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Ag Econ professor's life melds academics with art and politics

Date: 03/04/2013

Walk into Connie Falk's faculty office and you will be struck by its fullness.

Connie Falk holds one of her quilted creations.
Connie Falk has been at NMSU for almost 25 years as a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business. A full professor since 2001, she is also the inaugural holder of the M. Eugene Sundt Honors Professorship through the NMSU Honors College.

It's not just the number of books, videos and DVDs on the shelves, the stacks of papers on the desk, and the various objects tacked on bulletin boards, hung on walls and taped to filing cabinet doors - it's the intellectual content, the messages, the full mix of the academic with the social/political and the artistic, three elements that provide fullness and meaning in Falk's life.

She has been at NMSU for almost 25 years as a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business. A full professor since 2001, she is also the inaugural holder of the M. Eugene Sundt Honors Professorship through the NMSU Honors College, a two-year appointment that will pass to some other faculty member later this year.

According to Honors College Dean William Eamon, "The M. Eugene Sundt Professorship in the Honors College has two aims: to support the development of exceptional and innovative teaching ideas and to foster unique, experience-based classes in the Honors College and the curriculum at large."

Falk had a track record of innovative teaching and experience-based classes long before the Sundt Professorship was established. The fact that they have typically incorporated some combination of organic and sustainable and community-assisted agriculture can be traced back at least to her 1982-85 stint in the Peace Corps, sandwiched between her M.B.A. and Ph.D. programs.

The OASIS class was a prime example, and one that she doesn't even hesitate to identify as her "absolute favorite experience" at NMSU. She developed and taught the class with colleagues in what is now the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

OASIS was an acronym for "Organic Agriculture Students Inspiring Sustainability," and it was taught twice yearly from 2002-2006. It filled a "wider world" graduation requirement, was offered as an honors course and attracted students from all majors.

The course included the operation of an actual campus-based farming enterprise that she describes as a "community-supported agriculture project." It involved community members buying memberships in the farm, which entitled them to share weekly in the yield of fresh, organic vegetables, herbs and flowers.

"We grew about 20,000 pounds a year, averaging about 120 different cultivars," she said. "We fed usually about 70 families for the 33-week growing season with abundant produce, and it was a very popular project on the campus with the students and the community."

The class was initially funded by a three-year national Hispanic-Serving Institutions grant. Other funds kept the OASIS class alive for an additional two years before the course was discontinued.

But a group of students interested in establishing a sustainability club asked for permission to adopt the acronym, and OASIS is now Organization of Aggie Students Inspiring Sustainability.

The group organizes a sustainability film series every fall and is currently planning its sixth city-wide Earth Day event for Young Park. Falk has been one of the group's faculty advisers since its inception.

Another highlight of her teaching career, dating back to about 1995, has been teaching Ag Econ 380, which she has approached as a sustainable development class involving a spring break international study tour. Her Peace Corps experience was in Honduras, and she has chosen to take students southward, to Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Puerto Rico.

In 2012, she taught the class as the M. Eugene Sundt seminar, taking 14 students to Nicaragua. The students read a textbook on the concept of resilience prior to visiting various enterprises, which included a shoe factory, a ceramics workshop, a coffee production co-op, an ecological paper project and a cigar factory. They also participated, with Nicaraguan students, in a sustainability forum where they traded information about sustainability initiatives at their respective campuses.

"The students were able to use the resilience framework to understand the challenges of development in the face of changes that are going on globally," Falk said.

This spring, she volunteered to teach a second Sundt seminar, "Climate Change: Science, Policy and Politics." Later in the semester, she and the students will incorporate everything they have learned into a series of presentations at a local high school.

"I think that's going to be a really exciting opportunity for the students, to figure out how they can make climate change understandable to high-schoolers and present it in such a way that it's convincing and credible and meets the needs of that audience."

Falk's undergraduate degree was in English, and she is a lover of poetry, as well as the arts more broadly. During her time at NMSU she has taken advantage of course offerings in poetry, photography, drawing and painting. She has been quilting for about 10 years and, more recently, has taken up jewelry - specifically making earrings. Selling earrings is on her list of possible retirement options.

She also continues to paint, and many of her paintings are taken from the rich set of photographic images she has acquired during her various academic projects. Her painting activities will undoubtedly expand when she retires to Farmington at the end of this year, although she is somewhat noncommittal about the possible details of this next phase.

"One thing about retirement, from my perspective, is that I feel great joy in not having really firm plans, but am open to possibilities," she said. "That is one of the reasons to retire, to reinvent yourself and find a different path."

Written by Jay Rodman

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