LISTEN: Alexa White on supporting small-scale farmers

Alexa White joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the importance of listening to small-scale farmers around the world.


White, a current fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, also talks about the field of agroecology, sustainable coffee farming, climate justice and jumping out of airplanes.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with White, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

All right, I am super excited to be joined by Alexa White. Alexa, how are you doing today?

Alexa White

I am great. How are you?

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. And where are you today?

Alexa White

I’m in in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the University of Michigan.

Brian Bienkowski

Ann Arbor – lovely. About five hours, about five hours south of me. Do you have a favorite coffee shop down there?

Alexa White

Ah, not really. I’m most of the time just I’m kind of cheap. And I take coffee to the library. I’m on a grad student budget.

Brian Bienkowski

There’s, there is nothing wrong with that. I, my my wife is a fancy coffee drinker. And when I treat her, I cannot believe how much it costs. There just used to be a coffee shop down there. And my sister lives there called I think it’s RoosRoast, something like that

Alexa White

Yeah. It’s funny that you bring up coffee shops because I study coffee.

Brian Bienkowski

Oh, well, we will we will get into that. That is, that is perfect. I just remember Roos being a very vibrant, progressive hive of fun people and activities. So I figured I’d ask on the off-chance that you’d been there. But let’s go back before Ann Arbor and all the way back to the beginning. So you are from Newark, New Jersey. And I know, I happen to know that your grandfather’s life and his relationship with you had a profound impact on your upbringing and kind of eventual career. So talk about growing up there and a little bit about that relationship.

Alexa White

Yeah, so my grandparents, they were both sharecroppers from the American South. My grandfather came from North Carolina and my grandma came from Texas. And so all the the period of me growing up, I pretty much spent all my after school days with them. And anytime that my parents were busy, they dropped us off at my grandparents house, so they really had a big influence on how I related to nature because they would take us to parks and specifically in the backyard, we would grow a lot of gardens and things and I didn’t, I didn’t really have an idea of how significant that relationship was, how important those kinds of moments were until I got a lot older and understood where where that knowledge came from in terms of the history of America and them having to produce a certain amount of food to satisfy the white landowners that they used to live with when they were growing up.

Brian Bienkowski

And what was it about growing food and plants – because I know this is kind of merged into your career – What was it that spoke to you?

Alexa White

Yeah, it wasn’t until I honestly got to graduate school that I felt empowered enough to bring my own history into my research. And so I used to be herpetologists, I used to study lizards and run around and collect them. And it wasn’t until I got here to Michigan, I was in I’m in I’m in an agroecology lab. And I started to think about the farmers that I was meeting and really try to kind of put their lives into perspective. And it just was a moment actually I was in, I was in Mexico and I was still doing the lizard research and I realized like “my grandparents know a lot about this. Like why do I know so much about farms and how things are supposed to be grown and why is this intimate connection to food so ingrained in me?” and it was kind of just a moment of massive impact where it was like maybe I should go back home during Christmas and talk to my grandparents more seriously about where they came from and where I come from.

Brian Bienkowski

And were they having those conversations with you when you were, when you were a child?

Alexa White

Yeah, they were. Yeah, they would talk about having to grow specific crops and trying to, I guess, appease the landowner and how their siblings would all have to kind of get up early in the morning to either go pick cotton, or there’d be different fruits and vegetables, different animals that they lived with and were used to kind of like find different things, chickens, dogs. Yeah, they told me those stories all the time. And I feel like in a lot of African American homes, their grandparents tell them a lot of these stories, but the context doesn’t really come until you’re a lot older and kind of can see the world for yourself. So yeah, those stories were definitely part of my, my childhood.

Brian Bienkowski

Maybe you spoke to this in that last thing you said, and I don’t want to kind of probe generational trauma. But were you aware of kind of the gravity of what they were telling you? Or were you thinking, Oh, they grew okra or something? Or was it? Was it there? Was the gravity lost on you at that age? Or did you were you aware of it?

