Modern agriculture is completely dependent on fossil fuels, from gasoline to run machinery and transport harvests to natural gas to produce chemical fertilizers. While numerous colleges and universities have introduced programs in organic and sustainable farming to their agricultural curriculum, few schools have gone as far as Vermont’s Green Mountain College in trying to lighten agriculture’s carbon footprint.
Organic fertilizers and biofuels in the tractors may be enough for some schools; GMC went a few steps further and introduced oxen into the College’s Cerridwen Farm operations this year.
According to farm manager Dr. Ken Mulder, the oxen are just one element of an intensive “hands on” education Green Mountain students can receive through working on the 30-acre farm:
I think you would be hard pressed to find another liberal arts college at which students are learning how to drive oxen, organically grow thirty different kinds of fruits and vegetables, raise heritage breeds of livestock and poultry, harvest hay without tractors or diesel fuel, manage an off-the-grid greenhouse, butcher sheep, pigs and chickens, build high-tensile fencing, shear sheep, and produce their own honey, apple cider, pickles, eggs and (soon) milk.
While not the curricular activities generally associated with a liberal arts education, GMC views work on the farm as central to teaching students about sustainability. Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Ackerman-Leist, director of the campus’ “Food and Farm Project,” claims that having students work on the farm (which produces some of the food consumed in the campus dining hall) makes sustainability real for students: “The GMC Farm & Food Project is our way of ensuring that the centrality of food permeates virtually every aspect of our campus. The college farm makes it all real and gives everyone a chance to experience the challenges of farming.”
While not all of the College’s students work on the farm, it’s clear that issues related to local food and agriculture permeate the campus.The campus dining hall, run by corporate food service provider Chartwells, sources 13% of its food locally. The farm itself plays a role in courses on topics ranging from ethics to public policy to watershed management. And the Food and Farm Project hosts the Family Farm Forum, “an annual series of talks and open discussions that include farmers and agriculture experts from the community, and scholars from Green Mountain College and other educational, government and non-profit organizations throughout Vermont and the country.”
While educating GMC students and increasing farm yield top Ackerman-Leist’s list of priorities, he’s also determined to show that local food sourcing can work on any college campus: as he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in September, “If it can work here, it can work everywhere.”
Now, that’s a lesson that needs teaching… perhaps we need to start insisting all college students read Horace.