400 pounds of seed potatoes waited for students in Professor Henry Art’s Sustainable Agriculture course when they arrived at Caretaker Farm on a warm and sunny April morning. Farmer Don Zasada demonstrated with a small hand tool how to put the cut tubers neatly to bed in the soil. “Which way do the eyes face?” he asked. “Up!” responded the eleven students, as they marched down the rows of the CSA’s hidden potato field on the banks of the Green River in Williamstown. Thirty minutes later, the class had saved Zasada and his farm crew a morning’s worth of work.
Henry Art, Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, designed the seminar course with Berkshire County agriculture in mind. The global themes of the course range from climate change and soils to the nutritional aspects of sustainable food systems. The examples, however, are local. Farms near Williamstown offer opportunities to engage these larger debates. A first field trip in March focused on the life cycle of dairy and meat cattle, which is an important part of Berkshire County’s agricultural history and present. The second field trip in April focused on plants by visiting vegetable growers as they prepared fields and began seeding their first crops. Professor Art modeled these immersive visits on the experiences he and four students had during California Agriculture, a winter study course that included farm visits ranging from San Luis Obispo County vineyards to winter vegetable and livestock operations in the Salinas Valley. “The field trips are an integral part of the seminar experience, in that they bring the students’ experience with a literature-based course into a context that includes the living organisms that are the subject of the course,” said Professor Art. He pointed out that in addition to animals and plants, the field trips offer insights into a third living component of agriculture: the farmers themselves. The field trips leave impressions that resurface in student-led seminar sessions.
The class follows Steven Gliessman’s Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, but relies on student-run seminars throughout the second half of the semester to incorporate diverse themes into the course. After visiting area farms, students draw on local examples as they explore with classmates the carbon footprint of local vs. organic production, or consider the enegetics of the food system. These concepts come to life in the field as farmers discuss their daily concerns about weather, labor, or cash flow. On the vegetable day, students leaned about the economic challenges and logistical planning necessary to run a successful operation at Mighty Food Farmin Pownal, VT. They also got a taste of farm work. “Being out here on the farm gives us the chance to put the things we’re reading into practice,” said Carey White ’13 as he dusted river bottom soil off his hands at Caretaker Farm.
The diversity of area farms allows for revealing comparisons that reflect global questions. Professor Art included operations of different scales and purposes on the March field trip, titled “The Life of a Cow in a Day.” Mt. Williams Dairy Farm, a medium-scale fluid milk producer in Williamstown, faced different production and economic concerns than Gammelgården Creamery, a micro dairy making fresh cheese and butter in Pownal, VT. At Black Queen Angus Farm in Berlin, NY, farmer Morgan Hartman explained the importance of pasture management and herd genetics for raising competitive beef cattle. That evening, students attended the Cambridge Valley Livestock Auction. “It was a little disturbing,” said Chie Togami ’13. Watching cows parade on their final days before slaughter emphasized the short life cycle of many dairy cows who may go to slaughter after only two or three years of production.
“The Life of a Crop Plant in a Day” field trip was equally diverse. Students learned about soilless horticulture during a tour of the hydroponic greenhouses at Berlin’s Best in Berlin, NY, only to get their hands back in the hopyard dirt at Hoppy Valley Organics in Pownal, VT. At Mighty Food Farm, Lisa MacDougall explained her perspective on sustainability, noting that being a certified organic farm does not automatically make her operation sustainable. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. There are many moving parts in an operation like this,” she said. Students returned to campus with an enhanced appreciation of the costs, inputs, labor, and expertise necessary to grow vegetables for market.
Discussions with farmers often revealed the technical details that they spend their time addressing in the field, milking parlor, or office. For example, no one found it simple to explain the complex systems behind milk pricing. Other farmers noted the challenges of developing market share for their products. “It’s been really cool to see how a lot of the concepts we have studied in the class fit together in an expression of sustainable agriculture on these farms,” said Dana Golden ’13. In the course, Golden led a seminar on water issues in agriculture. Farmers also shared the joys of working outside and living in the place where they work. “This is exactly what I want to do, and I do it every day,” said MacDougall at Mighty Food Farm. A few students took these lessons to heart. Hanna Smith ’13 is now interning with Stina Kutzer at Gammelgården Creamery (read more about it here).
The seminar concludes in May with a dinner discussion titled “We Are What We Eat.” The value of the farm visits is evident in the students’ new appreciation for agriculture and their synthesis of theory and practice. Professor Art noted that regardless of students’ degree of agricultural experience, “the two day-long field trips provide an opportunity for all the students to interact with the subject matter.” Emily Ury ’13 agreed as she took off her gloves after weeding a patch of raspberries at Caretaker Farm. “You can learn more from a day in the field than from all the lectures combined,” she said. At the May dinner discussion, students will lift their forks with appreciation for the complicated agricultural system their food represents. The seminar demonstrates the value of immersing students in the issues they study by getting them out into the field—this time, quite literally.