Alexa White

No, I knew it was bad. They would talk about times where they would shift from stories about how they were putting in like seeds for harvest for next year. And then if they were to go to school, white folks would throw rocks at them from the buses, because they couldn’t ride the buses, and they would have to hide in the bushes and how they had to go to different schools and how they noticed that there are differences in the books in the school houses that they were in. So they, they did not hold back. And I think that kind of is another reason why I have a part of my personality that I have. They were very much outspoken about the injustices that they faced. But they also, there was also always a bright side, they were also very, looked fondly back on those memories of them working on farms in some way.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, on the real bright side is that you have taken some of this knowledge and are running with it in a really cool way with your research. And we, i want to get into that. But we first have to ask Mike, my favorite question, which is what it’s a defining moment or event that has shaped your identity up to this point?

Alexa White

Yeah. So I would say that the biggest turning point in my life actually happened very early on. In high school. Well, actually, before high school, I really didn’t talk at all, which is crazy, because now I talk all the time. And I was very shy. And my father really wanted me to get involved in an extracurricular and so I would join things and quit join volleyball, quit, join fencing, quit. And when I got to debate, I got in the car, I said I wanted to quit. And he said, No, you have to get out of the car, and you’re gonna go to debate practice, and you’re gonna go for a year and every single day, I will come back and complain about it. But it grew to be a part of me, I realized that I really liked like critical arguments. I liked talking about race theory, I really liked talking about the world and the the function of us as individuals within that and debate in high school, it changed the way that I talk every day, the way that I think. I think that kind of getting those international, those international and national experiences at championships was really important because most of the schools that we would debate against, they came from rich white neighborhoods. They… that’s the kind of space that debate is, it’s very posh. And you have a bunch of evidence and you kind of dress up and you talk in a certain way and you make an argument. And I kind of combated that. And I found my voice in high school by kind of taking notice of the way that the space was constructed in oppression and racism and arguing about it. And I kind of have been doing that for the rest of my existence. And it’s fun. It’s also really inspiring. It’s kind of a way for me to feel optimistic about the future.

Brian Bienkowski

It has to be such a balancing act as a parent to want to push your kids into something because it altered your life for the better but not being a parent that’s forcing the kid to do something they don’t want to do.

Alexa White

I mean for a year I didn’t want to do it and then I made friends and then it was fine.

Brian Bienkowski

Right? Yeah, once you get comfortable that I feel like that’s I was a shy kid too. And once you get comfortable it’s it’s a totally different. Well that’s great. Let’s talk about your research. So you’ve mentioned agroecology, and I’m familiar with it because I actually run a small organic farm with my wife. And I’m really interested in what you’re doing and others are doing but could you just define it for listeners who may not know what that field means?

Alexa White

Yeah. agroecology. The easiest way to remember it is agriculture and ecology. So farms are managed ecosystems. That’s the best way to kind of sum up the statement of what agroecology is. And so it’s the interaction between a managed ecosystem where people are having inputs and put in crops and things that work to the benefit of a human and try and work in synergistically operate within the system that is the unmanaged ecosystem. So forest edges and anything outside of a farm. And so there’s different types of biodiversity within agroecology. So the managed biodiversity so for example, if you were to have a polyculture, that would mean that you would be growing many different things that you would grow tomato and kale and a bunch of different crops, and they would also interact with the associated biodiversity. So when you think of pollinators, you think of seed disperses like birds and bats and different mammals, all of that is included in agroecology and thinking about how the farm interacts with everything else.

Brian Bienkowski

So you’re looking into the positive impacts that small scale farmers in particular have had on biodiversity and food security. So first, what are some of these positive impacts, and do you have some examples?

