January 31, 2020

IFSL Cohort Spotlight: Emily Reno

Reno Spotlight

Emily Reno is Planting Seeds of Resilience

Emily Reno is a member of the Integrated Food System Leadership (IFSL) program’s inaugural cohort. A researcher for the newly-launched seed collaborative North Circle Seeds and a social media strategist with Minneapolis-based Voices for Rural Resilience, she is using credits from the IFSL program towards her Master in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

We talked with Emily about her perspective of the IFSL program, her unique graduate curriculum, and bridging urban and rural life as well as small- and large-scale farming. 


You recently moved to Minnesota from Kansas, and you joined the inaugural IFSL program cohort in September. How is this new environment shaping you so far?

Even though Minnesota and Kansas are both in the Midwest, I’ve found moving here to be a very different agricultural community. I didn’t grow up with a farming background but started learning about growing on a larger-than-garden scale in community college. I put in seven hours a week on a 2.5-acre farm, learning what it’s like to grow asparagus, drive a BCS tractor, and move compost piles. 

I knew that coming to grad school wasn’t necessary to become a farmer but important if I wanted to advocate for small-scale growers. It’s cool to see how IFSL is making me more interested in how resilience can come from the relationships formed between small and large growers.  

How are the relationships you are building within the IFSL program part of your learning?

In IFSL, most of the other cohort members have a number of years of experience and are working full time. One of my biggest takeaways from them is the level of expertise that can be developed in a specific field. I learn so much from hearing about what my classmates are doing in their roles in food regulation or marketing.

On the other hand, being in the University of Minnesota’s Urban and Regional Planning Master program, I find that a lot of students are like me: out of school for maybe a couple of years or went straight to grad school from undergrad, so a lot of us don’t necessarily have professional experiences to bring to discussions. It’s nice with IFSL to have people to reach out to who have a number of years of experience under their belt. Those conversations have helped me see the job opportunities that are out there.

Why did you decide to join the IFSL program, and how do you see the experience cross-pollinating with your Master’s work?

The IFSL program was a natural fit for my interests in food systems planning. There currently aren’t a lot of classes offered in my program at Humphrey that tailor to this field unless you intentionally seek them out through CFANS, or other colleges and departments on campus. I remember reading the IFSL class descriptions and thinking, “These are all the things I want to learn about.” And I was glad that my IFSL credits could count towards my degree.

Urban and regional planning has a big focus on using practical tools and an action-oriented approach to address systemic issues. That focus is satisfying for me having come from an Environmental Studies background, which focuses more on theory and policy. 

But the discipline also has a big urban focus. I often feel like I’m the only one asking, “How might this affect rural communities or a small town?” IFSL has allowed me to explore some of this in our discussion posts, linking my work with Voices for Rural Resilience to the way that we approach food systems change. Voices for Rural focuses a lot on narrative change around rural places. What does it mean to be in and from a rural place? How does that geography influence your identity? 

Food systems are such a big part of rural life, and I’m interested in how food issues and the planning profession intersect. Through IFSL, I’m starting to learn the value of piecing together the big systems and regulatory infrastructure with the livelihoods and values of small-scale ag. If we’re going to have any impact on the food system, we can’t discount the influence of larger companies and the impact of their decisions on rural landscapes. 

I used to think that having an impact meant working at the grassroots. I still do, but IFSL is helping me think more about strategic, cross-sector partnerships. 

Where do you see partnerships taking root across the food system?

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Land O’ Lakes recently started a new initiative around regenerative ag. I appreciate that they are thinking holistically about their own supply chain and the ways they can incentivize the farmers they employ to use more sustainable soil health practices. They recognize the power they have within their own network of farmers to make changes across a huge geographic area, which I think is unique.

Their initiative makes me curious about the possibility for more partnerships across the food system. What if a large corporation could subsidize farmers to purchase regionally grown seeds from collectives like North Circle Seeds? How could that affect sustainability? Some things will fail no matter what with climate change, but there could be greater overall resilience with farmers using regionally adapted seeds because they can withstand some pressures that other seeds can’t.

What seeds are your sowing in your own career through the IFSL program?

One of the coolest parts about the IFSL program is that it’s exposing me to a whole different side of the food system that I couldn’t have possibly learned working on a farm or for a small nonprofit, which have been professional aspirations of mine in the past. I truly believe in the power of diversity to make things stronger in the face of disruption, and IFSL is preparing me to move forward with a bigger, more diverse network. My own professional resilience will come from being able to draw on all of these different stakeholders and knowing that we’re all in this together. If our end goals are the same, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be part of the same network.

February is a good time to buy seeds in the Upper Midwest. Any tips for first-time gardeners from your time with North Circle Seeds?

The most practical thing I’ve taken away is that buying regionally adapted seed matters. You’re just going to get more bang for your buck because the seeds have been bred to thrive in your local climate.

People have been growing seeds in Northern Minnesota for years and years, saving them, and selecting for the best flavor; for vigor. Those seeds are resilient. When you grow these seeds, they’ll do much better in our climate than seeds grown in California, for example, because they are adapted to sustainable growing conditions and our shorter growing season. 


Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) Program

Designed for working professionals, the IFSL program is an exciting graduate certificate program that fosters leadership, collaboration, and innovation across the food system. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Learn more. 

For more information about the University of Minnesota’s IFSL Program, visit https://ifsl.umn.edu. IFSL Program applications are accepted on a rolling basis for the next cohort. Download a program brochure or schedule a consultation call for more information.