Cultivating Responsibility: Liberal Arts Schools’ Contribution to Sustainable Agriculture

Students at Green Mountain College use oxen for tilling to reduce the carbon load of the farm and learn animal husbandry. (Green Mountain College)
Gordon Jones is majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Agriculture. As he speaks, a handsaw growls in the background while a student repairs an ax handle. From his perch in the Swannanoa Valley of the Appalachian Mountains, he looks down on students fixing fence. A dairy cow grazes in one pasture, while others are green with rotating crops of organic corn, oats and barley.

Agricultural degrees have existed in large state schools for decades. Now, however, liberal arts institutions such as Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont and the University of Montana in Missoula, are demonstrating a new kind of program that gets students’ hands dirty through sustainable, curriculum-oriented campus farms and gardens. Their interdisciplinary course load runs the gamut from ecology, soil science and entomology to biodiversity, watershed management and nutrition. Beyond organics they are tilling with draft animals, raising bees, fertilizing with manure and building greenhouses run on solar and wind. Their produce, beef, pork, poultry and eggs are then sold to campus dining halls that in turn collect food scraps for composting. In addition to practical agricultural knowledge, students are graduating as leaders with a strong sense of stewardship, community and environmental ethics.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated in 2007 that agriculture was responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gases emitted in the United States.  Jeff Schahczenski and Holly Hill in “Agriculture, Climate Change and Carbon Sequestration (PDF),” published by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, note that the primary sources of greenhouse gases in agriculture are the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers, the combustion of fossil fuels, and waste management: agricultural ills that undergraduate programs in sustainable agriculture are actively addressing.

The Cerridwen Farm is at the heart of education at Green Mountain College. Heritage breeds of livestock and poultry pasture on ten acres. Seven produce hay. The greenhouse is solar- and wind-powered. The farm produces its own honey, apple cider, pickles and eggs. The students have a goal of generating $40,000 on their two acres, one of which is already producing 30 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables. Tilling with oxen not only eliminates the need for fossil fuels at the farm, but engages the students in hands-on studies of animal behavior and metabolism as well as pasture management and physics. In addition to animal husbandry, students are involved in everything from shearing to butchering to weeding.

Courses such as organic waste management and plant biology use the 21-acre farm as a living laboratory and the school is creating a summer intensive to really dig into the dirt. They sell 20% of their produce, chicken, meat and pork to the school’s dining hall, maintain a farm stand on campus, and are a participant in a local farmer’s market. As a functioning Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, the students have a genuine responsibility to its members to deliver a quality product.

Students at the 10-acre PEAS farm (Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) with the University of Montana also have a real responsibility. Their over 20,000 pounds of organic produce is given to the Missoula Food Bank, helping to offset the needs of the 20% of Missoulians who live in poverty due to the high cost of living coupled with low wages of the area. The food bank served 5,000 clients per month in 2008, an increase of 23% from 2007.  The farm therefore addresses the even deeper issues of food insecurity and hunger.

“The work is very real,” says Josh Slotnick, the PEAS farm founder. “If they don’t weed the carrots, the carrots don’t grow and others go without. The students feel they are contributing to the greater community. It’s a transformative experience. They are given a sense of belonging and personal effectiveness. This is something they can do, as one 20-year old person, in the face of poverty.”

Working, in addition to academics and community service, is a requirement at Warren Wilson College’s agriculture centers. Simply named The Farm and the Garden, students may utilize both entities to complete the concentration’s requisite 200 hours of work on a commercial farm.

The 275-acre Farm raises $150,000 of grass-fed meat (usually considered superior because pasturing reduces carbon dioxide emissions from cattle, as well as raises the nutrient level and lowers the saturated fat content of the meat) in addition to corn, wheat, barley and oats grown in rotation with an alfalfa based hay mix. Because different pests attack different plants, rotating the crops doesn’t allow any one pest to encroach. The combination gives them excellent grain yields and eliminates the need for synthetic pesticides or herbicides. Small amounts of phosphorus and potassium are used to feed the alfalfa crops, which in turn provide nitrogen for the subsequent corn crop. Over 100 tons of composted cow manure are spread on the annual corn crop, contributing to the farm’s long term goal to reduce off-farm fertilizer inputs.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems reports in their “U.S. Food System Fact Sheet” that 40% of agricultural production energy goes into the making of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By eliminating pesticides and herbicides and using cow manure, the Farm saves money and significantly reduces its carbon load and environmental impact.

