Cross-country check-up

A former staff member turned scholar focuses on food supply

by Bruce Mason
Staff writer

It's a 48-hour drive from Terry Rolfe's two-acre model farm in White Rock to the American Midwest's Great Plains where she is studying the security of the world's food supply. The vast imposing sky and the immense scale of food production in one of the planet's major bread baskets fills the horizon during the last stretch from Winnipeg to Fargo, N.D.

In the distance is the big picture that prompted UBC's former treasurer and current UBC graduate student to return to the world of study and research.

On five occasions this year she has driven from the West Coast to the Midwest in search of a balanced view.

She wants to match the global prospects of the region with her concern that the transition deemed essential for economic viability has the potential to destabilize prairie life and culture. Personal contact with small farm communities is critical to her understanding.

This spring, she earned a Fulbright scholarship and the opportunity she wanted -- to literally study in the field. The U.S.-Canadian scholarship arrangement allows her to relocate to the Midwest where she is gathering first-hand insights into economic activity and life in the transborder Red River region.

"I'm working with agricultural historians, natural resource managers, agrologists, and obliging farmers," she says. "I share their concerns about the sustainability of modern practices and I've grabbed a snapshot of activity in the region."

Rolfe credits the interdisciplinary focus of the Faculty of Graduate Studies' Resource Management and Environmental Studies program for giving her the mindset and point of view needed to appreciate the complexity of the problems she is studying.

Prairie production remains highly dependent on export markets. Globalization is pressuring it to become even more responsive, while retaining what she calls "critical resiliency."

"Our ability to produce enough food in the future is an increasingly important issue and the Great Plains are essential," says Rolfe, who served as UBC's treasurer from 1986 to 1989. "Globalization is having a profound impact on the production of food and there are major risks involved in re-thinking agricultural production and infrastructure."

Leaving behind a rewarding administrative job with what she describes as "the fine, professional team in the university's Treasury Department" was a difficult step in a life driven by learning.

"I wanted to recapture a big picture view and contribute to humanitarian research, particularly in the area of agricultural trade and food security," she says.

She studied economic policy while earning a Master of Public Administration at the University of Victoria in 1986 and in 1995 followed that with a UBC Master of Science degree which focused on agricultural economics.

"I concluded that the popular analytical approach often overlooks pragmatic details revealed when crossing from applied science to the humanities," she says.

She chooses to remain sensitive to grounded folk narratives, myths and other expressions of beliefs, such as the prevalent prairie point of view that there are "too many mistakes, too many roads and too many towns."

"Brilliant and curious, committed and dedicated," is how her former UBC boss, Terry Sumner, vice-president, Administration and Finance, describes Rolfe.

Her responsibilities as UBC treasurer included overseeing an externally managed pension portfolio, internal daily cash management of about $150 million, capital financing, leases and risk management.

While expanding her educational horizons she also assumed the responsibility of raising a family. Husband, Wayne, and sons Corbin and Brendan have been resourceful and supportive, she says.

Rolfe's commitment to experimenting with sustainable practices began in her own backyard. The size of the family's farm approximates the average global household allocation of arable land. A woodlot, protected fisheries stream, garden, orchard, and livestock paddocks -- where she raises horses for equestrian competition -- provide what she describes as a "permaculture profile."

"I'm well aware of the challenges of trying to manage adequate protein production in a sensitive environmental setting," she says.

While continuing her studies full- and part-time, Rolfe worked one term as a UBC teaching assistant and later as a college professor in Kwantlen College's English and Communications faculty.

She credits her success in large part to the mentoring of UBC academics who generously shared their advice and experience. She cites Medical Genetics Prof. Patricia Baird, Political Science Prof. Mark Zacher, Electrical and Computing Engineering Prof. Emeritus K. D. Srivastava, Soil Science Prof. Les Lavkulich, Commerce and Business Administration Prof. William Stanbury and Graduate Studies Dean Frieda Granot as examples.

Senior Fulbright Agricultural History Prof. Tom Isern at North Dakota State University, her current mentor, helps make her innovative research possible.

Switching hats from daily technical writing instruction to differential calculus, to consulting on various government-funded environmental projects, was one of her biggest challenges.

"What kept me on track was being drawn by a common thread that runs through my life's work -- the intersection of economic and environmental policy," she says. "That intersection has led to my current research and some interesting speaking opportunities abroad."

Last fall she spoke at a global issues conference in Genoa, Italy, on "The Reconciliation of Economics and Ecology to Address Global Issues." Earlier this year, she delivered a paper on "International Food Security: Prospects for the North American Great Plains Region" at major North American conferences in Texas and Toronto.

Past Fulbright winners include former UN secretary general Boutros Ghali, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, writers Joseph Heller and John Updike and playwright Eugene Ionesco.

The Canada-U.S. scholarship program identifies the best scholars in each country and engages them in exchanges to expand research, teaching and study of the relationship between the two countries. Rolfe's award is supported by the Manitoba Dept. of Industry, Trade and Tourism, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The challenges of operating a farm, raising a family and working, often far from home, sometimes seem overwhelming. But Rolfe encourages others, particularly women, to pursue the enrichment offered by higher education.

"There's nothing like it", she says, "to give you real opportunities to expand your horizons to include the big picture and enlarge your ability to make a difference on a larger scale."