In 1989, citizens, academics, business and government leaders came together to establish CIAS. This collaboration founded the CIAS on The Wisconsin Idea, where faculty, staff and students work with citizens to conduct action research, directed by and for farmers and food system practitioners. The Center’s Citizen Advisory Committee brings real-world experience to setting the research agenda and partner on research projects of interest to them. CIAS is one of the first of a growing community of sustainable agriculture research centers in North America and is recognized for its academic contributions in action research, for its farmer-centered research agenda, and for its leadership and teamwork for sustainable agriculture and food systems.
At CIAS we research how particular integrated farming systems contribute to environmental, economic, social, and intergenerational sustainability.
Our research shows farmers can cut costs, increase profits, and improve their quality of life while enhancing the environment.
Our outreach and training programs help farmers, educators, crop consultants, businesses and eaters put these research findings to work.
We partner with communities to co-generate knowledge. We seek to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and with reflection.Key concept: Participatory Action Research
Our research strategy crosses many disciplinary boundaries with the end goal of creating a holistic approach to support the Wisconsin Idea.
Systems research is a way to understand complexity and address wicked problems. Researchers start with the premise that behavior is a consequence of structure.Key concept: Systems research
Since it’s founding, CIAS has been at the forefront of sustainable agriculture challenges. In 1989, the Center, working closely with farmers and faculty, initiated participatory action research and outreach on grazing-based dairy systems. The Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials has been affiliated with the Center since its inception. In 1994, the Center was at the forefront of the Community Supported Agriculture movement, helping to define it, participate in what is now the Fair Share CSA Coalition, and then teach basic market gardening concepts to beginning farmers.
In 1994, CIAS hosted the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education to build a nationwide faculty network on sustainable agriculture, a partnership with the Center for Rural Affairs. In the days before webpages, CSARE produced a regular newsletter to inform the growing network. In 2000, the Center hosted a gathering on campus with 25 representatives of 12 sustainable agriculture centers and programs from Cornell University, Iowa State University, Kansas State University, Michigan State University, University of California-Davis, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Maine, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska, University of New Hampshire, University of Wisconsin, and Washington State University. The network struggled with inadequate financial support until the Kellogg Foundation stepped in with base funding, and the University of California-Davis stepped up to revive the network as the Inter-institutional Network for Food, Agriculture and Sustainability (INFAS) in 2010. CIAS continues to provide leadership for this organization.
In 1995, the Center began the School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, where prospective farmers could learn the basics from experienced farmers, develop a business plan and locate a farmer-mentor in livestock production. The School continues today, and through distance education and Short Course administration, reaches dozens of prospective farmers from multiple states. Staff involved in the school helped to develop the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, the first federally recognized, accredited farm apprenticeship in the nation (2015).
In 1997, the Center began work on developing values-based food supply chains, first with farm-to-institution and restaurants, then with Farm-to-School in 2000. Farm-to-school projects blossomed, partnering with cafeteria personnel in school districts across Wisconsin. The program and many community partners developed recipes for school kitchens, and supply chains for targeted foods such as root vegetables, dairy and apples. In 2017, more than a million students, teachers and farmers participated in the Great Lakes Apple Crunch, to celebrate local apples in the schools. Today, this project works with preschools and hospitals to source local, nutritious, fresh foods.
In 1998, the Center started work on pesticide risk reduction in partnership with the state’s fourteen agriculture organizations. It quickly grew into participatory research on values-based supply chains with apple, winegrape, berry, hazelnut, and aronia growers. From 2003-2008 participating growers in our Eco-apple project documented reduced pesticide risk by 58 percent and increased their reliance on IPM strategies by 33 percent. This project developed the groundwork for TruEarth apple production standards and certification used by Wisconsin wholesale apple growers and others in the four-state Driftless Region and managed by the IPM Institute of North America.
In 2001, staff helped to found the national Agriculture of the Middle working group, a group of public intellectuals who work alongside practitioners to address challenges faced by mid-size farmers and their supply chains. The Center serves as the home for group’s web presence. Subsequent projects from the Center and our partners drive participatory action research on sustainable agriculture that is socially just and economically successful. CIAS officially supported the student group FH King Students of Sustainable Agriculture in 2001. Also this year, CIAS was instrumental in hosting the conference Working Landscapes in the Midwest:Creating Sustainable Futures for Agriculture, Forestry & Communities.
In 2002, CIAS was a founding partner to form REAP and the first projects were the Farm Fresh Atlas, the Food For Thought Festival and partnered on Farm-to-School activities in Madison schools. The Farm Fresh Atlas grew from a south-central Wisconsin focus to six regional Atlases that cover the state with a fully functioning web presence. The Farm-To-School work grew to Farm-to-Institution work throughout the Great Lakes and was spun off to Extension’s Community and Food Systems Department. Also in 2002, the Center took on the task of writing a report on the State of Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin and was part of a team to initiate the Wisconsin Inter-agency Organic Agriculture Task Force and the DATCP Organic Advisory Committee. The task force recommended and helped to launch the organic and grazing programs at DATCP.
In 2007, the Center took regional leadership with two programs, one in the Driftless region on food systems and another in the Great Lakes region for Farm-to-School. The Driftless food systems project convened multiple meetings with farmers and others in the four-state agricultural region where partners identified key issues for developing a sustainable agriculture. These were farm labor challenges, food transportation, and market access. The Great Lakes Farm-to-School program brought the National Farm-to-School network home, and accelerated learning throughout the region.
As the Center nears its thirtieth anniversary in 2019, it continues to innovate and engage. The small staff works with more than fifty faculty, staff and students across campus and links them with hundreds of practitioners in cutting-edge participatory research on agriculture and food systems. The Center organizes two meetings a year with the 19-member advisory council to discuss emerging issues. Staff participates in and hosts numerous conferences and meetings throughout the year to gauge need and identify emerging leaders. Recent conferences hosted include the National Farm-to-Cafeteria conference, the Northern Nut Growers conference, Green Lands Blue Waters, Food Sovereignty Symposium, Organic Agriculture Research Symposium, and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values conference June 2018. Center staff regularly publish research results for farmers and other practitioners, including research briefs, tool kits, and reports.
Projects address conservation and production issues such as cover crops and perennial crops (pasture, hazelnuts, hard cider apples). Agriculture of the Middle projects include farm-to-institution supply chains, urban food systems, regional food freight, domestic fair trade and agricultural labor. By addressing complex issues from a systems perspective, some of our projects address climate adaptation for farming and food systems. For instance, projects that encourage perennial crops and cover crops protect the soil from erosion common during extreme weather events like heavy rainfall, anticipated with our changing climate. The Center’s on-going commitment to innovative education for the next generation of farmers includes the School for Urban Agriculture, funded in 2018. We partner with the College of Menominee Nation on student leadership education in food sovereignty. We support summer research for graduate students working on sustainable agriculture topics through participatory action research. We are home to the student group FH King Students of Sustainable Agriculture.
For more on the history of CIAS, our annual reports contain a wealth of detail. For more on the history of the sustainable agriculture movement, the Wisconsin State Historical Society is home to archives. Also go to podcasts created by Ron Kroese’s National Sustainable Oral History Archive produced with the Center for Rural Affairs and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. https://www.cfra.org/SustainableAgPodcast