Radish Ecovillage, LLC and Agroecology Commons
  • 5 Graduate Student, PhD in Geography, Department of Human Ecology,

University of California, Davis

KEY WORDS: agroecology; constructivist pedagogies; food sovereignty; humanistic education; popular education; urban agroecology

Land Acknowledgement

This chapter was written on occupied, unceded Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land. We would like to offer our deepest gratitude and respect for the Indigenous people of this planet and this place, honoring that their stewardship from time immemorial has created the foundation for what we understand to be agroecological principles today.


Agroecology is actually a peasant Indigenous movement, it’s a social movement for liberation, undoing all the harm that has been caused by industrial agriculture, the harm that white supremacy and patriarchy has caused with the pursuit of capitalism and the commodification of resources. In my role of being someone who identifies as an educator or even as a mentor, after BAFT I feel like I’m more prepared and better equipped to have those types of conversations with people and that I’m able to help to engage folks with those types of thinking, helping them become system thinkers themselves, this is how BAFT has been helpful to me.

Samuel Madrigal, BAFT participant, November 12, 2019

Samuel Madrigal shared this reflection approximately one year after graduating from the Bay Area Farmer Training (BAFT), a program implemented from 2015-2019 that sought to meet the growing demand for agroecological training in urban settings of California.1 In less than a century, global urban populations have rapidly expanded from 15% to 55% of the total (UN DESA 2018). A complex matrix of power dominates urban geographies, forming a landscape highlighted by its inequalities (Deelstra and Girardet 2000). In this context, agroecological education has an important role to play in scaling up, or massifying, the ability of urban people to meet their own basic needs for healthy food while simultaneously building community and defending territories.

Agroecology has long been practiced and protected by Indigenous and peasant farmers across the globe. Rooted in Indigenous traditions of reciprocity with the land (Kimmerer 2018), agroecology arose as a response to the Green Revolution, which promoted ecological destructive, chemical intensive, maximum yield breeding strategies, and monoculture specialization (Wezel et al. 2009). Agroecology is often defined as the “application of ecological principles to the study, design and management of agroecosystems that are both productive natural resource conserving, culturally sensitive, socially just and economically viable” (Miguel Altieri 1995; Gliessman 2015; Tornaghi 2017; A. B. Siegner, Acey, and Sowerwine 2020). While it is very much a science, it is also a practice and movement (Wezel et al. 2009). As a social movement, it has a strong ecological foundation and is backed by peasants, farmers, and activists seeking to ensure global food sovereignty (Steve Gliessman 2013; “Forum for Agroecology, Nyeleni” 2015).

In recognizing that the extractive industrial agriculture model doesn’t serve people or the planet (IPES-Food 2016; Stephen Gliessman, social movements such as La Via Campesina,[1] [2] the Landless Rural Workers Movement,[3] and the farmer-to-farmer movement have massified agroecology through popular education (Holt-Gimenez 2006; McCune, Reardon, and Rosset 2014; Meek and Tarlau 2016. The horizontal nature of popular education and farmer-to-farmer exchange have helped facilitate the preservation and proliferation of agroecology in Indigenous and peasant communities around the world (Holt-Gimenez 2006; Wilson 2011). Borrowing from these movements, urban agroecology education has the capacity to stand as the protagonist in the transition to create resilient urban communities by encouraging food and farming models that center equity, cooperation, and solidarity.

Transforming how humans relate with each other and to the ecosystems of which they are a part of is a central challenge to urban agroecology education. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, it is vital to maintain and reclaim land-based relationships and wisdom rooted in agroecological principles, which have the potential to serve as valuable tools to mitigate climate change, biodiversity loss, fresh water depletion, land and ocean degradation among other major global environmental problems. While agroecology has a strong focus on production, it also seeks to address a larger paradigm shift within food and farming systems through social equity, one in which many urban communities play a central role.

Transitioning towards agroecology within urban geographies is multifaceted and manifests within the ecological, political, economic, and social realms of society (Dehaene, Tornaghi, and Sage 2016; Tornaghi 2017; M Altieri and Nichols 2019). Providing consumers, particularly urban populations with direct supply networks not only decreases the geographical distance in which food travels—addressing its ecological footprint—but simultaneously builds relationships between producers and consumers, oftentimes strengthening urban and rural relations (Dumont et al. 2016). Following socioeconomic principles of agroecology, cooperative models present opportunities to strengthen urban communities by increasing agency, collaboration, and profit-sharing. Agroecology also has the potential to serve as a bridge between a wide array of social movements and platforms: ecofeminism, racial justice, LGBTQIA+, Indigenous sovereignty, agrarian reform, land reparations, and more. Public policies that increase urban farms have a wide range of benefits such as: interception of solar radiation, waste and nutrient recycling, increased soil fertility, filtration of atmospheric pollution, microclimate improvement and overall community wellness (Deelstra and Girardet 2000). Urban agriculture is a vital aspect of city infrastructure to promote health, peace and interdependence by creating places for residents to connect to food, nature, and each other (Reynolds and Cohen 2016).

