Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis Blog

This blog contains experiments, project and reading reflections, unanswered questions, and more relating to my year-long thesis as part of my Master's design program. From Sept. 2016 to May 2017, I explored rewilding human beings and the environments we inhabit at multiple scales including investigation around individual fears of nature, regional food production systems, and global overpopulation. The final works of this thesis can be found in my portfolio.

Rewilding Farmland - Sustainable Product Design

As I have mentioned previously, my thesis explores rewilding across personal fear, cultural narratives, food systems, and overpopulation. Further it includes studies of rural, urban, and suburban contexts. In my current project, designing a sustainable product, I have decided to focus in on the rural context and the food system bucket. My target user is farmers and ranchers in the midwest United States. Inspired by my interviews, I wanted to explore how to foster a love for biodiverse and wild nature in this population. I also wanted to explore modes of facilitating transition to alternate food systems and "wilder" rural landscapers.

In order to do this, I recognized the need to do more research. I started with the documentary Farmland which covers the challenges and lifestyles of young 20-something farmers and ranchers in the US. This movie was insightful in regards to the topics of farm consolidation, cost of owning and purchasing land, the inherent risk in this industry, and the role of family. A paper by Liz Carlisle on Factors Influencing Farmer Adoption of Soil Health Practices in the United States also was significantly helpful as it covered in detail the benefits, barriers, and tools for influencing the practices of farmers in regards to environmental health. Carlisle highlights that farming is already a risky business and further financial risk can be a large barrier. However, financial gain is not the most effective motivator for this population - community respect and impact on future generations is. Further research also emphasized the importance of transitional periods, such as when a son/daughter joins in on farm management, as key periods for intervention. 

On a separate note, I read about the potential for cultural traditions, such as songs, dances, proverbs, religious gatherings, and village meetings, to be channels for new community narratives. This seemed to be in alignment with the information I gathered from speaking with Davey Jones and how pastoral land is so rooted in culture in the UK - including in its songs and literature.

Finally, I was reminded of something I read in the book Rewilding Our Hearts, about ways to influence people of different viewpoints. While certainly not all of my target population is politically conservative, based on the recent election it can be fair to say that the areas I am looking at have a strong conservative voice. Taking this into account, the recommendations in Rewilding Our Hearts of leveraging group loyalty, authority and respect, and purity and sanctity to influence conservative mindsets, may prove to be beneficial to my efforts. 

With these insights in mind, I sketched out 99 ideas designing for ecological health and farmers and ranchers in the midwest. 

From here, I selected four ideas to explore further through prototyping. 

My first prototype is a sash for "Bioregional Scouts". I was inspired by the relationship between farmers and their successive generations and the potential for impact here. Farms are consolidating and younger generations are moving away from home but farmers typically want to preserve their lands and pass them down to their children. I saw an opportunity to build passion in kids for their wild/native/biodiverse landscapes through participating in the Bioregional Scouts. With this passion developed, once they have an opportunity to decide to leave or to stay and transform their family's land, the latter may be more likely.

For my second prototype, I was inspired by a story about two farmers who, after three years of working their grandparents' land, did a simple soil test and discovered they only had two inches of top soil left. They then transformed their practice to holistic grazing. While I haven't quite determined my stance on the George Monbiot vs. Allan Savory debate around holistic grazing, I find it inspiring that this discovery of soil degradation can strongly impact farmers' practices. So in response I create a permaculture subscription kit. The first mailing includes tools for soil depth and soil composition testing. After mailing these back and receiving the analysis, farmers receive customized seeds and tools to test out various permaculture practices and techniques. I also imagine a variation of this in the form of an AR game like the Haunted Mansion Ghost Post. In the permaculture version of this, participants would be asked to help save an animal that used to live on their lands by planting certain plants or building certain structures using tools in their kits.

My third prototype is a self-controlled done that spreads miscellaneous seeds over rural areas, forcing diversification.


And finally, I created "Magic Corn". Concerned citizens or community members can purchase this smart object and have it sent to a farmer with environmentally harmful practices. It would be connected to either sensor or visual monitoring systems and a la Beauty and the Beast, the corn would appear to decay if the farmer doesn't change her/his ways. 

I am struggling to figure out where to best intervene in this space. Should I be easing the transition to permaculture? Should I be solving a indirectly related problem for farmers that stands in the way of ecologically healthy practices? Should I be simply igniting the passion for wild landscapes in this population? And if the latter, through what channel can this be done most effectively? I feel I still do not know enough about this user group to know the best channel for intervention.

Class feedback was varied. Overall most of the reaction centered around the magic corn (though it was recommended that it shouldn't be corn, because we kind of want corn to die) and the drone. I was recommended to investigate the effectiveness of seed bombing projects. I also was recommended to consider eco-terrorism. Policy and patent reform are central to this work and could become a point of focus. And on that note, I was recommended to simply focus on something and go very in depth with whatever that might be. 

As always, I still feel I need to do tremendous amounts of research to get anywhere. What way can I speak to this population of people? What permaculture methods are easiest try out? What are my thoughts on holistic grazing and soil health? 

And I need to decide if I want my design to mitigate - to actually influence farm practices directly, to provide ways to improve soil health and biodiversity - or if I want my design to influence - to instill a love for "wild" nature in this population regardless of which path forward we take (industrializing algae, large scale permaculture, etc.). 

Update: The conclusion of this project can be found here.


Jenna Witzleben