Today’s Thoughts: Flexibility in Approach, Connectivity in Perspective

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View of the White River in South Royalton, VT

In the ever-applicable words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin’. It’s been a whirlwind past few weeks. I completed a truly transformative and inspiring apprenticeship with Firsthand Foods, presented my research and work on local food supply chains to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the North Carolina Growing Together group, moved out of my summer place in Arcadia (an intentional co-housing community in Carrboro – check it out!), said farewell to Genesis Farm, and made the trek up to Vermont this past week. So, in the 3 months since graduating college, I’ve apprenticed, farmered, moved in and out of community, drove 800+ miles, and am ready to start this new adventure.

Now that I’m settled into my new home, I’ve had the chance to take a step back from the busy summer and reflect on my experience, as well as the lessons learned. I recently read an article by Jason D. Lind, a medical anthropologist at the Department of Veteran Affairs, that tied together much of what I experienced working as a NCGT Local Food Supply Chain apprentice. In Mentoring the Next Generation of Practicing Anthropologists: Anthropology in the Public Sector, Lind explores the perspective and practice that anthropologists bring to a job, with an emphasis on fields outside of academia. For him, and for many (myself included), anthropological flexibility is a characteristic and vital tool that enables one to flourish in diverse fields. This flexibility is the ability to “be open to new cultural, environmental and political contexts; rely on anthropological training in diverse research settings; and translate and apply anthropological knowledge to help solve complex human problems.” Complex human problems – what a tall order. But, this flexibility eases the approach enabling progress to be made in ways that are respectful, transparent, thorough, and that also work with rather than against the relevant system or community.

As an apprentice, I had two main projects. The first was to produce a case study report documenting the partnership between Firsthand Foods (FHF), a sustainable meat food hub local to NC, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s university dining system. FHF supplies pasture-raised beef and pork to UNC, who aims to serve the most sustainable and local products in their dining halls. Given that UNC serves approximately 10,000 meals per day, they require reliable suppliers who can meet their expectations of quality, food safety, and accessibility. Thus, food hubs meet these expectations in a way that bring together the different players in the supply chain so that the customer does not have to manage these transactions on a step-by-step basis. The report is intended for use by those interested in securing a similar partnership, mainly directed towards foods hubs who serve as aggregators, distributors, and marketers for the many farmers and producers from whom they source. My second project was to put together a marketing research packet and product proposal for a new FHF product. This entailed extensive research, inquiries, and interviews. So, with these two main tasks on my plate, I knew I’d have to be flexible given that my experience with local food systems was almost exclusively with produce.

Essentially, I had 8 weeks to put together not just these two projects, but also a basic comprehensive understanding of 1) FHF’s business model, mission, and history, 2) university dining systems and food management companies, 3) the NC sustainable livestock industry, 4) the NC conventional livestock industry, and 5) the livestock industry in general (placing all pieces together). There was no way that I could possibly put together the case study or the marketing packet without having a grounded understanding of the very subject matter on which I was writing.

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Outlaw Farm in Mount Olive, NC
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Talk about field work! – Experiencing a pregnancy check on Don York’s farm in Julian, NC

So, I drew on the education the Department of Anthropology at Sewanee gave me, and employed fields methods of ethnographic research entailing data collection, participant observation, building rapport, reflexive analysis, and the like. By 6 weeks, I had met and interacted with a host of livestock farmers, industry leaders, local business owners, processors, transporters, and university dining specialists, and also produced a first draft of the report and presented a product proposal to the co-CEOs, Tina Prevatte and Jennifer Curtis.

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The Firsthand Foods Team: Co-CEO Jennifer Curtis, Co-CEO Tina Prevatte, and Operations Manager Chris Stevens

From this experience, I realized just how applicable and incredibly useful my anthropological training was in my job. When I was going through the first draft of edits to the report with Jennifer, I has this kind of “ah-hah” moment that I wasn’t writing this for a grade – I was producing something that was going towards an aim greater than myself or my resume, and I was able to do so because of that characteristic Lind pointed out, anthropological flexibility. The task of solving complex human problems will take many different approaches, perspectives, and innovative applications of combinations of it all, but most importantly it will take open minds and a willingness to be flexible.

I finished the apprenticeship with the pride of having those two projects completed, but I really gained so much more. Tina and Jennifer run their business in a way that is incredibly transparent, equitable and respectful to all those involved in their food supply chain. They privilege relationships and connections, and take time to ask the hard questions but also about the stories. They want to know how they can help their farmers move their animals, how they can minimize waste in production, how they can support humane and sustainable production of animals, and they also want to know how the farmers’ history, what their family is like, what bits of agricultural wisdom have they’ve preserved over time, and the like. They are invested in really knowing them.

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Jennifer with farmer Jennings Outlaw, learning about the structure of his pasture-raised hog farm

Working with FHF has truly influenced my next steps forward. Their model, mission, and approach reaffirmed my decision to work in advocacy of local food systems, but the work that I did for them also enhanced my knowledge and tool kit. I now know much more than I ever thought I would about cattle, hogs, cover crops, grains, processing plants, co-operative market structures, and the overall system of relationships that make up a food supply chain. In terms of my ethnographic tool kit, rapid ethnographic assessment has definitely been added, as well as a deepening and expansion of skills already had.

I think flexibility is critical across the board, and also an awareness of connection – connectivity. If we are going to continue to approach and begin to solve the many complex human problems of our day, we will need to be open to other cultures, environments, political views, and the like, and be flexible in the ways that we approach and build our understandings of what they entail. Realizing all the while that everything is connected. It’s been incredibly rewarding to put my undergraduate degree to work right out of college, and I’m looking forward to the next 12 months as I explore Vermont while pursuing a Master of Food and Agriculture Law and Policy at VLS.

– E

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