This chapter discusses the challenges and opportunities for applying agroecology to the interwoven environmental and social issues of urban places. Urban agroecology education occurs in different contexts, within academic institutions, grassroots organizing of social movements, and non-profits and community-based organizations. In the case of BAFT, it emerged from the context of the non-profit sector in the United States. Its educators had experience in both social movements and traditional academic settings. BAFT took the shape of a community-based farmer training program focused on social justice.

In this context, BAFT provides insights into contra-hegemonic pedagogies with a focus on critical, constructivist, humanistic approaches emerging from non-academic spaces. This case study highlights some of the challenges in creating these types of learning environments. Many of the authors of this chapter formed the BAFT educator and program team. We weave together our own perspectives with interviews of former BAFT participants and program evaluations. The following analysis of BAFT illustrates one way to design and implement urban farmer training programs rooted in agroecology and supported by humanistic values and decolonial frameworks.

BAFT: A Case Study in Politicized Urban Agroecology Education

Through funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), BAFT trained 122 aspiring urban farmers in agroecology and food sovereignty between 2015 to 2019. It was specifically crafted for underserved aspiring and beginning urban farmers with a focus on people of color, women, immigrants, formerly incarcerated people, and LGBTQIA+ individuals. The majority of those who participated in BAFT lived in urban places. Most were landless, facing severe challenges in accessing farmland and lacking secure housing. Systematic disparities have barred some of the communities participating in BAFT from accessing institutional and academic opportunities. BAFT attempted to offer a high-quality educational experience for an unconventional student demographic that faced ongoing challenges in entering the farming sector.

The BAFT program consisted of two main components: a three-month course and a follow-up mobilization phase. The BAFT course introduced agroecology and food justice theories and practices to 122 participants. Each BAFT course spanned three months, with eight hours of classes per week.

The curriculum used didactic tools such as field trips, participatory presentations, on-farm practice, anti-oppression training, project-based learning, online resources, and mentorship support to create an environment that celebrated different learning styles. Field trips included visits to farms, food preparation facilities, aquaponic systems and nurseries. The online course contained a learning network with multimedia lessons and readings that supported the in-person classes. Each BAFT course concluded with a celebratory graduation ceremony, where students reflected on their learning and presented their visions for future businesses, projects, and other endeavors.

In recognition of societal inequalities affecting many BAFT participants, the program was designed to reduce barriers to participation and meet some of their basic resource needs. To accommodate working students, the course took place in the evenings and on weekends. Eight hours per week of in-person meetings were supplemented with optional 3 hours per week of online course materials for the week’s topic. The BAFT course was offered at a sliding scale rate with scholarships and participation stipends available for low-income applicants. Over 50% of graduates received a stipend between $350 and $800—in addition to a fee waiver—to support their participation. Participants put the stipends toward transportation. childcare, and/or meals. This greatly facilitated their involvement in the classes. Participants were allowed to bring their children to class, where they frequently received childcare support from both staff and fellow classmates. Laptop computers were also available on loan, which allowed some participants to engage with the online materials and prepare their applications for the mobilization phase.

Graduates of the course could continue in the BAFT mobilization phase, which provided guidance on the development of participants’ farming, food business, and education projects. Out of the mobilization program formed projects such as the East Bay Farmers Collective, which was founded by a group of BAFT graduates seeking to cultivate agroecological produce and medicinal herbs (Paxton 2019). The collective focuses on distributing nourishing food and medicine to predominantly people of color, Indigenous communities, women, trans, and fern residents of the Bay Area.

The BAFT mobilization phase included mentorship for participants from specialists in their field of interest, on-farm apprenticeships, and mini-grants to support their mobilization projects. The application for all forms of support required a basic project proposal or business plan. The hours of mentorship during the incubation phase varied in length, depending on the needs of each project. The BAFT provided matchmaking services and $15/hour stipends for on-farm apprenticeships in the Bay Area and surrounding rural regions. BAFT graduates also applied for competitive mini-grants toward material costs of their projects. BAFT educators strove to foster a culture of transparency, inclusivity, and engagement through participatory budgeting and an emphasis on the formation of worker cooperative farms and projects.

At its core, BAFT sought to address the structural inequalities that shape the current hegemonic food system. The program provided tools to overcome imminent challenges that participants would likely encounter—difficulties in accessing land, financial and social capital, and technical support—with alternatives such as cooperativism, local markets, connections to locally available resources, relationship- based networks, and mentorship support. Rather than seeing these inequalities as personal shortcomings to be overcome, the program sought to understand the origins of these structural inequalities, which are produced by a society plagued by colonization, white supremacy, extractive capitalism, and patriarchy. This radical vision of agroecology from the perspective of social justice set BAFT apart from many other farmer training programs funded by the USDA BFRDR

  • [1] BAFT was designed and implemented by staff at two nonprofits: the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture(MESA) and Planting Justice.
  • [2] Founded in 1993. La Via Campesina is an international movement bringing together in solidarity small and mediumsized farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, Indigenous communities, migrants and agricultural workers todefend a fight for agroecology, food sovereignty and gender equality around the globe (La Via Campesina 2020).
  • [3] The Landless Workers’ Movement—"Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra” (MST)—is a Brazilian social movement which actively fights for agrarian reform by occupying unproductive lands, a constitutional right as outlined byBrazil’s post dictatorship constitution of 1988 (MST 2020).
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