Alexa White

Yeah, so family farms, small-holder farms that’s defined as a farm that is two hectares or less. And so the majority of the world’s farms are small scale farms. So that’s 98% of all farms. And so although they are 90% of all the farms that exist, they only manage about 50% of the agricultural land. So that just kind of leads you into the thought of well, who else is taking over this? So large-scale industrial farms have the vast majority or have half of the land in the world. And so the the family farm are producing the majority of the caloric requirements for us to survive, and they also produce the majority of the world’s food, if we, if we didn’t have small-scale farms, we would all starve, essentially. And so there are a lot of case studies that have been done, but particularly in Brazil, and in Malawi, those have the most kind of diverse range of like, policy approaches and ways that we can really think about how small-scale farms fit into our lives. But they’re very, very important. If we did not have them, I just like to emphasize, we would all starve.

Brian Bienkowski

And I don’t want to vilify one farm versus the other. But if we can just kind of set the stage since you kind of look at things through this ecological lens, when we think of kind of large-scale, very intensive agriculture, what are some of the ecological impacts that we can expect to see?

Alexa White

Yeah, so there’s something called food regimes. And so these are basically the historical periods through which agriculture changed. And so we’re currently living in the industrial food regime, corporate food, corporate farms. And so when you think about industrial-sized farms, there are a lot of inputs that are required, usually, it’s only one crop that’s being grown. So when we go back to that image of a polyculture, where there are different kinds of, different kinds of crops that are interacting with things from the outside. When you only have one thing on your farm, it’s really susceptible to a lot of disease to spread very quickly, and a lot of pests to come in. So that’s why there’s a lot of use of pesticides in order to keep those things off of the crop. And there’s a lot of needs for fertilizer, because there isn’t really a diversity in the roots that are growing in the soil. And so if you were to think about livestock, for example, it’s the same kind of thing, right? So disease can spread really easily among cows. And they usually take up a lot of swaths of land, as well as water. So industrial agriculture is really characterized by a lot of needs for inputs.

Brian Bienkowski

So it sounds like just like in most kinds of cases in life, diversity builds out resilience in systems. And so climate is another kind of big cloud hanging over all of this. And when we think about international climate policy and policymakers, what are some of the ways that small scale farmers are misrepresented? And what are some ways that we could change that?

Alexa White

Yeah, so a large part of the work that I d is looking at climate governance on an international scale. So the United Nations hosts the Conference of Parties every year, where basically world leaders and different representatives from countries come together to talk about what they’re going to do about climate change. And I’ve been to four, if you know about the Paris Climate Accord, Paris climate agreement, that one was really important. But I that was the first one I went to when I noticed that there are no farmers talking, there barely any does really anyone really speaking at these conferences that have anything to do with food or have any influence over kind of the documents are coming out of it. And then last September, President Biden, he convened another kind of international conference, the United Nations Food System Summit. And so this summit was meant to figure out the kinks in our global food system, as we can see from COVID-19. Whenever there’s a big perturbation, it kind of fails. It’s not it’s not foolproof. When we think about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, their production of wheat definitely had an impact on the food markets. And so back to the Food System Summit, that was largely put on by a lot of large agribusinesses. And not really a lot of farmers who kind of do the day to day and have those family farms and feed their families. And so my research really concentrates on these mistakes, and looks at the relationship between farmers and everyone else. So farmers and politicians, NGO leaders and academics and tries to figure out how we can improve those relationships and what that really means for the future of food when we think about climate change impacts.

Brian Bienkowski

And what are some ways that you or others have teased out that we could be doing things better?

Alexa White

Yeah. So at the international scale, I think that there are plenty of ways to include farmers voices, I would say that just the just the inclusion of farmers in these processes is very, very important for us to understand the context of how large of a problem this is, and kind of will transform to being. So the majority of our farms, like I said, are small-scale farms. And so in at a more local level, as opposed to international, having intimate connections with the land and having very personal connections with your farmers, it’s really important. And it’s also it’s also good for you, right? So if you were to know that you could get a box of food, have a subscription, and have a really good connection with a person who you know grew that food, that would be good for the farmer as well as it would be good for you. So that’s, that’s called the CSA. So they’re also food coops that you, lots of municipalities have installed as to their infrastructure. And so yeah, I would say that having a more intimate connection to your food, and kind of understanding where it comes from, is the first step. And then if we’re thinking about international scale, farmers voices are really important.

