Monday, December 31, 2012

Agriculture + rural architecture = agritecture

By Krista Hulshof, Founder of VELD architect

Architecture is about more than pretty buildings.
As a young architect, my training was really about problem solving,
design thinking, sustainable technical training, and yes, aesthetics.
Rural spaces can benefit from these skills, too.

When I tell people I am an architect I usually get a response of awe. Most people associate architecture with building tall flashy buildings, and although some “starchitects” get those projects and those roles, I want to work in my childhood communities, with farmers and the rural community.

I grew up on a dairy farm and loved it, but for some reason I always knew I wanted to be an architect. So I went to the “big” city of Waterloo to study at one of Canada’s premier architecture schools. Upon completing my undergrad degree and starting my masters, there were a lot of ideas and projects in the architecture world focused around food and urban farming. Being a farm girl, I was disappointed with the lack of knowledge about farming and where people’s food comes from, so I set out to create a sustainable farm project that started with an actual rural farm. My colleagues were designing vertical farms that I thought were “pie in the sky”, but those city slickers had one thing going for them: no preconceived notions. I spent many months breaking out of my box of what farming “had” to be, so that I could create a sustainable farm. 

Woven Lea Farm from author's "agritecture"thesis

My goal for my thesis was to apply my new background of architecture to my old understanding of agriculture. Having spent four years learning how to design energy efficient buildings, I was amazed that this technology was not being translated to the rural construction industry. But sustainability means more than energy—it also relates to the economic, cultural, and ecological aspects of agriculture.  I spent 12 months researching, diagramming, calculating and of course designing my sustainable farm. 

Through those 12 months I dreaded the approach of graduation and the real world. I wanted to make a career out of designing farms, but what farmer hires an architect? There were only a few agriculture projects that I knew of that involved an architect, such as fifth Town Cheese, and the University of Guelph Diary research farm. 

Inventing the role of "agritect"
Nevertheless, after graduation, I took the leap and started my own architecture firm that specializes in “agritecture”. My goal is to bring passive heating, cooling, ventilating, and lighting technologies to farmers and rural communities, to reduce energy costs, and create more sustainable farm buildings. I bring an outside view and big picture thinking to a farmer. I strive to help find efficiencies and wasted possibilities, and help with long term planning. I want to create a more sustainable agriculture industry one barn at a time.

Mason Lane Farm (from deLeon & Primmer Architects)
Farmers are meeting more stringent building codes, municipal regulations, and policies that need navigating and negotiating. I also know that many rural policies are not up-to-date with the realities nor the needs of the communities and farmers they serve. Architects are trained to assist with precisely these issues, helping farmers creatively negotiate and design to minimize burdens, and meet standards. 

I also feel there is a role for me to play in agritourism. Agritourism is about creating a brand and an authentic experience for visitors, with limitations. Just because the farm smells does not mean the general public wants to experience the full force of the manure tank! Designing an agritourism experience to be fun, exciting, safe, efficient, and unobtrusive is important, and putting this puzzle together is the role of the architect. The rural community has a great opportunity now to present themselves in the best possible manner to the general public and urban culture.

As an architect I would be remiss if I didn’t mention aesthetics. You might be thinking to yourself, “here comes the artsy fartsy part”, but there is a reason we all draw a red gambrel roof barn with a green tractor and fences when we think of "rural" as children. There is a collective understanding of the rural landscape as a place in harmony with nature, beautiful, and peaceful.  As we continue to lose traditional bank barns, we destroy our own rural culture and the rural landscape. 

Building for the future
My design intent is to create buildings that are true to materials, site specific, and culturally sensitive. I combine traditional and contemporary architecture to both tie our rural landscapes to history and show off our modern future. Farmers, through every barn they choose to design and build, shape the image of the rural landscape. With the help of good design they can leave a legacy for many generations just as past generations have left us a rich history.

Architecture in my practice is about the design of buildings, big or small, and helping people live and work in effective, beautiful, and sustainable spaces.
While many people worry that the rural population is declining, I am one example of farm kids that are coming back to their communities with more creative and professional skills than ever before. It is a great time to be involved in the rural communities, where young professionals can have a bigger impact in a smaller pond. 

Krista Hulshof is an architect with a strong interest in agriculture and sustainable building design. She is an avid cyclist as a way to enjoy the rural landscapes on Ontario, Canada. Check out her services at You can follow her on twitter @VELDarchitect, keep up with information, ideas and trends at, like VELDarchitect on Facebook, or be inspired on Pinterest.

Visit RUPRI and the Rural Futures Lab for more research, policy papers, and news.

