The Value of a Network

This post was contributed by Garland Mason.

Before arriving at Virginia Tech in January of 2014 I spent nearly four years living and working in rural Vermont. In Vermont, I worked on projects focused on gleaning, small-scale vegetable processing, crop storage, local food procurement, and beginning farmer technical assistance. Through my work on these diverse projects I came to understand the deep interconnectedness of food and agriculture organizations in that small state. In the fall of 2011, I attended the first ever Vermont Farm to Plate Network Annual Gathering, a conference that brought together over 150 food system leaders working in various sectors of the food system in all regions of the state. That first annual gathering impressed me not only because of the number of experienced food system revolutionaries present and the deep level of discussion on complex issues, but also because it reinforced for me the strength and potential of networks to tackle wicked problems.

Vermont’s Farm to Plate (F2P) Network has been built using the framework of collective impact developed by Re-Amp and Kania and Kramer (2011). The Farm to Plate Strategic Plan embodies the network’s “common agenda,” a central component of collective impact model. The plan is composed of 25 specific goals to be reached by the year 2020. The goals relate to food production, food processing, retail and wholesale distribution, farm inputs, nutrient management, and consumer demand. With this common agenda at the heart, the network is organized into five working groups and six “crosscutting teams.” The working groups meet quarterly and are organized by common themes such as aggregation and distribution or consumer education and marketing. Crosscutting teams are similar to ‘communities of practice’ and also help to connect and inform the larger network.

In my various roles, I found the Farm to Plate network to be extremely helpful in making my work more effective. My participation in the network provided strategy to my work—it helped me to inform, guide, and align my own work to larger goals listed in the strategic plan. It also made relevant data and statistics easily accessible to help me set goals and measure progress.

The network connected me with practitioners working in similar areas. This allowed me to learn from those with more experience. The meetings always served as professional development with presentations from those working within the state or in the region—this fostered sharing of best practices and innovative ideas. Participation in the network helped me to think critically about strategies and best practices. This allowed me to further connect my small projects with complex food systems issues more generally

The network also facilitated the formation strong professional networks. Because I took part in the network I always knew who to ask when I needed an answer. For example, if a farmer came to me with an obscure question about anything from insurance, to production, to finances I always knew who I would go to first for answers. For me the existence of such a strong central network built on existing ties and smaller networks allowed us to advance our work in leaps and bounds by bypassing wrong turns others had already taken and by allowing us to readily share success stories.

In Appalachia there are already organizations and coalitions knitting together strong networks of food system leaders. In my opinion, the Appalachian Foodshed Project is well poised to facilitate these regional and local networks by linking practitioners together and providing professional development through webinars and other activities. As a newcomer to this region, it is exciting to see the quickly evolving food systems development and I look forward to being a part of a growing network of individuals and organizations passionate about creating a just and equitable food system in Appalachia.

Garland Mason is a master’s degree student in the department of Agriculture, Leadership & Community Education at Virginia Tech. Garland works as a graduate research assistant for the Appalachian Foodshed Project.