Brian Bienkowski

I found we grow stuff here that is very adapted to a northern climate, because we’re in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, my wife and I, and I found it’s kind of retrain my brain of what I eat throughout the year. So maybe I’m not eating tomatoes in January, and maybe that’s okay. And it’s squash time. So it’s kind of put me more in tune with what we can grow here when we can grow it. And when it’s, it’s okay to not eat exotic things throughout the year sometimes, I guess.

Alexa White

Yeah, yeah. Something I bring up in most of my talks is that if you’re in New York City, in February, how can you get a mango from the supermarket? I always ask that question, both kind of like there, I’d get big and it’s like, oh, yeah, like, how did I do that? It’s like, yeah, it came from a lot of the mango reserves actually come from Mexico and places that are near the Equator, different Caribbean islands. And so yeah, if you think about seasonality, and kind of like, how much, how much fuel it takes to bring that over here, who actually grew it? What what was used to keep it in season, wherever it was? That’s all important. That’s all stuff that kind of, you should think about when you grab those things at the grocery store.

Brian Bienkowski

I also think it’s fun. I don’t feel deprived. I mean, I do think there are things that obviously I still buy out of season and so on and so forth. But it’s fun. It’s fun to think about ways of kind of being throughout the year eating in a different way.

Alexa White

Yeah, there’s a lot of things you can eat that are in season there, that are geographically correct, yeah.

Brian Bienkowski

Totally. So where does the coffee come into all this?

Alexa White

Yeah. So I got into coffee as a Ph.D. student here at the University of Michigan. So I am in an agroecology coffee lab. And so I study how coffee kind of allows for entry into market. So coffee is like a luxury product, right? It’s something you drink for caffeine. And you kind of drink it in the morning or right after you eat your dinner. And so my work is centered around Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, in the Jamaican Blue Mountains, and then Kona coffee in Hawaii. And so I speak to those farmers and try to understand what else they grow outside of the coffee. And then, what the what the coffee really brings them. How do they grow? What do they choose to do when they manage that coffee?

Brian Bienkowski

Have you got to go to those places? And what are those? What are those interactions look like?

Alexa White

Yeah, yeah, yeah, getting into the Jamaican Blue Mountains is very hard. You have to know how to Off Road. It’s it’s very high elevation and the communities they’re very close knit. It was a very inspiring summer I had, last summer I was there for about two and a half months. And yeah, I talked to farmers, off the side of the road, ask them about their day, ask them what they have been doing in terms of their farms for the past few years. And most of them come from generations of farmers. They have a lot of generational knowledge about what they’re growing and a very kind of deep connection to the land that they have. And it’s, it’s very eye opening to kind of go and see that they can grow everything that they need for for their day to day lives. And then right after that, I went to Hawaii Kona, Kailua Kona, Hawaii and spoke to different coffee farmers there. It’s very different, obviously. So we’re talking about the US versus nations of the Global South. And so everyone there… usually they have different kinds of monetary resources. So I spoke to a lot of retired doctors and lawyers. And it’s much more of something that they do as a hobby. They would grow various different kinds of fruits and vegetables alongside their coffee. But largely, it was an interest in kind of just having a special novelty coffee. And it’s just fun to them.

Brian Bienkowski

So I don’t want to put words in your mouth or actions, ascribe actions to you. But I know you’re passionate about this. And I’m just curious how you navigate the space spaces as both a researcher and as an activist. And if you don’t call yourself an activist, that’s fine. But are those two roles ever in conflict?

Alexa White

Um, I definitely do consider myself an activist as well as an academic. And yeah, they’re in conflict. Academia as an institution, has historically been very extractive in terms of kind of how science is done and the ethics behind it. And I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be a steward of that, I try my best not to participate in those kinds of activities. And so when it comes to kind of trying to balance those, I oftentimes try to work into my budgets, ways that I can help out farmers by either giving them some sorts of seeds or whatever they need, while also asking for their permission to use the data to further the agenda of the small farmer. And so I really do find that whenever I go to kind of like these international conferences and trying to understand exactly what’s supposed to be happening, and trying to get these farmers to have the opportunity to speak there. There’s definitely an internal conflict with my ability to kind of go to these conferences versus their ability to go to these conferences and I hope to pioneer spaces where farmers can have a voice and can speak about these things themselves.