Images provided by the author.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Climate change and rural adaptation "Down Under"

By Geoff Cockfield, Associate Professor at University of Southern Queensland (Australia)

Earlier this month, some Australian news media ran articles about a future in which average temperatures would increase by six degrees. Previously discussed scenarios were generally limited to ‘plus two’ to ‘plus four’ futures. But with the failure of efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, evident in the very modest progress on mitigation from the latest UN climate talks in Doha, and rapid industrialisation in China and India, more dramatic change is being considered.

In Australia the ‘Millennium’ drought of 2002-2009 provided a picture of what such a future might be like, at least for us. Since 1970, rainfall trends have generally conformed to climate change models that suggest less rainfall in the southern and western areas, with some increases in the tropical and sub-tropical areas. If current trends continue, they will contribute to the reshaping of rural areas.

Climate Change Hotspots in Australia
Source: WWF, click on the image to enlarge.

Rural trends in Australia

The demographic trend is to fewer people on farms, in small agriculture-dependent towns and in remote areas, other than where there are mining projects. Higher temperatures, less water for irrigation and large high-tech farms will leave an even more sparsely settled inland. Already, 80 percent of people live within 100 kilometers of the coastline, with 64 percent of those in five major metropolitan areas. Climate change will add to the reasons for people to move.

The ‘long dry’ as well as the wages paid in the burgeoning mining sector accelerated the long-term trends of farm aggregation and the replacement of labor with large-scale machinery, especially in Western Australia where the dry years continued through 2011 and 2012. Farmers are reducing livestock numbers, especially sheep, with some farmers especially affected by having to shoot starving animals during the worst of the drought. The economic effects of the decrease in livestock numbers flow through regional meat processing businesses and contractors such as shearers, accelerating the overall decline of small rural towns.

The hot conditions, which disproportionately affect the elderly, will tend to leave some inland areas as places to work for periods of time, rather than places to live in the long term. Other disadvantages could include greater exposure to mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue and Ross River fevers, as the tropics ‘expand’ south and the increasing costs of energy and transport as a result of the new national carbon tax (

Threatened water supplies

This coastal and urban migration will place even greater pressure on urban water supplies. During the Millennium drought, the five mainland state governments all developed desalination plants for each of their major cities. These have however, proved costly to build and run. From 2007, the Federal Government promoted the use of recycled water. However, there remains a real resistance to full-contact uses of this water, illustrated by the resounding defeat of a recycling proposal in my home city of Toowoomba in a referendum. The problems of desalination and recycling led some state governments to seek more water from river systems, including those providing most of the water for irrigated crop industries.

Irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin is a source of
contention among conservationists and farmers.
Source: The Guardian

The Millennium drought highlighted long-term conflicts over water, especially around Australia’s most agriculturally important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin. The rice industry, an important exporter in the central Basin areas, was in virtual shutdown for two years because of the shortage of irrigation water. The dry conditions also increased political negotiations to manage water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin, which crosses four states. The negotiations resulted in a process whereby the Federal Government will ‘buy’ back water licenses, which will reduce irrigated crop production in some areas and further reduce the size of some regional economies.

There are some, including in the Opposition political parties, who argue that there is still scope for an expansion of irrigated agriculture in the northern areas, effectively reconstructing Australian agricultural geography.  However, scientific and economic reviews are cautious given the erratic rainfall, uncertain environmental impacts of development, and the remoteness of suitable sites.

Rural adaptations in Australia

The early signs of climate change are driving various adaptations. There is research on animal and human housing insulation, alternative energy strategies for rural and remote areas, and alternative crops and crop production. Mitigation policies, such as carbon tax provide opportunities for carbon farming, including land management for conservation purposes that will yield income. This may be especially important for Aboriginal communities managing traditional lands. In addition, rural areas will provide the sites for other forms of energy generation, including solar and wind, although there are some local objections to wind farms.

Source: AhramOnline
The prospects for rural leadership on adaptation are somewhat hindered by a reluctance to acknowledge that there is any such problem as climate change. In survey after survey, including in the US, there appears to be higher levels of ‘skepticism’, actually outright disbelief in some cases, of climate change in rural areas and especially amongst farmers. Perhaps this goes with the tendency to political and social conservatism, an anti-green tendency, or the fear of the existential threat of climate change.

Yet rural people are good at adaptation, being so exposed to natural events and volatile markets and perhaps the incremental nature of climate change will encourage innovation and adaptation that is couched in terms of addressing the existing issues that afflict rural areas.
  • Do you see the same issues and dilemmas in the US, or at least in some regions?
  • How do you think the US political system is coping with water conflicts?

