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Umbra students successfully engage in independent qualitative research on sustainability in Italy

From playing soccer with local Italians, to doing research on sustainable wineries, to being speakers at the Food and Sustainability Studies Conference, Mackenzie Nelsen and Jared Belsky took full advantage of their time studying abroad at the Umbra Institute. Mackenzie is an Environmental Science and Interdisciplinary Food Studies double major at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Jared is an environmental studies major at Hamilton College. During the Spring 2018 semester, they took the Anthropology of Food and Sustainability and Food Production in Italy courses, taught by Professor Elisa Ascione, coordinator of the Food and Sustainability Studies Program (FSSP) at the Umbra Institute.

Nelsen and Jared said they enjoyed class discussions revolving around food. “Academically, it has been very intellectually stimulating,” Mackenzie said. “There’s not a stress associated with learning—it’s learning for the excitement and joy of it, and I’ve learned so much while being here.” Jared added that the anthropological aspect of Professor Ascione’s courses was enlightening and crucial for deciding to spend an extra two months in Perugia researching sustainable wineries in Umbria.

The Research
The research conducted by Jared and Mackenzie focused on the figure of Umbria’s alternative and sustainable vignaioli, an Italian word indicating both winegrowers and winemakers. “Our research is basically travelling to different wineries around Umbria and meeting with their owners to interview them about their specific viticulture practices and perceptions of terroir, sustainability, farmer identity,” Jared explained. As far as the research methods are concerned, students recorded, transcribed and analyzed every interview, and every observation that they made. According to Jared, this was helpful because it was possible to go back and find answers to questions they did not even asked, and even answers to some new questions they did not think of.  “We did qualitative research, analyzing sustainability through the point of view of our informants: we collected the data through Theoretical Sampling.” He said. “We have also used Snowball Sampling, which means some of our fieldwork has been determined by the participants themselves; in this case, some of the winemakers we visited recommended that we go see another winery that wasn’t on our previous list.” Jared said.

The research allowed both students to deepen their knowledge about sustainable agriculture and about the motivations behind a farmer’s choice to produce sustainable wines. “One of the most memorable moments was when we saw a rally in the center of Perugia with lots of tractors,” Mackenzie said. “Most of the people we interviewed during field research were there, demonstrating for better regulations in the agriculture sector. We talked to them and they were so passionate about their work, so we understood their way of thinking. It was great to be there with them and share their concerns.”

Speakers at The Food Conference
Jared and Mackenzie had the opportunity to present her research at the Food and Sustainability Studies Conference, an event organized every two years by the Umbra Institute, which sees the participation of renowned academics. “It was very exciting,” Mackenzie said. “Although it was a bit intimidating to present our research in front of other professionals, we felt the support of Elisa and the Umbra Institute.” This experience as speakers allowed the students to develop some new skills. “In college you write many essays, but here it was different because when you focus on one topic for so many weeks, you get so much material from your readings and the fieldwork. Having to synthetize all of that has been a learning experience that is important for my future.” Mackenzie said.

The impact of the Umbra experience on their studies

This research, together with the above-mentioned courses, has had a significant impact on the students’ approach to their studies. “I’ve always focused on environmental sciences and this was my first time doing anthropology,” Mackenzie said. “When I took Elisa’s classes, I really fell in love with her anthropological approach. I think it shifted my direction quite a bit because, coming from a food studies and sustainability perspective, I learned that anthropology is a great method to explore those ideas. So, this research experience gave me the opportunity to share what I’ve written and seen and, beyond the practical aspect, it reframed my way of thinking and the kind of the path of what I want to follow.”

Jared has also some ideas about how to take advantage of what he has learned. “This is very much in the works, but I hope to develop this project as one half of a senior thesis for next year.” He said. “It would be interesting to do some sort of comparative analysis with terroir between wine in Italy and cider in the US.”  

To learn more about Food & Sustainability Studies at the Umbra Institute, click here.

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