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Students Harvest the Future at Local Colleges

Farming with draft horses at Sterling College
Students using draft horses at Sterling College

Written By

Kristen A. Schmitt

Written on

July 03 , 2013

The agriculture renaissance is upon us. With the growing demand for agriculture graduates, Vermont colleges are leading the way with a variety of agriculture and food-related degrees aimed at preparing students for one of the fastest growing green job fields in the United States. Organic farming, sustainable food systems, nutrition, and animal health are taking center stage during this unique era when environmental and sustainable issues span the globe. In response, the next generation of college graduates is focusing on agriculture-based solutions to problems plaguing societies today, such as climate change and food safety, turning these interests into promising career paths.

Here are four Vermont institutions of higher learning that offer food and/or agriculture-related degrees:

Digging In at Sterling College

It doesn’t have many students compared to most colleges—120 maximum—but all students at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common work on the college’s farm or in the gardens during their college experience. Sterling is one of only seven Work Service Learning colleges in the country, and all the students pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Agriculture apply lessons learned in class to the many jobs on the farm—jobs that involve vegetable gardens, livestock management, woodlot management, and draft horse management.

The degree in sustainable agriculture was launched in 1997. And for students eager to jump into farming after school, they don’t have to wait as long as four years. “We have 10-week semesters here,” says Anne Obelnicki, director of sustainable food systems at the college. “Students who come here can graduate in three years because they can take three full semesters a year.”

Along with the undergraduate degree, Sterling College offers a five-week summer academic program called Vermont’s Table, which offers culinary experience, field trips, sustainable agriculture classes, and seminars in food writing and food entrepreneurism. “The point of the program is to get an overarching view with as much detail as possible of what food systems are composed of, what is sustainability, what is a sustainable program connecting those things, and what does it mean to have a sustainable food system,” Anne says. “We dive into a bunch of those different ideas during the five weeks.” The Vermont’s Table program is currently in its third year of operation and the college offers two sessions per summer.

Vermont Technical College Knows Dairy Management

Nearly 100 Holstein and Brown Swiss dairy cows wait patiently for their turn in the milking parlor that is situated on Vermont Technical College’s 500-acre farm. Located in Randolph Center, VTC offers an associate degree of Applied Science in Agribusiness Management Technology and Dairy Farm Management Technology, and a Bachelor of Science in Diversified Agriculture. With nearly 40 students enrolled in the Dairy Farm Management program, it is one of VTC’s most popular degrees.

“The Dairy Farm Management degree was designed to help students eventually take over and continue the family farm,” says Christopher Dutton, assistant professor of agriculture at VTC. “Many of our students actually go on to work for someone else, but about a third of our students come from family farms and go back to family farms.” Students who graduate from VTC with the Dairy Farm Management degree often choose to operate profitable modern dairy farms or go on to a successful career in the agribusiness industry. Those within the Agribusiness Management Technology field often take jobs within the administrative sector.

Students at VTC have the ability to transition to the University of Vermont (UVM) through the state of Vermont’s Farm and Agricultural Resource Management Stewards (F.A.R.M.S) program. Students can transfer to UVM as juniors and earn a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science. The F.A.R.M.S program is renewed annually by the state legislature and isavailable to Vermont residents.

UVM Embraces Evolving Agriculture

In the heart of bustling Burlington, the University of Vermont (UVM) planted deep roots in 1791 as the fifth college established in New England, sandwiched between the Adirondack and Green Mountain ranges on the shores of Lake Champlain. Since then, UVM has developed 101 majors, which now attract approximately 13,097 students, and it offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

“Agriculture is changing to become much more diversified than it once was, and it’s more encompassing,” says Josie Davis, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The College, which has a total current enrollment of 1,273 students, offers 16 majors, including plant and soil; animal science; dietetics, nutrition, and food science; ecological agriculture; nutrition and food sciences; and sustainable landscape design. At UVM, students can earn Bachelor of Science, Master’s of Science, and PhD degrees within many of the disciplines available under the Agriculture and Life Sciences department.