Brian Bienkowski

And are there examples of places leaders organizations that you think are incorporating Black, indigenous and other marginalized farmer voices and perspectives and they’re doing it in a way that that you think is good?

Alexa White

Absolutely. So La Vía Campesina is known as the peasants’ movement. They have a lot of agroecology principles, specifically food sovereignty. And so what food sovereignty means is that you should be able to have control and knowledge and cultural influence over your food. Everyone has a right to all of those things, which is very different from food security, right? So food security is, for example, if you were to go to a food bank, and they were to give you like a can of corn, and a bushel of apples, that would be considered food security, as opposed to someone else who has an own culture of their food or wants to know where their food is coming from, they would be able to have land where they can grow their own food and produce things that are within their culture, and that they have more knowledge about. And so yeah, La Vía Campesina, I would say, is the place for the kinds of movements and ideologies that I’m talking about today.

Brian Bienkowski

Very cool. And you mentioned, we talked a little bit about this corporatization of our food system and how large farms own I believe you said, 50% of the land what’s, what’s something you find interesting about our current food system that other people may not know?

Alexa White

Yeah, I don’t think people realize how close to home these issues are. So in doing work in Hawaii, the the current governor, he put on an initiative to try and get Hawaii to be more self-sufficient – as in growing a lot of their own foods. Throughout time, the farms have transitioned into more export crops, as opposed to things that are kept internally. And so if there were to be a natural disaster, let’s say they’re hit by a hurricane, which is unlikely, but they would only have enough food to survive for three days, if they were cut off from the rest of the world. And so things like that, and like understanding that the food system is very volatile, and not as stable as people think. I think it’s really important for folks to understand that it can’t maintain itself, through what we know is going to happen with climate change, right. And even beyond that, just just wars and, and different things, we have to be able to be more self-sufficient with our food and not require so many imports of food. And when I say we I mean Americans, but generally, island nations, nations in the old world, the concept that we can kind of keep exchanging food all across the world is very, very antiquated. And it can’t really survive the test of time.

Brian Bienkowski

Do you still grow any food for yourself? And would you ever have an interest in farming?

Alexa White

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I live in a co-op myself. And we have a garden, where we grow a lot of fruits and vegetables, so tomatoes, kale, cucumbers. And so I hope to be able to acquire some plot of land when I graduate, and have my own farm and be able to produce food for my friends and family. The gardens that that are at my grandparents house right now aren’t enough to sustain our family. But I think another really important thing that now that I mentioned that is that acquiring land is very hard. And land is kind of segmented off by various government organizations and corporations and acquiring land is really key to kind of the movements and ideas that I that I’m proposing today.

Brian Bienkowski

Right, I can attest to that. Acquiring land is is difficult. And there’s obviously there’s so many factors that play into it –population urbanization. And yeah, that is that is a challenge. So it sounds like you have plenty going on. But you have also started a think tank and nonprofit, I hope I’m pronouncing it right, the AYA Research Institute.

Alexa White

Perfect. Yes. The AYA Research Institute. Yeah. So early on at Howard University. I had a group of friends. And we were kind of recruited by Dr. Beverly Wright, who is the director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans. And so we all were scientists, baby scientists, and we kind of got into environmental justice through her. And one of my friends, Adria Peterkin, she’s now a Ph.D. student at MIT in nuclear engineering, we decided that we wanted to create a think tank. We noticed that a lot of scientists and engineers don’t really know that much about community engagement and what it means to kind of interact with communities without being extractive or without kind of getting the wrong results or not, not really getting what what they what they want out of the work that they’re doing. And so in 2020, we founded the the AYA research institute, and have been doing projects that are centered around bringing more scientists and engineers into the field of environmental justice, as well as trying to inform policy about the direction of environmental justice, which is really important considering the Biden administration’s Justice 40. Development.

