Green Mountain College Sets the Standard for Low-Carbon Farming

Students farming with oxen at Green Mountain College in Vermont“He’s happy who, far away from business, like the races of men of old, tills his ancestral fields with his own oxen, unbound by any interest to pay.” — Horace

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.

Yes… oxen.

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.

Are you aware of other college or university agriculture programs doing innovative work to teach the connections between how we eat and our environmental impact? Please share!

  1. david

    great article jeff! i grew up in new hampshire, right across the river from brattleboro, vermont. vermont has always held a special place in my heart. you can’t beat the small vermont towns and local farms. in ’99, i backpacked the long trail, the 270 mile trail that starts at the VT/MA border and ends at the candian border. if i ever moved back to the east coast, vermont is where i’d lay my head. last i knew vermont didn’t have any walmarts, do you know if that is still the case (hopefully yes)?

  2. Bobby B.

    Did someone replace Earth with Bizarro World? The environmental movement’s membership has always included the children of the drug-induced enlightenment, big government progressives and liberals, anti-capitalistic socialists, opportunistic scientists, free loving pro-abortionists, anti-religious zealots, anti-censorship free speechers, animal rights worshippers, and a whole host of other left leaners. Now, these forward thinkers long to go backwards in time? Would not returning to a simpler time and maintaining any sort of status quo be considered CONSERVATIVE? How does one remain anti-conservative while weaving self-sufficiency and independence into the green ideology?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read “Reader’s Digest: Back to Basics” a couple of times and have nothing but the utmost respect for those who possess the pre-industrial skills. However, offering such courses at a liberal arts college just seems too anti-anti-establishment to be believable. What will GMC offer next? Maybe the next semester includes courses in sewing and wearing bland clothing, attending church regularly, avoiding divorce, raising responsible children, hunting, fishing, and other traditional topics.

  3. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Wow, Bob, you surprised me here… I honestly thought you’d be critical of the approach of taking a step backwards… “See… you guys want to take us back to the 19th-century.”

    But this kind of thinking has always had its place in the environmental movement — remember that part of the 60s-era counterculture was the back-to-the-land movement which picked up these traditional skills and ways of living. I’m a proud subscriber to Mother Earth News, as are many folks I know, and if you head over to Crafting a Green World, you’ll see that other “traditional skills” are alive and well. I think the concept of self-sufficiency, living in harmony with nature, etc., has a real appeal for many of us. Ultimately, I don’t think you put environmentalists into these kinds of buckets any more than you can conservatives. You ought to check out Garbage Warrior to see just how well “green” and self-sufficiency can go together…

    I plan to start a garden next year (tried some plants this year, but didn’t have much success)… want to come and help? 😉 Or head over to my parent’s house, since they’re much closer: Dad’s got his own little farm going in the back yard…

  4. Bobby B.

    I could probably accept many steps backwards with regards to social and economic policies, but would cringe at the thought of a systemic step backwards technologically. Even though many blame technology for the conceived perilous state of the world, technology has directly added to the human lifespan. I searched “average lifespan by century” and learned that in 1796, life expectancy hovered around 24 years. A hundred years later it had doubled to 48. Today, Japan has the longest average life-expectancy of 80 years, whereas a baby born today in the United States can expect to live to 77. The increase in lifespan directly parallels the introduction and progression of the industrial revolution. Clean running water, waste treatment, electrification, refrigeration, and a whole host of other technological advances can be given credit for not only improving the quantity of life, but the quality as well.

    My parents were born in 1930. The stories they told of digging, using, filling, and relocating outhouses made me continually thankful for modern sewerage. Their vivid descriptions of cutting away the green, rotten flesh from meats in the smokehouse to get to the “good stuff” still makes my stomach turn. They lived through some difficult times and grew to appreciate the world that their generation had created for future generations.