The Garden raises organic vegetables, fruit, cut flowers and herbs on its five acres in addition to maintaining a small apiary and apple orchard. The produce is sold in three farmers’ markets and provides produce to an on-campus CSA program. Sixty percent of its produce is sold at conventional wholesale value to the campus dining hall at Gladfelter and the vegetarian Cow Pie Café. From the Farm, 10,000 pounds of beef and pork are sold to the campus cafeteria along with some eggs. The cafeteria and café, in turn, give their food scraps to the worm composting program. The result is a better product, reduction in fossil fuel use in food transportation, and an intimate knowledge of where the food comes from. 

Produce from the Warren Wilson College Garden is sold in local farmers' markets and at the campus dining hall. (Warren Wilson College)
Students’ involvement in the liberal arts education allows them access to courses such as traditional agricultural systems in addition to conservation biology. Dr. Laura Lengnick, director of the Sustainable Agriculture concentration program at Warren Wilson, believes this type of integrated education gives students an incredible breadth of knowledge in addition to heightened critical thinking skills.

“We have a strong reputation for creating entrepreneurs because of our work program,” she notes. “Early on they are solving practical problems and exercising leadership. And that’s what a farmer does.”

The environment outside of academia doesn’t necessarily reflect the newfound enthusiasm in agriculture these professors are seeing in their students. Professor Slotnick comments that today less than 2% of Americans are farmers.

Dr. Kenneth Mulder, the director of Green Mountain College’s farm notes, “Many people find it inconceivable that at one point as much as 40% of our population was involved in raising our food. They think it is infeasible to move backward-in their view-toward a network of small, independent farmers. Yet that is precisely what we need, and we have a large number of committed, talented young people eager to make it happen. Small farms can compete economically, and are way ahead of conventional agriculture in terms of resource efficiency and environmental impacts.”

Gordon Jones, unlike many of his peers, comes from a family inside of that 2%.  Jones dreams of returning to his family farm, armed with a curriculum that has covered not only farming management, but also courses such as “Religion, Nature and the Environment.” He’s considering a minor in business and is currently serving as the Farm’s Meat Sales Manager.

“It’s not just about being alternative,” he says, “It’s about doing the right thing and being able to communicate that to others.”


More Information on Sustainable Agriculture Programs:
Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA)The mission of SAEA is to serve as a forum for exchanging the best teaching practices amongst educators and students. You can search curriculum based on a variety of criteria, including subject and contributor. It also has a list of conferences as well as reports and a list of student farms.National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA)

Formerly the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, ATTRA’s website offers a substantial database of informative articles such as “Agriculture, Climate Change and Carbon Sequestration” to “Biointensive Integrated Pest Management.” Managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) it also offers information and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, educators and market gardeners with a simple phone call. There are links to sustainable agriculture education programs and a calendar of events and conferences.

Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)

This is an association of colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada working to create a sustainable future. Their mission is to promote sustainability in all higher education institutions from operations to curriculum. They created the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment to neutralize institutional greenhouse gases. They have a vast resource center of publications from assessment tools to curriculums to conferences and profiles of colleges and universities excelling at creating sustainable campuses. Becoming a member gives complete access to all information.

Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSI)

Operated by the United States Department of Agriculture, this site can be accessed by first visiting the USDA site then clicking on “Information Center” then “Alternative Farming Systems.” In addition to articles and information on grants, there is a list of all colleges, universities, associations and organizations that offer anything from a course to a full degree program in sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)

SARE serves as a grant, information and outreach center for farmers, ranchers, educators and researchers. They have information on professional opportunities as well as articles on topics such as “Managing Cover Crops Profitably.” They provide case histories of farmers, ranchers and gardeners making the switch to sustainable practices.

, |
Published: February 24, 2009