In the role of Faculty Chair for TFC, one of my (Dr. Krista Jacobson) greatest pleasures is interacting with UK faculty and staff in diverse areas of scholarship in food systems. We wanted to begin sharing some of their stories with you. This month, I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. David Gonthier (Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology, CAFÉ). 

Question 1: Give me a brief bio on your background?  What brought you to do food systems work?

To be honest, I wasn’t always interested in agriculture and didn’t grow up on a farm, but I was really interested in international opportunities and conservation. When I finished undergrad I decided to visit extended family in Honduras. My mom is from Honduras, and one of my cousins was a conservation biologist and a coffee farmer. I took a year off to stay in Honduras, work on the coffee farm, and explore different avenues for increasing revenue. That really sparked interest in sustainable ag with an emphasis in coffee, which led to a MS and PhD on costs and benefits of shade grown coffee to co-manage production and biodiversity hotspots. As I finished my PhD work, I became more interested in US agriculture and thinking more broadly about sustainability in agriculture. That brought me to California to work in strawberries on a large, interdisciplinary project that focused on pest management, but also things like livelihoods of farmers and farm workers. 

Question 2: Describe your research and teaching programs here at UK.

As I got here, I tried to keep the coffee work, but it’s always on the back burner. Now I work mostly in vegetable and fruit pest control strategies, but I still collaborate with people outside of my department to look at various aspects of sustainability. I teach three(ish) classes right now. One is on coffee, in which I was lucky enough to work two years with Micheal Goodin, who coined the name “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee” for the course. It provides a broad perspective on everything from production to the cultural aspects of drinking coffee. I also co-teach an undergraduate Agroecology course, and developed a graduate level Agroecology course. The co—teaching has been great, because you really need to teach agroecology from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Question 3: What aspects of your field do you think have the greatest potential impact on food systems? 

One of the biggest challenges of researching alternative strategies for pest management or conservation is that they are almost always more expensive than the status quo. This means not just finding things that work well, but things that have multi-dimensional benefits and actually are not impossible financially to implement. That is where I am trying to move, and convince people that pest management alternatives are not just a “pie in the sky” idea, but that they can work and you can make some money. It’s challenging when you actually look at farm budgets, though.

Question 4: Can you tell me about a memorable or especially meaningful experience in your food systems work?

One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed was in my time as a postdoc working with strawberry farmers in California. There was a beginning farmer incubator program called ALBA [which focuses on training low-income field laborers to farm independently]. I worked with one farmer who was a graduate of the program, and had been struggling in the first year on her own. She had soil borne pathogens. Her strawberry yield was not so good, and with strawberry farming, you have to take out huge loans to cover labor costs. At the end of the season, it was looking so bad. Literally, every day she was waiting to see who would show up to harvest, and often times she was out there picking herself. In the next two years, she made some changes to her crop rotation, and diversified away from strawberries a little bit. By the third year, I was leaving, and I stopped by to see her to share some results. Things had really changed. At that time, she had received a loan to purchase the land, which is rare in that region and very difficult due to the cost of land. Just seeing the value of her pushing through, making things work, and then to see that change over time…thinking about how hard it is to be a small farmer, how hard it is to come up through the farm labor system. It is a bit of an American dream story.