Tuesday, August 2, 2016
New Place, New Challenges
This year is my first in Wisconsin, my first at UW Stout, and my first as a REU adviser. The opportunity to participate in the REU was a no brainier for me. Participating provides opportunities for me on so many levels.
Central to the pollution dynamics in the Red Cedar basin is the land management practices of farmers and rural land owners. The motivations of rural land owners and their interest in conservation is central to my ongoing research interests. Agriculture in Wisconsin is experiencing disturbing transitions as small family dairy farms are replaced by the large CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) needed to compete on the global market. Low milk prices have prompted another year of belt tightening among Wisconsin dairy farmers. Each time prices fluctuate, farmers are prompted to diversify and innovate or be subsumed. At the same time, after several years of high prices, corn prices are at a ten year low, potentially prompting increased enrollment in conservation programs such as CRP, which removes sensitive land from crop production, decreasing potential erosion and water pollution.
I grew up the child of a farm worker, embedded in farming communities and yet deeply aware of the trade-offs involved in farming. This dynamic makes a commitment to conservation challenging. How family farms balance these challenges and maintain their commitment to the land and their communities is of deep interest to me.
At the same time, as a new professor, I teach mostly entry level courses, in which I need to argue for the importance of geography and convince students that what we are studying together is worth paying attention to. The REU is a completely different experience. REU students arrive in Menomonie with an interest in and commitment to the problem and searching for solutions. Working closely with students individually or in small groups is my favorite teaching method. Working closely with the REU students has challenged me and inspired me in a way that goes way beyond other teaching experiences.
Additionally, the challenge of engaged research in the community posed by the LAKES REU is something I'm very committed to. Working with the LAKES REU has allowed me to meet new people and understand the community in new ways. As a new professor, my time is limited and I am balancing multiple commitments and challenges. Working with the other REU mentors and the various community members involved with the project has expanded my understanding of the local community and the challenges facing us together.
More than anything, my students have reminded me of the importance of persistence in the research process. The Geography Team experienced more than our fair share of setbacks in our research, through no fault of the students. I have been amazed and impressed at how Rene and Gunther have persevered despite numerous setbacks and disappointments. Geography is a discipline whose center is field research in place, yet we have been call this summer to spend most of our time focused on data analysis rather than direct experience in the region. Despite this challenge, the team continued to maintain a positive attitude and commitment to the work that has inspired me. Each student also contributed to the overall project in their own unique ways. Gunther, a local UW Stout student, has been a leader for the entire student group, helping students from around the country get oriented to Wisconsin and understand local dynamics. Rene, arriving from San Diego, a place with very little in common with Menomonie, lent his GIS skills to the rest of the teams with a generous spirit and a focus on problem solving.
I can only hope that future LAKES Geography Teams can live up to the example they have set.