Volume 3: December 2010

Remembering Jennifer DeHart

by Caryl Waggett, PhD

Jennifer DeHart, Professor of Environmental Science and Project Director of CEED's Local Foods Network

Jennifer DeHart was grounded in a sense of place, and she reached out to the community with a sense of responsibility. Jennifer’s professional identity was as a geographer. She was able to look at a region and see connections that others often cannot see. Where others see only a small town or a rural region, Jennifer saw farmers, artists, bakers, and musicians. She saw the decisions and processes by which communities operate. She saw the values that the community members place on how they choose to live. She saw patterns in the social and natural ecology of a region—the industrial, agricultural and cultural history that sets the context for how people interact and impact the resources of their surroundings. Ultimately, she saw the community as complex system, comprised of multiple components, and disparate populations with varying values and decisions that interact with one another.

Her focus was always local and applied. She worked with many of the nation’s best climate change specialists who were located here in Pennsylvania, and realized that she could make the biggest impact at a local level. She worked on greenhouse gas inventories for the College and for the City of Meadville, leading the way for Allegheny to meet its obligation to be carbon neutral. Her research in this capacity empowered students and provided the campus with sufficient information to make key decisions towards meeting this ambitious goal. These inventories required creative approaches in order to account for all the energy that is expended in the name of the College, so she spent hours with students and staff poring over past bills, logs of travel, lists of student parking logs, in order to estimate where we spend money, how we pollute, and where we might be able to get the biggest bang for our buck through institutionalizing changes. She replicated this effort with students for the City of Meadville to assist in their own efforts to account for how energy is used, how much is used and money spent, and how it could be conserved most effectively.

Her other research passion was local foods. She was able to see this region as far more than “recently agricultural,” or a region with decreasing numbers of local dairy farmers as exists in other rural regions; instead, she saw people transforming their lives by returning to agriculture, entering into the economy as local producers, and hoping to make a difference in the region. Within this context, she recognized one of the missing opportunities here was collaboration—all of these individuals with similar or linked passions and goals unable to maximize their approach because they are “just one small farm or producer” compared to large conglomerates and corporations. She dedicated much of her professional life to supporting and facilitating interactions between this population and the broader community, in ways that often felt slow and less productive. She often joked that research on local agricultural systems replicated the very systems she studied—a researcher often had to be slow and patient just like watching corn grow, or even slower, like watching a field rejuvenate through fallow.

Jennifer had spent her professional life in West Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In each location, she developed a sense of the region through the systems and environments present—through watersheds, airsheds and agricultural foodsheds. She shared her geographers’ view of the world with her students from each of these environments. In a move that had some faculty expressing grave concern at what parents of our first year students might perceive to be a reflection on illicit student life, she taught a first year seminar entitled “the Geography of Addiction: Coffee, Chocolate and Cocaine.” She encouraged students to view their daily caffeine fix before their 8 am class as part of a broader historical process of agricultural transitions in tropical regions, marketing savvy and engineering design, and human rights and equity through the study of coffee. Chocolate and cocaine each have an equally complex web comprised of its agricultural origins around the world, the political and economic and business history that created a demand for products that had not been used in the public in much of the north and western hemisphere, the strategies employed by colonialist and rebels to control the flow and supply of the system, and the current socio-economic dynamics of both its use and production. Students habitually came out of these classes clamoring for more, fascinated by the interconnectedness of political, economic, agricultural, social and natural systems. They saw the world in a new way, the through the eyes of a geographer. Jennifer, like most good geographers, brought her passion with her and shared it with others.

In her advanced classes, she encouraged her students to work with local farmers and producers to recall the origin of the food they eat in dining halls and packaged at the supermarket. She encouraged these students to make active decisions about the way they chose to eat, consume and live that can influence the local and regional economy and start a movement that can influence broader agricultural patterns. In many ways, she was a quiet activist, encouraging a movement to subvert some of the worst corporate agricultural and energy-intensive practices and instead replace them with healthy and thriving local economies. More students began their career at Allegheny volunteering at local farms, appreciating local foods dinners in Brooks Hall, and recognizing the values of local economies because of Jennifer. She was passionate about her research topics and about her commitment to providing students with an interconnected view of the world.

Through my entire career as a junior faculty member, Jennifer was my suite mate, each the first to hear of grumblings about classroom snafus and research woes. It is not surprising that one of my favorite memories of her was also one of my first, long before I came to know her better. I had been in town for about a month, and the semester was just over a week old. My eyes were blurry from late nights trying to learn material on tangents that students might ask but likely wouldn’t, and by Friday afternoon I was dog-tired and collapsed in a comfy chair that Jennifer always had in her office. She took one look at me, and stated that she knew the best thing to make things better, and reached to get a bottle of wine, some chocolate, and a piece of lavender tea cake her mom had just sent up from West Virginia. I was pleasantly surprised that she would share a treat from home – and welcomed it for I needed “home” myself at that moment, even if borrowed from a colleague. Her chocolate was fair trade, rich and flavorful. The wine she had been saving for a special occasion, and to my surprise, she counted meeting a new friend and kicking back with a colleague in need as just such an occasion.

Having just arrived from California and completed my dissertation field work in the rich wine growing region of California, I giggled a bit when she pulled out the wine she had been saving. It was a local wine, from a winery in upstate New York, distilled from an antique varietal of grape. She assured me that local can always be as good as the traditional varietals, and that producing these unique wines takes a great deal of work and care. To be honest, at this point I was excited about the lavender tea cake and the chocolate, and so I figured that I could handle a bad glass of wine with good humor. She opened the bottle and poured a set of glasses and toasted the semester and the bold grower who took a chance to grow grapes that would not be recognized immediately as chardonnay or pinot noir or syrah. And to my surprise, I enjoyed not only the lavender tea cake and the chocolate, the collegial banter and the burgeoning friendship that would grow over the years, but I also enjoyed a surprisingly great glass of wine.

This is my toast: to geographers who view the world as a set of interlinked systems, to educators who are passionate about their students, to bold local growers and producers who are willing to take chances in efforts to make the most of this region, and to Jennifer herself: a wonderful person, passionate scholar and activist, and dear friend who had the vision to see this all.