“The program has steadily grown since 2003,” Josie says. “I think one of the things driving it is the result of the 2008 economic downturn where students want to identify those majors that will yield jobs when they are finished.” Part of the way UVM prepares its students is through work on farms associated with the college and the research units that bring classroom lessons into practical application. Programs such as the student-run dairy herd called CREAM (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management), the hands-on horse management course EQUUS, and the three-acre student-run educational farm Common Ground all provide students with the opportunity to learn professional skills outside of the classroom. “Not only are they getting the hands-on and management skills, but they also gain a lot of interpersonal skills working with each other and doing things collaboratively,” Josie says.

Sowing Seeds at Green Mountain College

Nestled at the end of Main Street in Poultney, Green Mountain College (GMC) mixes classroom technology with modern day farming. With environmental stewardship as the college’s overarching mission, the 700 students on campus learn to apply sustainable lessons in all of the 26 majors available. Within the agriculture program, students can earn a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production; the college also offers a Master’s in Sustainable Food Systems, which is the first and only online sustainable food systems program in the country.

“Sustainable agriculture has experienced tremendous growth on all fronts,” says Philip Ackerman-Leist, associate professor and director of the Farm & Food Project at GMC. “Both programs are really on the rise. Right now there are about 55 students associated with the undergraduate program and 55 students in our Master’s program.”

Undergraduate students within the program receive a liberal arts-based education, with classes in history, anthropology, the natural sciences, philosophy, business, economics, and art. They also participate in farm chores and other activities on the 22-acre on-campus farm, which provides food to the dining hall as well as a CSA share for faculty and staff. The master’s program offers a range of classes in history, food systems, and business that provide a variety of applicable ideas to promote change through various regional food systems. “The beauty of the master’s program is the geographical diversity and the diversity of backgrounds that people bring into it, and the level of professional experience that people have had regardless of whether it’s been in food systems or not,” says Philip. “There’s a real sophistication that the cohorts bring and that’s what the program is really all about.”

Students enrolled in the undergraduate agriculture program at GMC are often looking to become farmers themselves after graduation. Philip advises that students “find a good mentor and stake their claims” to try to learn as much as possible in order to make farming after graduation a successful career. “It does take time and probably longer than people think initially,” he says.

Lisa Trocchia-BalkitsLisa Trocchia-Balkits is typical of the diversity found among students enrolled in agricultural degree programs in Vermont. Lisa is a native of Athens County, Ohio, in the rural southeastern portion of the state, and a member of Green Mountain College’s pioneer cohort for its Master’s in Sustainable Food Systems. A full-time long-distance student, Lisa also serves as co-chair of the Athens Food Policy Council, an organization formed in 2009 to strategically promote a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system for the region.

Why did you pick GMC’s MSFS program?

I was attracted to the fact that the program is interdisciplinary and systems-based in its approach to the topic. I resonated deeply with the college’s understanding that those involved in food system work are likely to be very place based. While located in a rural area, the food system in Athens, Ohio, is considered to be one of the finest, most mature food systems in the nation. I spent years cultivating strong networks within the local food community and I wasn’t enamored of the idea of relocating to a large urban area, like New York, to study food systems! I also loved the concept of being part of a cohort that represents diverse bioregional perspectives and experiences.

When do you plan to be done with the degree?

I’ll be done with classes at the end of this summer and should have my Capstone Project completed by late fall. I hope to graduate in December 2013.

Can you give a brief synopsis of your Capstone Project?

In a general sense, I’m interested in the intersection of social movements and food systems. My thesis is a qualitative, ethnographic study that will result in extensive network mapping of the relationships within the Athens, Ohio, local food system. My hypothesis is that these individuals and their ideals, expressed in the creation of many intentional communities, cooperatives, and grassroots community organizations, established a community foundation for self-organizing, in the context of complexity theory, which ultimately emerged as a resilient local food system that is still growing today.

What do you plan to do with the degree once you graduate?

At this point, my plan is to pursue a PhD I am quite interested in where social movements (particularly North American contemporary counterculture) and self-organized food systems intersect. This has drawn me, additionally, toward a desire to examine community-based food systems in the context of place, political and social unrest, climate change, and natural disasters.

About the Author

Kristen A. Schmitt

Kristen A. Schmitt

Kristen A. Schmitt is a writer based in the Green Mountains of Vermont. She writes about health, nutrition, and the environment and has interviewed many leaders within the farming, food, and hunting communities.

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