    Now, I was not aware that there was a “60s-era counterculture” that included a “back-to-the-land movement which picked up these traditional skills and ways of living”. The history reels and texts tend to focus on Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights (abortion), hippies, drugs, protests, free love, anti-religion, etc. and so forth. Colleges and universities still relish in those aspects of the 1960’s, because a considerable segment of that generation dominates their tenured staffs. Although my initial comments were meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, it does seem odd that a liberal arts school of higher learning would be teaching skills from a time period when God reigned supreme and society limited provocative behavior.

    Lastly, I am too busy to assist you or your dad with your respective gardens. I also lack the skills of a Mr. Green Jeans (remember him?). As far as your recent lack of success, I remember that my parents had mixed results with our gardens back in the day. If I remember correctly, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and snap beans require little effort to get a respectable yield. Everything else they tried required considerable TLC to get anything edible. Good luck!

  5. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    @bobby — my Dad was born in the 40s, but has many similar stories: my grandparents built their own house (and by that, I mean cut their own lumber, dug out the basement with horses, etc.), and they didn’t have indoor plumbing until Dad was around 10 years old. Raised a lot of their own food — he told me that store-bought bread was a real treat because they hardly ever had it. They butchered animals they raised, hunted, fished, canned fruits and vegetables from the garden

    I figured you were being tongue-in-cheek, but don’t lump liberal arts colleges into a single bucket… they’re as varied as any other institution. And while I understand how you’re connecting these traditional behaviors with more traditional attitudes on social issues, I don’t think they necessarily go hand-in-hand… the back-to-the-land crowd in the 60s wasn’t generally pushing for traditional social behaviors as you define them. The other aspects were there, too, but these folks’ approach (as I understand it) was focused on trying to simplify, and reject what they saw as the negative aspects of modern culture. Religion/faith/spirituality often played a role in these decisions (as they did in other aspects of 60s counterculture). I’m not defending all behavior from that period, or the way those behaviors and mindsets are often taught — I do think the serious questioning of standards and traditions was valuable for us as a country, though. I think that’s a big part of what a program like Green Mountain College’s is doing…

  6. Bobby B.

    I was not defining traditional social behaviors. I was simply contrasting the standards from the pre-1960’s, the 1960’s, and the post-1960’s; as they are taught to those of us who have succeeded the cultural shift. You know that you and I would likely view the benefits and burdens that grew out of that generation’s “questioning of standards and traditions” through different lenses; agreeing on some issues but not on others.

    Now, I am still having some difficulties correlating GMC’s sustainability program – that teaches the skills of our parents and grandparents – with modern environmentalism. This school is actually teaching that it’s okay to farm and use animals (even slaughtering them) for mankind’s benefit. When you consider the actions and statements of noteworthy environmental groups like PETA, ALF, ELF, Greenpeace, Earth First, The Sierra Club, etc., much of environmentalism seems to shun the idea that the lands and the beasts are commodities to be used (even responsibly) by mankind. If you couple that with the population doom-and-gloomers culture of death, you should be able to see why I view this educational endeavor somewhat suspiciously.

  7. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Well, honestly, I think you’re putting us all into a single bucket… the list of organizations you list shows a remarkable variation in approaches to environmental issues. I don’t know that I’d call PETA an “environmental organization,” as they’re focused strictly on animal welfare issues. ALF and ELF aren’t mainstream in any sense, and I can’t think of anyone I know who approves of their tactics. Earth First is definitely radical, but not destructive. Greenpeace is action-oriented and activist in nature, but also does a lot of good work in terms of creating solid educational information. And the Sierra Club’s the most traditional of the groups you list: policy and conservation-focused, works through established channels, etc… I’m reading a new book by them that’s a collection of religious essays by faith leaders from around the world.

