Agriculture and the liberal arts

ADDISON COUNTY — For 20-year-old Galen Helms, his love affair with farming was born out of necessity: The Monkton resident needed a job.
This was four years ago, when Helms was a student at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol. He tromped down the road, knocked on a door and landed a summer job at Eugenie Doyle’s organic vegetable and berry farm.
“It evolved into me really loving the work,” Helms said.
He returned to the Monkton farm year after to year to plant and weed and harvest. Ask him just what, exactly, it is he loves about the work, and he’ll tell you: everything.
“You get to work with your hands. You’re able to strengthen your body. You’re outside,” he said. “You feel really alive and aware.”
Now, Helms is part of a wave of students bucking trends. He knows he wants to farm, but he’s shying away from the traditional educational paths carved out in agriculture; rather than heading to a land grant university or large state college, he’s eyeing an eventual liberal arts education instead.
First, though, he’s eyeing this year’s growing season.
It’s a trend that’s rearing its head at Middlebury College, too, where agricultural studies — long considered vocational — have typically fallen outside of the liberal arts college’s purview. With more students showing an interest in food, farming, and land use, though, students and professors are asking the question: How can a liberal arts education help train the next generation of farmers?
Farming hasn’t always been linked to a liberal arts education, which generally shirk vocational training.
At a recent panel discussion at Middlebury College, a speaker from Green Mountain College pointed out that, at some point in American history, college became an escape from the farm. Philip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at the Poultney school, said that both liberal arts and technical schools shunted students away from the “dirty work” of the farm toward professional degrees. Even agricultural schools focused, to some extent, on training agronomists or agricultural businessmen instead of farmers.
In fact, Ackerman-Leist went on, as he’s pushed to include agriculture in the curriculum at Green Mountain College, he’s met with resistance over the years from administrators. “Why would we want to train hippies?” someone asked him, while another claimed agriculture was “anti-intellectual.” Yet another former dean worried that agricultural classes would just be “teaching students to kiss cows.”
But the atmosphere is shifting. Middlebury Professor John Elder and Middlebury resident Jay Leshinsky both pointed to the formation of the Middlebury College garden eight years ago as a turning point in the college’s relationship to agricultural education. It wasn’t an administrative shift, though: This was a student-run campaign, championed by two first-year students who enrolled at Middlebury knowing they wanted to found a garden where students could learn about farming, all while putting food on the table at the college’s dining halls.
Still, students say they’ve encountered some of that pushback at Middlebury College, too. That’s according to Corinne Almquist, a 2009 graduate now trying to set up gleaning networks in Vermont to help farmers shuttle their leftover produce to needy Vermonters.
Almquist said that because there aren’t any professors who specialize in sustainable agriculture, students are left swimming upstream if they want to study the topic. In a perfect world, she said, that sort of a program would be just another major — like history, English or science.
“(We hear that) ‘we’re not a trade school,’ ‘we’re not an agricultural school,’ and that ‘the garden is a wonderful piece of what the environmental studies program is,’” Almquist said. “But the garden has encountered (this feeling that it’s just) a student club.”
In many ways, the push for agricultural education at the liberal arts college remains a student-run effort. Professors say more students are showing an interest in agriculture, and Leshinsky, who manages Middlebury College’s organic garden, has seen more and more students come out to work in the garden since its founding eight years ago.
Students have even gone on to design student-run courses, like a winter term course being taught this month, to tackle issues like food justice in Vermont.
“All of these things are part of a broad cultural shift,” said Elder, an English and environmental studies professor at the college. “Food is suddenly, I think, at the center of the environmental movement. It’s one of the most interesting ways for thinking about culture and politics now.”
Amanda Warren is one of those budding agriculturalists taking the road less traveled. Warren, a junior at Middlebury College, grew up outside of Boston and admitted that for most of her life she paid very little attention to food or farming. In fact, Warren’s parents work as boarding school teachers, which meant Warren grew up eating in an institutional dining hall.
Then, during her junior year in high school, she attended a program for high school students in Maine, and worked on an organic farm for a semester.
“I pretty quickly fell in love with the lifestyle and the way that it connected environmental issues and the intellectual challenges of environmental issues in the 21st century,” Warren said.
So she charted a course for Middlebury College, drawn by the school’s environmental studies program and college garden. Now Warren is studying conservation biology, a field that draws on her interest in sustainable agriculture and ecology.
She considered large universities, and Warren was wowed by the research opportunities at schools like the University of Vermont and the University of Maine, but in the end she said she was “not really interested in getting locked into the tracks that the larger universities push you into.”
Instead, she went on, she chose an interdisciplinary approach to studying agriculture, coupled with hands-on learning during summer jobs on organic farms and county extension courses. Meanwhile, during the school year, Warren likes that while she’s learning about soils in one class she can be reading Virgil’s reflections on agriculture in another.
“Most of the Middlebury students I know who are interested in farming are interested within this broader cultural context,” Elder said. “They want to read literature and philosophy, and study history and evolutionary sciences … It’s not farming versus the liberal arts. It’s farming as the focus that makes the whole education more intense.”
The liberal arts track does come with some downsides. First and foremost, Elder said, the high price tag at private colleges means that the education is sometimes out of the reach of farm families, and student loans can be crippling for students aiming to head into a traditionally low-paying career.
Then there’s the question of experience. Students have to find technical instruction somewhere, Elder said, be it at a county extension program or a summer job on a farm or a vocational program.
But some students are finding a balance that works. Dean of Curriculum at Middlebury College Bob Cluss pointed to the example of an independent scholar at the school, who rather than choosing a specific major or department in which to study is pulling together courses about agricultural practices from a number of sources. She’s combined environmental studies with a number of sciences, and has even studied at California universities well known for their sustainable agriculture programs.
Down the road, Leshinsky thinks the liberal arts background pays off once farmers hit the fields. All one has to do, he said, is look at farmers like Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury or Chris Granstrom at Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven.
Those Middlebury College alumni, Leshinsky said, are among “the most creative, cutting edge agriculturalists in the country.”
“I’ve talked to organic farmers through Addison County, many of whom I think are doing really amazing, creative business work as well as making good food,” Leshinsky said. “All of them have a liberal arts background.”
In Monkton, Helms is not sure yet when he’ll head off to college, though he’s found a program in North Carolina that he thinks will add to his agricultural background.
Meanwhile, he is focusing on the classroom at hand: his plot in Monkton, where this summer he’s going to be experimenting with low-input farming. He’ll be growing root vegetables in a mixture of live and dead mulches, and cultivating mushrooms to keep the soil healthy. It’s an experimental approach, Helms said.
“You need to know a little of everything to be a truly successful farmer,” he said.

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