20 Ways to Grow, Think About, and Eat Food
- By Tom Weaver
by Joshua Brown | Megan Camp ’84 | Lee Ann Cox | Jon Reidel G’06 | Amanda Waite ’02 G’04 | Jeff Wakefield | Thomas Weaver | Dave Zuckerman ’95
The study and practice of food systems threads through academic disciplines, across political boundaries, and into the lives of every individual on the planet. As complex as these questions are, they might be boiled down to this—creating positive approaches to food for the wellbeing of the environment, farmers, and ourselves. Extension Dean Doug Lantagne ’77 directs UVM’s Transdisciplinary Research Initiative on Food Systems, a focus particularly well-suited to Vermont. On a visit to the state several years ago, author Michael Pollan, a leading voice in the food movement, was struck by the passion, expertise, and innovation he found in Vermont and at the state’s university. Read on for a glimpse of some of this work being done by UVM faculty, students, and alumni.
AGRICULTURE & AESTHETICS
A social geographer’s view
"Food systems, to me,” says Cheryl Morse, assistant professor of geography, “is not just about food choice. It’s about the landscape that provides the food.” Here in Vermont, the look of that landscape—the idyllic pastoral scene, the “sweeping view with a mountain in the background and a maple tree in the foreground”—cuts right to the soul of the state for most people. The irony, Morse says, is that classic mix of farm buildings, open land and forest was a nineteenth century creation of the state to lure back people who had fled after the Civil War, whether as tourists or to live. “They crafted a narrative about the rural ideal and the agrarian landscape of Vermont,” she says. Leave the land alone, and it wants to be trees.
According to Morse, it’s not just agriculture that’s keeping spaces open but private landowners who see scrubby boundaries creeping in and bring out the brush hog. “It makes people really sad,” she says. “It makes them think people aren’t taking care of the land. So it’s not so much an ecological perspective they’re coming from, it’s more from a cultural historical legacy.”
But Morse also sees the agricultural census data showing an increase in the number of very large farms and a proliferation of very small, very active farms making little money. Middle-size farms, she says, are reducing in number. There’s both landscape and livelihood to keep alive in the state.
Her overarching research question is, in towns that have very large dairy operations versus towns that don’t, has the landscape changed and how, and how have people’s lives changed? “I’m interested in what is happening to the land cover but more in why it’s happening and what choices farmers are making and under what conditions. What are the factors that drive them to enter or exit farming and what drives a landowner to keep a field open? To understand the whole food system we have to understand the economic and political environment that farmers are operating in and we also have to understand the social relations between farmers and consumers. Ultimately this will become a policy question. There’s got to be an acknowledgement that different types of farming are going to produce different kinds of outcomes.”
In 1931, when Richard and Marjory James started milking their small herd of Jersey cows in Weybridge, Vermont, it’s a good bet they weren’t considering an abstract concept like “food systems.” Within a couple of years, they took another step, deciding that bottling and selling milk themselves would increase the promise of their operation. And as Monument Farms Dairy, now in its third generation of family management, has steadily grown it’s remained true to guiding principles that are both bedrock Vermont virtues and twenty-first century food system gospel.
“It’s what we’ve done and believed all along,” says Monument Farms’ Jon Rooney ’80. “It’s very important to think about where your food comes from, and it’s very important that you try to buy locally when you can. It is at the core of everything. We could just be making milk and shipping it to Boston, but we’d much rather be feeding people around here. Certainly from a business point of view,” he adds with a quiet laugh, “we’d much rather that people buy our products because of that and because of the quality.”
Rooney works together with his cousins Bob and Pete James to run Monument Farms—along the same section of James Road, a few miles north of Middlebury, where their grandparents started out on twenty-eight acres. They milk about five hundred cows; crop some 1,800 of their 2,300 acres; employ thirty-five on the farm, in the plant, and making deliveries; and process 75,000 pounds of milk four days a week.
It’s a progressive operation with best farming practices such as the recent addition of an anaerobic digester that processes manure and produces electricity from the methane. On the business side, the dairy has partnered with Burlington’s City Market, Hunger Mountain Co-op, and Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, to sell their product under a Vermont Co-op Milk/Monument Farms label. Such initiatives helped Rooney earn the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award in 2010.