    All of this is a way of saying that I think the difficulties you’re experiencing come from lumping us all into one pile. But there’s a lot of variety of opinion and even ideology with the “environmentalist” umbrella. What GMC is doing certainly fits… but so does Greenpeace’s activism, the Sierra Club’s policy work, Earth Policy Institute’s more academic approach, and Environmental Defense Fund’s main focus on working with the business community. Opinions on the role of animals are just as varied… you won’t much support for industrial-style animal agriculture, but whether eating animals, using them for work, etc., is appropriate, ethical, etc., is very much under debate. GMC butchers animals it raises, and also has a class that deals with the ethics of animal agriculture that seems critical of such practices (I’m just interpreting the course description).

  8. Bobby B.

    With regards to the lumping all greens into a “single bucket”, I may be caught in a “Prelutsky Loop” and unable (or unwilling) to separate the wheat from the chaff. For a more detailed explanation, put the “www.” in front of the following URL:


    I would think that the advancement of any ideology would be difficult when the majority of said ideology refuses to publicly condemn the actions of its fringe minorities. I am still amazed that the modern church continues to receive disdain for the sins it inherited from religion’s dark periods (Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, etc.); especially when most of its crimes were “christian” on Christian. I am even more amazed when segments of society seek to implement political systems patterned after those of Stalin, Mao, and/or Hitler. You would think that their crimes – which far eclipse those committed in the name of religion – would discredit the acceptance of any of the beliefs that they held dear.

    When you say “ALF and ELF aren’t mainstream in any sense, and I can’t think of anyone I know who approves of their tactics” there is evidence to the contrary. PETA through funding provided by the Pond Foundation and the Helen Brach Foundation helped pay legal fees for ALF members (freerepublic.com/focus/news/652973/posts). ELF sprung from Earth First! and EF! still maintains some complimentary articles about ELF on one of their websites (earthfirstjournal.org/article.php?id=64). I could site countless examples that tie the mainstream greens to the fringe greens, but that would avail little. In my business we have a saying, “You’re only as valuable as your last mistake, because that will forever define most people’s perception of your capabilities.” Your efforts and those of other mainstream greens to overcome the damage caused by environmentalism’s fringe movements must seem daunting at times.

  9. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    I (and others like me) don’t try to overcome that damage… I can’t. I can only say I disagree with it, and move on. I wouldn’t expect you to try to overcome the damage caused by abortion clinic bombers just because you’re pro-life; rather, I recognize that there are fringe elements that don’t represent the larger movement.

  10. Bobby B.

    You may not expect me to overcome the actions of the abortion clinic bombers, but the media and the pro-abortion groups do attempt to label every pro-lifer based upon the actions of those few criminals. They disregard the fact that mainstream pro-lifers have little sympathy for those who commit such heinous crimes. Pro-lifers generally agree that abortion clinic bombers deserve the most severe sentences that the courts can levy. You would also be hard pressed to find many pro-lifers who submit to the “by any means necessary” code.

    Conversely, the few examples that I cited earlier do show that there exists a sympathetic attitude in some “mainstream” environmental circles for eco-criminals. I was surprised at how many of the stories and comments regarding eco-terrorism on the environmental websites focused on the nobleness of these misguided individuals and the belief that law enforcement had somehow goaded them into such extreme actions. There were very few statements condemning their actions or calling for justice to be served.

    All that being said, I was not trying to imply that you or any other individual were sympathetic to the green fringe. Merry Christmas!

  11. Miriam Weinstein

    Great to see. Sterling College, a wonderful and tiny institution in VT has long worked with draft horses, and Warren Wilson College in NC also has a team of draft horses used for sustainable forestry on the campus.
    And on the mention above of the word “conservative” yes – did you not notice CONSERVATION includes being conservative? Destroying the planet is radical, living sustainably is being truly conservative.

  12. catdaddio42

    An astonishing article in munerous ways. 30 students at $12,500 tuition each is an absurdly “unsustainable” input. I hope they learn that this type of farming will not come close to feeding the village let alone the world and to appreciate the efficiency and wonder of modern agriculture. How many National Merit scholars does it take to plow a field with horses and oxen?

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