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GMC announces new sustainable ag major

Look for muck boots, calloused hands and dirty fingernails next fall at Green Mountain College (GMC) when this Poultney educational landmark launches a new major called Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production.

The new major leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree grew out of and is an expanded version of a major concentration in environmental studies.

“Students who graduate with ‘studies in sustainable agriculture and food production’ stamped on their diplomas will have an edge on the job market,” said Kevin Coburn, GMC’s spokesperson.

As in traditional agriculture programs, students will learn about agricultural practices and systems.

“They’ll also learn how to be part of the current food revolution that is transforming farming and how we view food,” said Philip Ackerman-Leist, associate professor of environmental studies and director of the GMC Farm & Food Project.

The Farm & Food Project focuses on how to minimize the use of fossil fuels in running the on-premises Cerridwen Farm that will be the new major’s hands-on, 22-acre laboratory. Many courses will be held in traditional classrooms around campus. Students in this major will also spend a lot of time on the farm and in the Solar Harvest Center, a residential home near the barn purchased by the college last year. It has been converted to office and classroom space.

Kenneth Mulder is a faculty teammate who will help guide students through the complexities of agriculture to an understanding of the economics of small-scale, diverse agriculture. He is farm manger and a research associate who holds a doctoral degree in ecological economics.

“Kenneth and I both are trying to bring economic questions to the fore for the students,” said Ackerman-Leist. “We will test out efficiencies; figure out how to utilize hand tools and how far you can actually take human labor to replace traditional fossil-fuel mechanization.” He explained that hand-wrought growing models can include various bed systems, greenhouse and high-tunnel productions.

Also involved in the new major is Lucas Brown who is on the environmental-studies faculty as an architect specializing in eco-design and renewable energy. Among his projects is determining the economic efficiencies and paybacks of solar thermal by replicating plantings in two side-by-side high tunnels, one unheated and the other equipped with root zone heating. This is radiant heat hooked up to a solar thermal system leading to tubing running about 12 inches underground. At issue are the possibilities of season extension in the Northeast.

The farm, which has grown exponentially from one-half acre in the early-1990s when Ackerman-Leist initiated it, has always drawn some students who want to experiment and invest themselves in creating a farm, said Ackerman-Leist.

“This is a place for experimentation. It’s not a highly subsidized operation from the college perspective; rather it’s a benefit we can subsidize with volunteer labor and work-study positions. We have about 50 or 60 students who are constantly showing up and our e-mail list for farm crew is over 100 students,” he added.

Receiving curriculum attention will be, among other subjects, vegetable and livestock production, draft animals and renewable-energy systems including passive solar greenhouse, off-grid solar and wind turbine systems.

True to GMC’s curriculum agenda, by the time students return in early fall, the program will have a full spectrum of renewable-energy technologies to be applied to the new major.

Ackerman-Leist underscored that utilization of renewable energy technologies isn’t to “romanticize” them but to learn how to adapt them to an agricultural setting, and then, how to live with their economic and other realities and constraints.

Seasonal fruits of students’ studies and labors will be root-cellar bound, marketed to local community-supported agriculture groups and served in the campus dining hall.

Another faculty member, Eleanor Tison, an anthropologist by training, teaches a course in food preservation that examines this subject’s historical and cultural paths. Another course examines regional food systems.

As a result of integrating agriculture with liberal arts, science and economics, Acerkman-Leist said there will be a tension between theory and practice, and a “richer discussion here than there might be elsewhere. We’re lucky to have the college farm literally beside the college library. The pieces come together here.”

He underscored that in addition to being “incredibly lucky, we have a faculty here of folks who aren’t elitist. And we’re privileged to watch students find a work ethic. Our students are particularly curious and passionate. The biggest joy is seeing them come across in their rubber boots at 6 a.m.”

Founded in 1834, Green Mountain College is a private, four-year liberal-arts institution that takes the environment as a unifying theme across the curriculum. The college now offers 22 academic majors.

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