Circle project summary

Circle Project Description
Inclusive inquiries of production and consumption conundrums  for emerging policies to improve food systems in Ontario

Ralph C Martin, Jennifer Ball, Rod MacRae and Don Mills


Conundrums related to agriculture and food policy change often entail entrenched positions which restrict our ability to solve pressing food system problems related to economic viability, the environment and population health. Moving forward to meet conflicting purposes of many actors is difficult. Our key objective is to identify new solutions to pressing food system problems. The project will include two separate day-long workshops, held at a monthly interval. Each workshop will address a conundrum pertaining to the agri-food system in Ontario. About 20 people representing different parts of the value chain and agri-food sector will attend each workshop. The format of workshops will follow a Circle protocol in plenary and small groups, to discuss invited papers and probe values and insights of participants. They will be selected for their interest, knowledge and involvement pertaining to each conundrum. After they listen and speak in a structured space, designed for exploration and attentive communication, we expect new ongoing working relationships leading to creative, profitable and sustainable policies and practices. Participants and their contacts will have options to contribute to our developing webpage on the basis of respect for different approaches and interests and an eye for creative resolutions, not yet recognized.

To identify new solutions to pressing food system problems
To discuss conundrums of the agri-food sector with facilitation, such that attendees with conflicting approaches can listen and speak in a structured space, designed for exploration and attentive communication.
To form working relationships between workshop attendees such that they can approach conundrums, whether discussed at the workshop or not, in an ongoing way that will lead to creative, profitable and sustainable policies and practices.
To engage new contacts of each workshop participant in working relationships with one or more workshop participants or encourage new contacts to contribute to the developing website and to also engage others within their organizations and across the value chain.
To encourage people to discuss difficult issues and conundrums in the agri-food sector on social media, during face to face conversations and in meetings and documents with a respect for different approaches and interests and an eye for creative resolutions, not yet recognized
To assess the efficacy of the circle methodology to reveal nuances and facilitate collaborative action while knowledge and exchange of research ideas is enhanced among knowledge users in areas where pre-existing positions may otherwise limit meaningful dialogue and sharing.

The problem of farming ecologically, with social license to intervene as required to sustain soil health, sufficient biodiversity in the landscape and resilience to climate change perturbations may result in lower production and higher priced food. There is a question of who pays for improved management. On the consumption side of sustaining healthy food, at least 10% of people in Ontario cannot afford sufficient food, whether healthy or not, and many people have limited food skills and lack of knowledge about how to manage household food.

The project will include three separate workshops, at the University of Guelph. The first day-long workshop will be held in September 2017 with a subsequent day-long workshop in November, 2017.

The main issue and overall question will be addressed in a Circle discussion at the first two workshops. “What are the policy options for the agri-food sector to meet public social license expectations and to produce adequate, healthy food to address food security needs, while adapting to climate change?”

The third workshop will be held in late March, 2018 after our attendees have attended regular winter meetings. They will be asked about their experience of what they will have noticed about their own understanding and quality of communication and how they will have perceived others to understand and communicate at farm meetings in late 2017 and early 2018, contrasted with such winter meetings in previous years.

About 24 people representing different parts of the value chain and agri-food sector will be invited to each workshop. They will be provided with 3 short papers and the researchers will provide each participant with academic research as well.

At the beginning of the first workshop and the end of the second and third workshops a survey of questions will be given to each participant to assess whether the same questions are answered differently before and after working within a circle discussion process and after observing regular winter meetings.

After each of the workshops participants will be surveyed by email. An example of a question is “How did your point of view (identify a specific one) shift or change (even slightly) as a result of the circle discussion?”

Each workshop will be facilitated by Ball and will follow the protocol described in Ball et al. (2010) as a series of Circle discussions in plenary and in small groups, to discuss the papers and probe values and insights of participants. The participants from across the value chain will be selected for their interest, knowledge and involvement pertaining to each conundrum.

Original documents and positions will be posted but with links to comments about how there may be options to resolve previously oppositional stances. The email check-ins will provide prompts for participants to share literature and informal documentation obtained between workshops and are expected to reveal advances that might not have occurred without the workshop  experience.

Circle is a dialogue process that is being used in a wide variety of contexts - in communities, organizations, and at corporate levels - to facilitate meaningful and potentially transformative conversations, toward such diverse goals as teambuilding, strategic planning, resolving disputes or conflicts, generating deeper understanding of issues, and decision making (Ball et al. 2010; Baldwin & Linnea, 2010; Fitzgerald, 2006). The Circle process is indigenous in origin but has been combined with contemporary concepts of democracy and inclusion in response to current diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-sectoral societies (Ball et al. 2010; Pranis, 2005). It is a structured form of group discussion that employs a talking piece, passed around the group to ensure each person has opportunity to speak. This process includes shared values and guidelines established by the group. Such a frame and process creates the space for a level of speaking, listening, and reflection that enables a group to tap into its collective wisdom through hearing participants’ knowledge and experience. Circle is based on the premise that no one person or player in a sector has the whole picture but that it is through sharing individual perspectives that it becomes possible to come closer to the complete picture (Pranis, 2005). Through the Circle process, networks of connection develop, on-the-ground experience can be shared, controversial issues raised and discussed, innovative ideas explored, and opportunities for new initiatives or collaboration considered. It is expected that participants with clearly different viewpoints and stakes in the value chain will speak and hear each other in a way that is not usually possible. The effectiveness of the circle dialogue process will be documented on our website for those who wish to use the same process with similarly controversial meetings of stakeholders, holding different interests.


Ball, J., W. Caldwell & K. Pranis. (2010). Doing Democracy with Circles: Engaging Communities in Public Planning. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press.

Baldwin, C., A. Linnea. (2010). The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair. San Fransisco: Berrett-Koehler. Fitzgerald, M. (2006). Corporate Circles: Transforming Conflict and Building Trusting Teams. Vancouver, BC: Quinn Publishing.

Pranis, K. (2005). The Little Book of Circle Processes: A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.