Geoff Cockfield is Associate Professor in politics and economics at the University of Southern Queensland. His research areas include rural policy, climate change adaptation and natural resources management. Before working in a university, he worked in agriculture and in rural journalism.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Superheroes in training: Envisioning a new future for agriculture

By Melissa L. Lamberton, research assistant at Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Introduction to the Superheroes in Training series

Graduate students are the unsung heroes of sustainability. As universities publish new research about innovative practices to create healthier and more resilient agricultural systems, grad students often toil behind the scenes, sitting at a lab bench, spending long days in the field, crunching numbers and writing reports. Although you won’t find them fighting crime in red capes or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, I call these students superheroes—people who work against the odds to make a better world.

Stefen Gailans is a Superhero in Training
(photo courtesy of the Leopold Center)
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture tells the stories of some of these students in a new series of vignettes called “Superheroes in Training” on our Facebook page. I asked graduate students involved in research projects funded by the Leopold Center to talk about their work, their inspirations, and their visions of the future.

These students help the Leopold Center pursue its mission to identify and reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of farming and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources. The Center funds research projects in ecology, marketing and policy as wide-ranging as developing local food systems, finding ways to protect waterways from pollution, and helping landowners include conservation practices in farm leases.

The interview below, with Ph.D. student Stefan Gailans, illustrates how the students we work with envision a future for agriculture that not only protects the environment, but also supports the livelihoods of farmers and invigorates rural communities. As Gailans says, more people making a living in rural areas means more people caring for the land. After all, that’s what “sustainability” means—sustaining ecosystems as well as people—and that’s why we think superheroes can be found in the research lab.

Superheroes in Training: Meet Stefan Gailans

The Leopold Center is proud to introduce Stefan Gailans, designer of alternative cropping systems. This interview is part of a series, "Superheroes in Training," that spotlights students who are involved with Leopold Center research projects and work to create a more sustainable world.

Stefan is a Ph.D. student in Crop Production & Physiology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Stefan in his natural habitat
(photo by ISU student Rosie Olander)
  • Where is the place you call home?
Now a full-time resident of Ames but originally from Mequon, Wisconsin (north of Milwaukee).
  • What is your research, and why is it important?
In a nutshell, my research lab investigates alternative crop production and alternative cropping systems—apart from corn and soybean these systems include crops like canola, wheat, and red clover. Expanding the suite of crops grown can potentially reduce the risk of pest outbreaks in our cropping systems in Iowa. Winter varieties of canola and wheat included in the alternative systems serve as cash grain crops as well as cover crops that aim to reduce soil erosion and leaching during the “off season.” Basically, maintaining a high level of agricultural productivity while being more environmentally benign.
  • What got you excited about studying this topic?
I got excited about this kind of research when I realized the intersection between agriculture and the environment many years ago. As one who cares for wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and productive agriculture, I find this intersection is very important.
  • Describe a favorite moment or surprising lesson learned.
When studying or conducting agricultural research, one is subject to the time clock and whims of Mother Nature. And one cannot get too hung up or frustrated by this. Having set target dates for certain field operations (planting, sampling, harvesting, etc.) is unrealistic—these need to be more like moving targets for the goals to be attainable. As a technician once told me when I first started out, “That’s agriculture.”
  • What's your dream job?
My dream job would include opportunities to reach out and educate students, community members, and farmers alike as to this important intersection between agriculture and the environment. Communicating the importance of both agriculture and the environment is of key interest.
  • How do you spend your time when you're not out saving the world?
I spend a lot of time listening to music and going to see local music live with my friends. I’ve also recently gotten into science fiction literature, primarily the works of Isaac Asimov. I also enjoy fishing and, as per the seasons, very much enjoy hunting for waterfowl and pheasant.
  • If you could make one change to make the world more sustainable, what would it be?
I’ll draw a bit from my previous answer here. In some of his novels, Asimov portrays a world (not necessarily positively or negatively) where nearly all humans live in dense population centers with very few working the land with many machines to grow and produce food. I would much rather see the opposite of this. The more people in rural settings, the more people there are to care for agriculture and the environment.
  • Who is your favorite superhero (real or fictional) and why?
I always liked Batman because he didn’t have any super power conferred to him by virtue of being an alien or some random accident. Sure, Bruce Wayne has a lot of money and seemingly unlimited access to resources, but when it comes down to it, he’s just a human being who had to work really long and hard to achieve superhero status.

Melissa L. Lamberton is a research assistant at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a candidate for a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. She is interested in how poets, writers and artists can communicate about science to create a better future for people and the environment.

Read more Superhero in Training stories on the Leopold Center's Facebook page.

Visit RUPRI here.