Associate Professor of Sociology Brian Gareau and his former student Connor Fitzmaurice are co-authors of Organic Futures: Struggling for Sustainability on the Small Farm, a new book born of undergraduate research. (Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert)
When Connor Fitzmaurice ’10 transferred to Boston College prior to his junior year, he hoped he would find an environment that supported undergraduate research.
Now, six years later, Fitzmaurice is the co-author of a book – based on his award-winning senior thesis funded in part by the University – on which he collaborated with a faculty member who became his mentor and friend, Associate Professor of Sociology Brian Gareau.
It’s fair to say he found what he was looking for at BC, and more.
“The people I met, like Brian, were incredibly helpful and caring, and showed me all kinds of possibilities for what I could do,” says Fitzmaurice, a Freehold, NJ, native who is now a doctoral student at Boston University. “That made such a difference.”
Publishing Organic Futures: Struggling for Sustainability on the Small Farm was a professionally and personally satisfying achievement for both Fitzmaurice and Gareau, and a testament to the formative character of liberal arts education. Fitzmaurice took a compelling contemporary subject of personal interest to him – the popularity of organic food – and made it the basis of a literally hands-on research experience that included toiling at a Boston-area farm.
Connor Fitzmaurice and Brian Gareau discussed their book on WBUR-FM 'Radio Boston.' Listen to the interview here.
For Gareau, who joined BC in 2009, collaborating with Fitzmaurice was an opportunity to extend his own scholarship in food systems and sustainability, and ultimately deepen his insight into the role of a college teacher.
“Being a professor means you have to make careful decisions on how you commit your time and energy, not only to teaching but to research and service,” says Gareau, who credits departmental colleague Associate Professor Paul Gray for his initial involvement in Fitzmaurice’s project. “Obviously, a major part of my job is to help our students find their calling, and sometimes that means investing extra time and energy when you feel it will lead to a positive outcome.
“How do you make that decision? You consider the quality of the student, and the passion for his or her work. If Connor wasn’t who he is, I wouldn’t have participated in the project. But I was confident this would be worthwhile, and it’s been rewarding to see how everything has turned out.”
Organic Futures explores the lives of New England small-scale organic farmers as they struggle to compete in an era where the much-touted “organic” food most Americans eat is produced not in small, intimate agricultural settings but by the food industry, and sold in outlets like McDonald’s and Walmart. Fitzmaurice and Gareau trace the trajectory of the organic, “locally grown” food movement from its beginnings nearly a century ago among farmers resisting the advent of industrial agriculture, through the 1960s and ’70s counterculture, and its gradual emergence in mainstream consumer markets.
The book also describes the range of views on the evolution of the organic food industry: Some hail the wide-scale proliferation of environment-friendly production methods, while others see a diminishing of standards and community values regarded as the hallmark of organic farming; still others reject the polarization, and accept the existence of both large and small-scale sectors of organic farming.
Organic Futures, however, is not some analytical, factoid-leaden treatise. Interviews with the New England small organic farmers, and descriptions and anecdotes of their work-a-day lives as they adhere to sustainable and ecological practices, give the book what a reviewer described as a “wide-eyed and lyrical” quality. When one farmer, John, discusses how he ended up on the farm, his wife, Katie, notes that his parents had discouraged his agricultural interests.
“Yeah, but with good reason,” replies John. “No small farms had done anything but fail for thirty years.”
“I’d hope our experience with Organic Futures would encourage faculty to consider doing this kind of beyond-the-classroom work with students. It’s very rewarding in many respects."—Brian Gareau
Such vignettes came from Fitzmaurice’s research for his original senior thesis. Using an Advanced Study Grant, he spent several weeks talking with and observing organic farmers, and doing some work himself. It often left him with aching, blistered hands but a considerable appreciation of the challenges and virtues of farm life.
“The lives of people on these farms were tough: They struggled a lot, and made many sacrifices,” says Fitzmaurice. “But as you talked with them, you could see what attracted them to farming: ‘Who else gets to live in a place this beautiful?’ one of them told me. They felt a strong connection to the land and what they produced, but they didn’t overly romanticize their lives as farmers.”
Gareau notes that, in addition to its mix of quantitative information and human-interest content, Fitzmaurice’s project broke new ground: “Most sociological studies of this type have looked at farms in the Midwest or California. But there are characteristics which make New England unique as a farming system – such as its smaller farms that grow a diversity of crops on a mixed geographic landscape – so Connor broadened the research on organic farming.”
In fact, Gareau felt there was a strong enough foundation for a book, and after Fitzmaurice was awarded the Morrissey College of Arts and Science’s McCarthy Prize for the outstanding senior thesis, he offered to help Fitzmaurice to build on the dissertation. Yale University Press expressed interest in publishing the result.
Turning the thesis into a book was no small task. It involved expanding the scope of the original research, historical analysis, interviews, returning to primary sources and considerable rewrites.
“It was all worth it,” says Fitzmaurice. “The standards for academic presses are high, so that meant having to not only go over what I’d done already but go beyond, and look at organic farming in a broad historical and cultural vein. But we had good support from Yale, and we knew we were on the right track. I was really happy to have Brian as my collaborator.”
Says Gareau, “The book has relevance for the social sciences, but it’s also a celebration of the small farm, a quintessential part of New England’s social fabric – just think of apple orchards and strawberry festivals.
“I’d hope our experience with Organic Futures would encourage faculty to consider doing this kind of beyond-the-classroom work with students. It’s very rewarding in many respects.”
-Sean Smith | University Communications