Brian Bienkowski

And it’s pronounced AI and it’s a-y-a research institute. Can you explain the significance of the name?

Alexa White

Yeah, so AYA is a symbol, an African and ticker symbol for resilience. And so we really wanted to embody that we wanted to kind of ground ourselves in our African American roots and have a symbol that describes having an intimate connection to the land and have an intimate connection to your work. And so AYA research institute is meant to be a space where we kind of embody community engagement. And yeah, AYA is the is the symbol that we chose.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. And what are you optimistic about, Alexa?

Alexa White

I am optimistic about the optimism in academia that I’ve been seeing lately. That’s a little bit redundant. But a lot of the work that that I kind of, grew up reading about climate change, grew up reading about the food system, or reading about science. Usually, it’s been very gloom and doom kind of, we have to be worried about this. And we have to be really cautious about that. And now I’m realizing as well as other peers of mine, that we are not getting where we need to go. And we need to come up with very firm solutions on what needs to happen. And so the latest spaces that I’ve been working in, have been concerning environmental justice screening tools. So environmental justice screening tools are meant to be these mapping devices that can identify disadvantaged populations and possible impacts that they will see in the future. And so in these spaces, there are federal ones or state ones, there are different individual organizations that are creating them. And I see it as a very optimistic way to go about things because we’re identifying ways to resolve these problems. And the conversations that I’m having with people are much more solution-oriented as opposed to identifying issues.

Brian Bienkowski

So to switch gears here, I know you are something of a thrill seeker we had the good fortune to meet before this program started. I think you mentioned bungee jumping, maybe it was skydiving, but it’s these kinds of crazy things that most of us would never do. So where did this thrill seeking in you come from? And what’s the what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

Alexa White

Yeah, so I did bungee jump and I have skydived. I did both of them more than once. Yeah, I don’t know where it came from. I was studying abroad in New Zealand and I don’t know why I tried to convince everybody I knew to go bungee jumping with me. And then I did, and it was the best day of my life! or one of the best days of my life. Yeah, I think I just really enjoy, I really enjoy transformation and I really enjoy kind of like getting through hard things and coming out on the other side. And so yeah, I’d say the the last really thrill-seeking thing that I did was I was actually another another bungee jump in Croatia I went with some of my friend, I went with Adria, one of the the the other co-founder of AYA. And yeah, I just like to –Oh, surfing surfing is very hard. Oh my god. I did not know that surfers had that much endurance and like skill, but it’s hard.

Brian Bienkowski

That’s that is so cool. I think I know the feeling you’re talking about I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but the feeling of having gotten through something and then you can reflect on it and talk about it and have fun. You know, I think I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Alexa White

Exactly. Yeah. It’s really fun.

Brian Bienkowski

I don’t know if I would bungee jump to do it. But

Alexa White

I would categorize myself as adrenaline junkie so good. Yeah.

Brian Bienkowski

So before I get you out of here, and this has been so much fun to hear more about your work. I have three rapid-fire questions where you can just answer with one word or a phrase. My favorite thing to cook is

Alexa White

Um, macaroni and cheese.

Brian Bienkowski

My favorite thing to grow in the garden is

Alexa White

Figs.

Brian Bienkowski

What was the highlight of this past week for you?

Alexa White

I actually just came back from New Orleans. And so it’s Mardi Gras on there. I have several friends that joined me. And so, that was really fun to get back to get back to the Big Easy.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome, and you don’t have to confine yourself to one word or phrase here. But what is the last book you read for fun?

Alexa White

I’m really into Afrofuturism at this moment. So I’m rereading things with a different perspective. So Octavia Butler, she does a lot of work with that I’m interested in or I’m rereading Parable of Sour, and Kindred.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome. Well, Alexa, this has been such a great time. It’s been great to hear more about your work. And thank you so much for joining me today.

Alexa White

Thank you for having me. It’s been a great time.