College panel looks at sustainable agriculture

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College kicked off a month-long look at sustainable agriculture last Thursday with a panel addressing questions about agriculture and higher education.
The panel — made up of Melina Shannon-DiPietro from the Yale Sustainable Food Project, Ben Waterman from the University of Vermont, Philip Ackerman-Leist from Green Mountain College, and Gregory Peck from Cornell University — was the first in a series of public discussions slated to take place in January.
The events are organized by the Middlebury College Organic Garden and Weybridge House, a residential house for students interested in environmental studies.
Much of Thursday’s panel focused on how agriculture education can be integrated into the curriculum and co-curricular activities at both liberal arts schools, where agriculture education has traditionally been set aside alongside other “vocational” pursuits, and land grant universities, which from the get-go have been charged with educating farmers and agricultural specialists.
Most panelists agreed that interest in agriculture among both American students and academics is on the rise, and Shannon-DiPietro voiced confidence that the interest isn’t an academic fad. She said that Yale is considering establishing undergraduate and graduate programs in food and agriculture.
Meanwhile, Ackerman-Leist did acknowledge that agricultural education faces an uphill battle at some institutions. Though Green Mountain College has established a reputation for embracing sustainability, he said he’s had a number of arguments about agriculture and education over the years. After proposing the first sustainable agriculture course at the college, he said, he was told “agriculture and the college farm are ‘anti-intellectual.’”
“The results of our culture trying to (remove) ag from the academic experience over the course of the century are clear,” he said. “We have the obesity epidemic. We have the loss of farmers and farmland, environmental degradation, loss of agricultural biodiversity, loss of food ways, a problematic regulatory environment, skewed research agendas and a host of other things.”
Ackerman-Leist argued strongly in favor of taking a liberal arts approach to understanding food and agriculture.
“Any college that builds its reputation and image on sustainability simply cannot ignore the issues of food and agriculture as the heart and soul of sustainability,” he said. “Sustenance, in my view, is the first topic of sustainability. If not, then in my view — biased, admittedly — then the whole sustainability conversation risks being illusory and ill-informed.”
Upcoming events, which will all be held at 4:30 p.m. in the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, include:
• A conversation with Middlebury College alumni farmers Richard Wiswall from Cate Farm, Pete Johnson from Pete’s Greens, Chris Granstrom from Lincoln Peak Vineyard and Corie Pierce from Bread and Butter Farm on Thursday, Jan. 14.
• A young farmers panel on Thurs., Jan. 21, featuring Bennett Konesni from Sylvester Manor, Megan Osterhout from Green Peak Farm, Dan Kane from Kingbird Farm, and Jennifer Blackwell from Elmer Farm. The panel will be followed by a potluck and music at 6:30 p.m. at Weybridge House.
• A discussion on food justice in Vermont on Monday, Jan. 25, with Jean Hamilton from NOFA Vermont, Jeanne Montross from HOPE, Theresa Snow from the Vermont Foodbank, Alex Wylie from the Vermont Land Trust and Jesse McEntee from McEntee Research and Consulting.
For more information about the panels, visit the Middlebury Food Blog at

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