Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chat - Amanda Raster

Below is another Fresh Talk chat conducted on Jan. 20 with Amanda Raster, sustainability standards development manager at the Leonardo Academy, Madison, Wis. Leonardo was recently affirmed by the Washington, D.C.-based American National Standards Institute as the developer of an agriculture sustainability standard.

3:01 PM Amanda: Hi, Tom. I am online if you are ready for the Q&A.
3:03 PM me: Great. Thanks for taking part in another Fresh Talk chat. I've appreciated your help as we've been trying to understand the sustainability standard setting process at the Leonardo Academy..... My first question is about your background. Are you a homegrown Wisconsonite?
3:06 PM Amanda: Yes. I grew up on a small, family-operated dairy farm in northcentral Wisconsin. My father inspired my life-long love of agriculture. Living in Wisconsin all my life has exposed me to a broad range of agricultural operations and growing practices.
3:07 PM me: But you didn't study dairy science at the University. Did you ever consider "going back to the farm" so to speak?
3:11 PM Amanda: Right - I wasn't necessarily interested in being a dairy farmer. I wanted to explore the social, environmental, and political aspects of farming and my cross-disciplinary studies certainly allowed me to do that. However, being part of this process to develop a sustainable agriculture standard is shedding light on the fact that there is much, much more to learn! So before I head back to the farm--which is a strong possibility in the future--I will probably head back for more schooling.
3:14 PM me: I see in your bio that you had two degrees from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That's ambitious - what did you see in anthropology and conservation that were relevant to what you wanted to do?
3:15 PM Also, what was your career path after University to Leonardo?
3:20 PM Amanda: When I first started school, I -- like many others -- wasn't sure of the direction I wanted to take. I was very interested in rural issues and rural culture, but I didn't want to necessarily focus on that right away. So I pursued anthropology, which is more of a broad analysis of cultural dynamics and people's relationships to their surroundings and to society. I am finding this background knowledge to be more and more useful everyday. As more time went on, I kept hearing my father's voice asking me "What in the world are you going to do with an anthropology degree?" So I started taking environmental science classes, and eventually settled on the double major.
3:22 PM After graduating, I worked for a Madison-based farmers' cooperative, where I managed a community supported agriculture program. It was a true joy to work so closely with farmers who care about the food they grow, how they grow it, who they are growing it for.
3:23 PM me: Now you have been at Leonardo and are project manager for sustainability projects (correct me here if I'm wrong) What's a typical day and week like for you? What's the most rewarding thing about working on the ag sustainability project?
3:26 PM Amanda: You are correct that I manage Leonardo Academy's sustainability standards development program. The sustainable agriculture standard absorbs more of my time than the other projects we are working on, but I don't mind because it's what I am most passionate about.
3:30 PM A typical day really varies depending on what is happening with the standard. I receive emails and phone calls nearly every day from people who are interested in the process and want to know how they can get involved. Which, in my mind, is a very positive indicator that people see the potential benefits of having a sustainable agriculture standard and that our outreach is continuing to reach the people it should be. Working with the Task Forces has brought on a lot of additional work--I sit in on at least 2 to 4 conference calls every week, keep records of the conversations, and work with Task Force members to make sure that they have the materials and resources they need to move forward with their work. A lot of this work is communications-oriented. It's critical to be clear, concise, and efficient when working with such a large group of stakeholders, and I really enjoy the challenge all of this brings.
3:32 PM Of course, we also have to make sure that all of the work we are doing follows our standards development process, as well as ANSI's standard development rules, and that we are able to document a standard development process from start to finish. So there is a lot of administration that happens on a daily basis, as well.
3:33 PM me: That does sound like a big process to manage. One question some readers might have is whether "conventional" growers have equal footing and representation in the standard setting process. At the end of the day, do you think both organic and conventional growers will move ahead with consensus on this issue of sustainability standards?
3:36 PM Amanda: To be honest, both organic and conventional growers are concerned about their representation in this process. The Outreach Task Force recently did a gap analysis of the Standards Committee and determined that both industries do have equal representation on the Committee. And of course, we are encouraging stakeholders from all sectors to participate in the Task Forces and the subcommittees and other working groups that will be formed in the future.
3:39 PM Based on conversations that have occurred thus far within the Task Forces, I believe that both conventional and organic growers will take the opportunity throughout this to air out their issues and concerns and then work to establish principles and metrics that are agreed upon by all. What will likely happen is that the standard will take the form of a continuous improvement model to incorporate the range of sustainability practices utilized in both conventional and organic operations.
3:41 PM me: Very good. I've kept you quite a while so we should wrap up. Thanks for taking part in the chat and do you have a website to direct our readers to the work of your group? Thanks again and we'll have to do it again down the line.
3:42 PM Amanda: Sure. Readers can visit http://www.leonardoacademy.org/Projects/ansi.htm to learn more about the ANSI standards we are developing, including the sustainable agriculture standard.
3:43 PM me: Great. Thanks Amanda
Amanda: Thank you, Tom!

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