Food Systems, Rural Economies, and ... Planning?

Becca Jablonski

Becca Jablonski '03 (Ph.D. CRP '14) William Staffeld / AAP

May 8, 2014

A Profile of Becca Jablonski, '03 (Ph.D. CRP '14)

When Becca Jablonski '03 (Ph.D. CRP '14) decided to pursue a Ph.D. in 2009, there were a number of paths she could have followed. With interests in regional food systems and rural agricultural community and economic development, fields such as agricultural economics, policy analysis and management, or even development sociology would have been logical selections. But she chose planning.

"I knew that planning was the right place for me," she says. "Planners have the most comprehensive tool kit for looking at the areas I'm concerned with. They don't get stuck within disciplinary boundaries, which allows them to think more systematically about how to address short- and long-term issues. And, planners believe they have an obligation to make the world better — not just diagnose the problems."

Now nearly finished with her dissertation, Jablonski's groundbreaking research has helped CRP become a hub for food systems research and learning. She has become a campuswide expert on the increasingly popular topic of local food systems and rural agricultural development, and meets with one or two students from a variety of disciplines each week, who want her input or advice on research, connecting with on- and off-campus resources, or job searches.

Jablonski's path into food systems wasn't direct. As an undergraduate in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences, Jablonski was a history major, with concentrations in Native American and Africana studies. "My interest in farming and food systems really started with a series of dramatically different experiences I had during my undergraduate years," she says. Between the end of her sophomore year and the beginning of her senior year, Jablonski worked on a vineyard in France; spent time on single-family, subsistence farms in Ghana; and finally received a fellowship with the Environmental Protection Agency, where she examined causes of nonpoint source pollution on Native American reservations. The largest polluter was agriculture. "What really struck me was the contrast of these experiences," she says. "The role that farming plays in rural areas — environmentally, socially, economically, politically — and how much the type of farming, as well as the people making the decisions, impact communities."

After completing her undergraduate degree, Jablonski continued to work in a variety of positions in agriculture and food systems: as a worker on a farm-to-market vegetable farm in Montana; as a research associate at the California Institute for Rural Studies and California Cooperative Extension, working on issues surrounding farmworker rights; and as a research assistant for a nongovernmental organization in Cameroon, addressing erosion issues on farms. She also earned a master of science from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, where she focused on fair trade cocoa production in Ghana.

Then, in 2007, Jablonski moved back to Upstate New York, and took a position at Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Madison County, as their first agricultural economic development specialist.

"I was the first person in that role in Madison County, so I worked closely with a committee of local stakeholders — farmers, a representative from farm credit, elected officials, agricultural educators, and economic developers — to determine what an agricultural economic development program could do, beyond just starting another farmers' market, " she says.

One of Jablonski's success stories was with the hops industry. The president of the New York State Brewer's Association approached CCE with a direct request: they wanted to use New York State hops in their breweries. But there were only 10 acres of land devoted to hops production in the entire state, despite the fact that Central New York had once been the world's largest producer. So, Jablonski worked with the newly established Northeast Hop Alliance to secure grant funding from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to hire the state's first hops specialist. She also reached out to Nick and Fred Matt of Utica, New York's F. X. Matt Brewing Company, brewers of Saranac Beer, who quickly agreed to host the state's first conference on hops production. "It sold out almost immediately," she says. "And by the summer of 2014, there will be over 250 acres of hops under cultivation in New York State, and an annual conference that attracts more than 350 people."

After being accepted at Cornell, Jablonski was able to use her experience from CCE as a starting point for navigating the vast resources on campus and identifying the best committee for her thesis, which focuses on evaluating rural economic development initiatives and policies, with an emphasis on identifying strategies to improve agribusiness performance and enhance regional food systems.

In addition to working closely with faculty from the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and Development Sociology, Jablonski developed close relationships with several members of her "home" department of CRP, including Professor Kieran Donaghy and Visiting Associate Professor Yuri Mansury, as well as Susan Christopherson, who is chair of her thesis committee.

"Taking Yuri Mansury's regional economic impact analysis classes completely changed the trajectory of my research," she says. "He helped me understand different mechanisms to evaluate the total impacts of a project or initiative. The methods I learned in his courses are key to assessing food systems policies, including where and how funding is optimally allocated. So it's not just about creating more farmers' markets, urban gardens, or food hubs. We need to look at the specific context of each location, the mix of assets in a particular community, and evaluate the total impact of a project — including opportunity cost, or how the resources could have been otherwise utilized."

In 2011, Jablonski was named a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture Doctoral Fellow, which included a $75,000 fellowship. "That fellowship has really helped me focus on my research over the last two years, as well as expand my network of colleagues nationally and internationally," she says. She also recently won the 2013 Graduate Student Extension Competition, held by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, and has earned several fellowships and grants, including from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service; New York State; and Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

As Jablonski works toward completing her thesis, her focus is also on the next phases of her career and her own job search. She is excited to see the expanded interest in food systems, exemplified by the emergence of several new food studies programs. "Undergraduate and master's student interest in food systems is growing tremendously right now," she says. "So universities are creating or expanding their expertise in these areas. Several universities have recently conducted 'food systems cluster hires,' for example. I'm just waiting to see what opportunity will be the right one for me!"

By Rebecca Bowes

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