The California Institute for Rural Studies: Informing Sustainable Agriculture

The California Institute for Rural Studies: Informing Sustainable Agriculture

“What our founder, Don Villarejo, felt, and what we still feel today is that it is difficult to get your point across if you don’t have any data to support it,” says Gail Wadsworth, Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS).  “If we say, ‘Even on small organic farms, farm workers aren’t necessarily treated well,’ we’d better have some data to back that up.  If we say, ‘There’s a way that we can make our food systems more fair,’ and if we encourage you to do that, we’d better have some ideas and some tools for you to take action.”

To that end, CIRS gathers data on sustainable farm systems, delving into not only their environmental and economic impacts, but also into whether they are fair and just.  “Our concept of sustainability in agriculture is that you can’t separate the communities from the endeavor,” says Wadsworth.  “A lot of people talk about sustainability in agriculture, and they are really just talking about the environmental aspects.  But there are also the economic aspects of it, both on the farm and spreading out into the community.  And then there is what I call the “redheaded stepchild” of sustainability: social justice.  I don’t know of many sustainable agriculture organizations in California that are truly focused on social justice.”

Whether researching the impact of the University of California’s mechanical tomato harvester on migrant labor, investigating the health status and food insecurity of agricultural workers, or analyzing the feasibility of vanpool programs for day laborers, CIRS goes to the fields, the labor camps, and the health clinics in pursuit of baseline data to inform policy makers and advocates.

Recently, CIRS has begun taking its findings directly to members of agricultural and food communities.  “I see a need for new tools and for new methods of outreach to make our research more relevant,” says Wadsworth, “Especially if we’re going to reach the next generation of activists.”

In 2010 CIRS produced Fair Food: Field to Table, a multimedia project incorporating a 20-minute digital storybook and website of resources ( promoting more socially just food systems at universities.  In 2011, CIRS will finish a video-novela about healthy eating aimed at Spanish-speaking communities.  “It’s a fun dramatic format,” says Wadsworth.  “The video-novela helps educate farm workers, specifically, but also any Spanish-speaking members of rural or other communities, about healthy eating.”

Many non-profits contract with CIRS for evaluation of the efficacy of their programs, and municipalities and government entities often turn to CIRS for research into and analysis of their agricultural communities.  “For example, the Mendocino County Planning Department contracted with CIRS to identify options for improving agricultural worker housing,” says Wadsworth.  “And the California Department of Social Services engaged CIRS to develop empirical data about indigenous Oaxacans in California.”

Meanwhile, project ideas continually surface in-house.  “In our discussions in rural communities, we’re always looking for ways that we can help: ways that we can provide them with information that they need,” says Wadsworth.  “One project that I’m trying to get funding for is another digital storybook called, Who’s Your Momma, that is about the fervor to repeal the 14th amendment and to deny birthright citizenship to those born on U.S. soil to undocumented prarents.”

Whether a project is client or grant funded, CIRS retains the right to make the findings public.  “We’re a public interest research organization,” says Wadsworth.  “All our reports are posted online for free download.”

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Contact the California Institute for Rural Studies at:

PO Box 1047
Davis, CA 95617-1047
Tel: 530.756.6555