Environmental sociologist Michael Bell has been named director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), a multi-disciplinary research and outreach program that focuses on developing sustainable production and marketing strategies for small to medium-sized agricultural and food enterprises.
Bell is a professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology who helped launch the university’s agroecology program, a group of scientists from various disciplines who study agriculture and food systems from an ecological perspective.
“Michael Bell is a natural choice for the job,” says William Tracy, Interim Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “He knows the issues and the stakeholders, and he will bring a lot of energy and excitement to the program.”
Bell became a faculty associate in CIAS soon after he joined the UW-Madison faculty in 2002, and through that association conducted a study on the life satisfaction of dairy farmers. Before coming here, he helped start up a graduate program in sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University.
“This is a particularly exciting time for the center,” he says. “Sustainable agriculture is no longer a minority voice. We all agree on its importance, and there is so much more that we can accomplish because of that agreement,” he says.
“CIAS has a fabulous citizen advisory committee and a great staff and a growing involvement with faculty. Encouraging the creativity that can come from that synergy will be my main goal as director,” he adds.
CIAS was established in 1989 through an act of the state legislature in response to farmers’ requests for research and outreach on integrated farming systems. It is guided by an advisory council that includes farmers and food business owners.
The center is involved in a wide range of projects. Some, such as the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, aim to help aspiring farmers get started. An eco-fruit program works with producer groups to encourage use of integrated pest management to reduce reliance on pesticides. CIAS partners in local and regional programs related to strengthening markets for local food and supports outreach and research in managed grazing. The center is also part of a
nationwide effort to develop new business models, public policies and research supporting mid-size farms—enterprises that are too big for direct marketing but unable to successfully market bulk commodities.
“I use the metaphor of CIAS as a kind of kitchen table for the state’s agriculture—a place for good conversation and dialog, a place for cooking up new ideas that are practical,” Bell says. “At the same time, we have to be mindful of the garden and the bounty just outside the door.”