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Seeds of change

Nelson alums make their mark in sustainable agriculture

November 23, 2011

In 1985 I applied to several graduate schools to study resource sustainability. When I visited UW-Madison, I was drawn to the flexibility, culture of inquiry and caliber of students and faculty I met at the Nelson Institute, then called the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES).

Margaret Krome
Margaret Krome

The field of sustainable agriculture was just emerging, building on earlier natural foods movements and responding to the 1980s farm crisis, high rates of soil erosion, groundwater contamination and other environmental degradation from agriculture.

Around the nation, farmers answered the call by developing farming systems that were profitable, environmentally sound and socially responsible - that is, sustainable. Wisconsin farmers explored new strategies built on the state's long tradition of crop and livestock diversity, and they pressed the university for help.

As I oriented my career around sustainable agriculture, I soon found other IES students who were similarly motivated. Later, students were inspired by the growing local foods movement, concerns about obesity, and issues of food justice. We joined the fledgling campus organization F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture and helped organize lectures, discussions and even graduate courses.

With time, students interested in sustainable agriculture became a trend that became a torrent, helping to shape what is now the Nelson Institute and inspire a recent master's degree in agroecology at the university.

The sheer number of these students and the impact of their influence in sustainable agriculture intrigued me, so I asked a small sample about their work in the field and the challenges they see facing the movement.

These eight sustainable agriculture activists and practitioners give just a glimpse into ways that the Nelson Institute has both created a culture of creativity and innovation among the UW-Madison student body and exported that moxie from coast to coast, into rural and urban farms and projects and through halls of power in Sacramento, Washington, D.C., and beyond.

Years ago, the institute laid a good seedbed and can point with pride to this rich bounty - and to future harvests benefiting communities, the nation and the globe.

Jeanne Merrill
Jeanne Merrill

Jeanne Merrill (M.S. '05), who describes her time at the Nelson Institute as "invaluable," is policy director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network, a coalition of sustainable agriculture groups advocating for resources to support a sustainable agricultural response to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Merrill previously served as associate policy director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute where she shepherded legislation to create the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program, helped to build funding and research support for rotational grazing, engaged bioenergy initiatives and assured effective use of federal programs supporting conservation and farmer profitability.

"As a movement, we will never match corporate agribusiness in terms of money, but we have grassroots strength that we must continue to broaden and deepen," Merrill advises.

Jill Rubin
Jill Rubin

Upon completing her master's degree, Jill Rubin (M.S. '06) became program manager at the farm-and community-empowerment organization Glynwood in New York state, working with non-farming owners of agricultural land to bring it back into production.

She later became the first full-time executive director of the Phillies Bridge Farm Project, whose education programs, community supported agriculture, farmer training and harvest sharing serve the community of New Paltz, N.Y.

At a time when few other institutions in the nation provided training suitable for this work, Rubin says, she appreciated the Nelson Institute's broad perspective and that the program allowed her to craft her own focus.

Rick Adamski
Valerie Adamski
Rick and Valerie Adamski

Rick Adamski and his wife Valerie Dantoin Adamski (M.S. '87) met as Nelson Institute graduate students in the late 1980s. They say the institute illuminated the big picture of landscape-scale conservation, along with tax structure, labor and land tenure issues.

After they married, Val joined Rick on his family's northeast Wisconsin dairy, Full Circle Farm, a member of the Organic Valley cooperative.

Val has held various off-farm jobs related to natural resources and is currently an instructor of organic agriculture at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay.

Always looking for ways to reduce the environmental impacts of their farm, in 2009 the Adamskis installed a 35-kilowatt wind turbine.

The couple has displayed longstanding leadership in advancing rotational grazing as a sustainable farming practice and advocated for state and national policies that support it, mentored several beginning graziers, and helped launch the Wisconsin Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program.

Looking ahead, they say, "Helping smaller farmers remain profitable remains one of the toughest challenges in the sustainable agriculture movement."

Kevin Shelley
Kevin Shelley

Kevin Shelley (M.S. '91) became an outreach educator for the University of Wisconsin Nutrient and Pest Management Program a few months after his graduation. He continues in this role today, working with farmers, county extension offices, conservation agencies and others to educate about nutrient management strategies and judicious pesticide use through integrated pest management.

With specialties in crop diversification, cover crops and organic farming, Shelley has helped hundreds of farmers develop and implement plans to sustainably manage natural resources. At the Nelson Institute, Shelley says, he learned to be a lifelong student and developed skills as a writer and professional educator in an area he feels passionate about.

Not all farmers want to change though, and not all institutions are open to information about ways to change, even if it's research-based. It takes diplomacy and patience to stay the course, and Shelley is known for his steady presence.

A caution? "We need to design our farming systems to be more resilient to weather extremes that may accompany global climate change."


Michelle Miller (M.S. '92) has been a leader in sustainable agriculture since her graduate student days.

Michelle Miller
Michelle Miller

After graduation, Miller worked with the World Wildlife Fund's Great Lakes agricultural pollution prevention project, which spawned efforts that reduced toxic pesticide use by 50 percent among more than 100 growers in Wisconsin's potato and, later, apple industries.

Miller then became manager of the integrated pest management program with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at UW-Madison and associate director of the research center, a capacity she continues in today.

Beyond place-based work and national policy efforts, Miller says a next challenge for CIAS and the broader sustainable agriculture movement is "bringing it together in ecoregions while keeping the local and national work going."

Deirdre Birmingham
Deirdre Birmingham. Photo credit

Deirdre Birmingham (Ph.D. '96) became the first executive director of Georgia Organics, bringing the nonprofit organization to a level of vitality that allowed it to flourish even after Birmingham and her husband returned to Wisconsin a few years later. They bought land near Mineral Point and established an organic apple orchard to support a hard apple cider business.

Birmingham serves on the board of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, is chair of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems Citizens Advisory Council and cofounded what is now the Organic Tree Fruit Association.

After facing challenges in fundraising for Georgia Organics and in financing as a farmer, she now offers grant-writing advice and assistance to individual farmers, nonprofit organizations and agricultural businesses.

A challenge facing the movement that is top of mind for Birmingham: "motivating consumers to become politically active in support of sustainable agriculture."

Amanda Fuller
Amanda Fuller

Amanda Fuller (M.S. '02) studied restoration ecology in agricultural landscapes as a graduate student. Upon returning from three years of agricultural extension work in Paraguay with the Peace Corps, she sought continued work in the field.

Fuller is now the operations manager for Breaking New Grounds, a nonprofit urban agriculture project in Louisville, Ky. The organization grows food in soil improved by composting local coffee grounds and other materials, shares the produce with economically disadvantaged neighbors, and trains aspiring urban farmers, volunteers and inmates.

Despite headlines for a few luminaries in the movement, Fuller says, "I don't see that the good-food movement has penetrated across class and racial lines."

Margaret Krome is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis., where she works to develop federal, state and local programs and policies that support sustainable agriculture.