Afton Clarke-Sather, assistant professor of geography
As a boy, Afton Clarke-Sather spent his summers tagging along with his mother to remote parts of Minnesota where she was conducting field research on plants. Observing the activities at surrounding farms led to his curiosity from a young age about how rural societies work — and interact with the land.
“Agriculture was my introduction to a lot of environmental issues,” he said.
Clarke-Sather later pursued his interest by studying insular communities in Michigan and China and the environmental choices that affect them. In joining UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment this fall as an assistant professor of geography, he brings a social science perspective to issues related to land and water use.
A Minneapolis native, Clarke-Sather attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and graduated with honors in 2004. The following year, he taught English in the city of Xi’an in northwest China and was struck the sheer numbers of people there.
“It was kind of a shock,” he said, noting that there are agrarian villages with populations of 100,000. “I had never seen so many people in one place.”
Clarke-Sather returned to the United States and pursued graduate studies in Michigan with his wife, earning a master’s of science in environmental policy from Michigan Technological University in 2007. His thesis was on local community responses to an Upper Peninsula paper company selling off large land holdings that it had owned for more than a century.
Yet his experience in China eventually steered his research toward that part of the world. Clarke-Sather studied the political ecology and geography of China in his doctoral work at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
His dissertation project took him back to the country, this time to Lanzhou in the Gansu province, just west of the historically agricultural Loess Plateau. Typical crops there have been wheat, millet, legumes and flaxseed, but the semiarid region has high seasonal variability with little water in early spring. Clarke-Sather interviewed farmers and found a transition to potato planting since the crop needs little water late in the season, indicating a shift to commercial agriculture from a traditional of a grow-what-you-eat approach.
Clarke-Sather’s work in China has also focused on drinking water. People around Lanzhou were reluctant to sign up for publicly provided drinking water through pipes, instead of using water stored in their own underground cisterns. Clarke-Sather examined the decisions at play in why residents chose to stick with their familiar water source.
While conducting research in China from 2009 to 2012, Clarke-Sather was a visiting scholar in the Scientific Information Center for Environment and Resources at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and he continues that affiliation. He plans to return to the country for research, but is also beginning to scout research projects here in Delaware. Possible topics are land ownership change, ex-urbanization, and increased irrigation use downstate, he said. As part of the Department of Geography, he looks forward to discussing related issues with his new colleagues.
“This is a program that has a lot of other faculty working on questions of climate and water,” he said.