Prove your humanity

Ohio State University is getting serious about transforming the state’s agricultural system. How serious? Try $100 million serious. That’s what Ohio State President Michael Drake has pledged to a program called the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation, or InFact. And they’ve tapped one of Pennsylvania’s own rock stars in the sustainable agriculture scene to run it. Brian Snyder has been executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) for 15 years. And recently, the Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple chatted with Snyder about his hopes for the new program.

The Allegheny Front: So what exactly are the goals of this new InFact program?

Brian Synder: Well, they’re trying to work across all schools and departments to not only raise awareness about the importance of food systems and food security, but actually do something about it. It also is aimed at conducting outreach beyond the university to get other groups—like non-profits, churches, businesses, consumers and farmers—all working on the same idea of improving food security. And they’ve impressed on me that they want to find solutions that will have an impact not only right there in the community in Columbus and throughout Ohio, but they’d like to set an example for other areas of the country that are trying to address similar issues.

AF: Ohio State has a really big agriculture program. Does their commitment to this program represent a shift in focus to more sustainable agriculture?

BS: I would say, yes, there is an intent to take a more sustainable view for the long-term. The agricultural community is coming to terms with the fact that the way food is produced is not irrelevant to issues that go beyond food. Our ability to maintain the environment is awfully important for a number of reasons, including the fact that we could continue to produce food into the long-term future.

LISTEN: “Ohio State Makes $100-Million Investment in Agriculture”

AF: And why did you decide to make this move?

BS: Well, at PASA I worked on food systems in Pennsylvania across a number of different levels of the food system. And so in many ways, this is a similar kind of job, only it is going to occur inside the university rather than independently in a non-profit. And I’m intrigued by two aspects of that. One is that there are far more resources available in the university to do this kind of work, and I’m very interested to see if we can get all those resources moving in the same direction. And secondly, I’m just really concerned about the land grant system generally across the country and how the mission is being met, or not met. I was very impressed to find that the folks at Ohio State are taking that question very seriously too and wanting to see how they could improve.

AF: Can you talk a little bit more about that?

BS: Well, we’re all familiar with the work that land grants do through extension and teaching programs and research. But sometimes that work doesn’t get all the way down to the ground and affect some of the people who are most vulnerable in terms of their food systems. And on that score, I would include both farmers who are struggling to make ends meet and are often not being paid what their work is worth through the price of food. And at the other end of the spectrum, we have sort of the opposite problem: Communities that are not able to access the kinds of nutrition that they need to keep their families healthy and economies of communities strong. And I think there’s a lot that sustainable agriculture has to offer in both of those cases and for a lot of situations that fall in between. And universities, particularly those with a lot resources, can do a lot to address these kinds of issues.

AF: Well, Ohio State President Michael Drake has committed a minimum of $100 million over the next 10 years to this program. Are there obstacles to getting this type of commitment to sustainable agriculture in Pennsylvania?

BS: Well, there certainly are obstacles. And I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to address some of those. I’m happy to report that we’ve made a lot of progress, but there continue to be issues that have to be addressed. Certainly, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is one. And certainly the conflicts that occur in an area as diverse as what the Chesapeake Bay watershed defines are really critical not only here but elsewhere. And the barriers that we see are farms and farmers trying to make the right decisions and struggling to keep their farms viable so that the land doesn’t become developed in the future in other ways. And at the same time, as we know, farming is sometimes hard on the land. Now, enter into that the fact that we know there are ways in which farming can actually improve the land: we can actually improve soil quality, water quality, sequester carbon. And when you understand that, it really makes it worthwhile to work through some of the barriers that come up.

Government policy sometimes is a barrier. And I’m very glad to see that, in recent years, Pennsylvania state government and the Department of Agriculture, in particular, understand the role of government in helping farms make better choices. And they’re taking leadership in wanting to restore the health of the bay. So these are all problems that do have solutions, but they require a long-term point of view and a long-term strategy. And short-term thinking, in general, is probably the biggest barrier we face in trying to repair food systems. People often want short-term solutions. But we didn’t get into some of the environmental problems that we have in short order. And they’re not going to go away in a short amount of time either.


Brian Snyder is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Soon he’ll be taking over as head of Ohio State University’s InFact program.