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Middlebury College Organic Garden. Photo: Dan Kane
Middlebury College Organic Garden. Photo: Dan Kane

Farmers Under 40: Liberal arts students try their hand at farming

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Land grant schools like Cornell University have long specialized in teaching agriculture. But across the country, liberal arts colleges are adding programs about food, farming, and sustainability to their curricula.

They're not teaching farming per se--no classes about pests or crop rotation. They're giving farming the full liberal arts treatment, offering courses in philosophy and economics, as well as some work in the field.

As Sarah Harris reports, they want students to think critically about food systems and sustainable practices.

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At the Middlebury college garden, Ari Lattanzi is working on the tomatoes.

“We’re growing so many tomatoes because we’re selling the tomatoes to the dining hall to make tomato sauce. And we also have basil planted around the tomatoes—apparently there’s an allopathic interaction between basil and tomatoes. And they’re also going to make pesto," Lattanzi said. "So it’ll be really nice to have local ingredients and not high fructose corn syrup in the tomato sauce.”

She’s one of many students to work in the college’s garden over the past nine years, but now Middlebury’s taking the next step. The administration is in the process of creating a new program, a food studies minor.

“I think on food studies if we do it right there would be a functional approach that would not be rooted in any one discipline," said Ron Liebotwitz, president of Middlebury College.

“Thinking about issues of social justice, which crosses philosophy and politics and economics and class and so forth, issues of biodiversity and genetic engineers which has to do with science and crosses into issues of public policy. And that’s why I think the functional or questions-based approach to thinking about food is so robust and so valuable.”

It’s academic, but there are some hands on aspects as well.

St Lawrence University is developing a sustainability semester where students live off campus, practice sustainable agriculture and building, and partner with local homesteaders, farmers, and artisans.

Cathy Shrady, geology professor and head of St. Lawrence’s Adirondack semester, is on the faculty planning committee. “There would be a pretty significant experiential component that would weave together this theme of sustainability," she said. "It’s probably the most powerful part of the whole program is walking the walk—living that way and examining why are we doing these things, what works and what doesn’t work, what are the challenges of really thinking about your energy use and your carbon footprint, where my food comes from and what does it take to grow that kind of food and what kind of life is involved with growing that food—it’s not easy to be a farmer.”

Middlebury and St Lawrence aren’t vocational schools. As liberal arts colleges, they focus on learning for learning’s sake, but their enthusiasm for food and sustainability programs is part of a nation-wide interest in farming.

Paul Rowland is the executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. He says that that the number of programs focused on sustainability has increased steadily over the past 5 years, as has the number of students enrolled in those courses.

“It continues to grow, this area of agricultural sustainability has been one of the areas that has moved forward relatively steadily throughout that time period in a wide variety of institutions," Rowland said. 

John Gerber teaches sustainable agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, a land grant school that’s taught farming since its inception in 1863. Ten years ago, he says, there were five students in the sustainable food and farming major. Now there are almost 70 and these students don’t come from farming backgrounds like they used to.

“It’s really rejuvenated a lot of our faculty who had pretty small classes through the 80s and 90s, they’re seeing their classes fill up again with people who are serious," Gerber said. "They’re not just curious, they’re actually serious about making this a career.”

David Dolginow is serious about a career in agriculture but he doesn’t want to be a farmer.

“I love the Wendell Berrys of the world, but it’s very much in my blood to think about things from the perspective of what would afford a comfortable life," Dolginow said. "Basically I’m responding to the market — people want local foods. It’s a hot topic right now.”

Dolginow graduated from Middlebuy a year ago and works at Sunrise Orchards. We meet at the orchard’s warehouse. He’s been inspired by Sunrise—it’s a midsize operation making a serious go of it. David hopes to start his own business. 

“Whether its vegetable processing or pastured eggs or mushroom production—you name it I’ve thought about it. Im basically working towards starting my own business, small business, family owned. 10-50 employees, 2-20 million dollars," Dolginow said. 

He hopes to bring local food to the next level: "It’s like can we get more midsized farms that have enough volume that they can have a low enough price that they can be on the shelf at Price Chopper, and Shaws”

Still, agriculture seems at odds with the liberal arts tradition, but Paul Roland from the sustainability association says it’s a natural pairing and likely to stick.

"So the liberal arts is not just an end in itself but it is a way to inform one about how to live a life," Roland said. "And what I think these majors are doing is helping the student at the lib. arts institution how to apply the liberal arts to living a sustainable life and how to be a productive member of society.”

As for young people farming, that’s no fad either. 150 years ago, approximately half of Americans  were farmers. Now’s it’s less than 1%. Bill McKibben, climate change author and activist, says the trend is reversing. 

"We’re never going to go back to 50% would be my guess but we’ll end up a lot higher than 1%," McKibben said. "I think what we’re seeing now around the country is not a fad, I think it’s the bottoming out of a long decline and the beginning of a real and powerful renewal.”

“Historically students in colleges and universities have led the way with progressive ideas," David Dolginow said. "I think this is yet another success, yet another affirmation that our food system will change.”  

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