Rooney, who studied dairy science at UVM, runs the processing plant at Monument Farms and the cousins trade off duties as president every two years. Though he served with the Peace Corps in Guatemala and worked for Hood Dairy in Massachusetts for several years, Rooney says he always knew he’d return to Vermont and the family farm, which he did twenty-eight years ago. The roots are deep, and a tour of the dairy includes a stop by the business office to meet his mother, Millicent Rooney ’49, still working as treasurer at age eighty-four. Her late husband, James Rooney ’50, is also part of the family’s legacy at the farm.
When Monument Farms marked its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2006, three thousand people showed up for the celebration, testimony to what the dairy means to the community. “We take a lot of pride in that most people in this area also take pride in what we do,” Jon Rooney says. “And we don’t take it for granted.”
THE ETHICS OF EATING
“There’s an attitude about food which is something like: ‘To each his own,’” Tyler Doggett, assistant professor of philosophy, explains. “That’s the right attitude to have about hairstyles, glasses, or clothes. But with food, there’s no way to avoid eating things that were at some point living.”
Killing kale or bugs for food might be OK. “But god forbid you eat a dolphin. Or a human being. No one would think, if you were having a human sandwich, ‘to each his own.’
And I remember thinking, ‘that’s kind of weird. Maybe it’s wrong to eat certain things; maybe it’s not.’ I’d at least like to think about that.”
Across the past five years, Doggett has thought, taught, and published a great deal on just that. His “Ethics of Eating” course is a provocative seminar and a strong draw for students. His publications include both the first textbook for undergraduates and the first handbook for graduate students on the ethics of eating, both of which he is co-authoring.
Don’t ethicists like Doggett unnecessarily complicate things that are challenging enough already—like the dinner menu?
“It’s not like I’m complicating things,” the professor says. “I think what I’m pointing out is that things are more complicated than we thought.”
MASTERING FOOD SYSTEMS
In 2012, UVM launched a graduate degree program in food systems, giving students an in-depth view into collaborative problem solving of contemporary issues with thirty teacher-scholars from disciplines across the university: anthropologists to nutritionists, plant and soil scientists to experts in community development and applied economics. The two-year program concentrates on applied skills and research, allowing students to find their focus in a very wide field.
We asked a few members of the first cohort three questions:
- What were your undergraduate studies?
- Why study food systems?
- What are your future goals?
- Anthropology, UVM
- Growing up in a food-oriented family—her parents are longtime restaurant owners—and working on a farm herself as a teen, Reuge was excited to discover an academic track in food. “I see this as an emergent field so I feel good being part of that.”
- Working as a researcher for a food-based union or other community
- English, Middlebury College
- Working for the Addison Independent, Suozzo liked writing about food policy and agriculture, but also realized how little she knew. Covering the farm bill, she felt the reporting was focused on economic and policy implications in Washington rather than the impact on farmers. “I realized there was a real lack of journalism in that area so I started looking for a program that could help me fill that role.”
- Food and agriculture journalism.
- Biology and chemistry, Saint Michael’s College
- As a high school teacher delving into environmental science, Achilich was increasingly finding resources based in agriculture and food. That and a lifelong interest in nutrition drew her to augment her molecular-focused education. “This program seemed like a perfect fit—learning and making my own meaning through research and applied experience.”
- Long term, a doctorate in food systems or community nutrition; short term, curriculum consulting and applied work in the farm-to-school arena.
- Psychology, Bates College
- In addition to her work in the social sciences, DiStefano had completed premed requirements, but she wasn’t ready to pigeonhole herself in any field. “This allows me to use food as a way to get at health in a preventative way and look at social relationships with food.”
- Long term, a doctorate in psychology with a food focus, food systems, or public health; short term, policy work for the Department of Agriculture or Health or a nonprofit research position.
- Anthropology, Columbia University
- Sweet views the program as a logical result of her previous work, both cooking professionally and focusing on food through the academic lens of anthropology. “I’m learning things that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate a year ago in terms of research skills and how I understand the complexities of the food system.”
- Working for a nonprofit focusing on food or a Ph.D. program in geography with a food systems focus.
THE VERMONT HIGHLAND GRASS-FED BURGER
Served up at Brennan’s, where more than 50 percent of fare—from buttermilk pancakes to the tofu taco—meets the Real Food Campus Commitment guidelines.
In March 2012, UVM was the fifth school in the U.S. to sign on to the commitment, pledging to increase sustainable fare at campus eateries to 20 percent by 2020. To count as “real food,” offerings must be fairly traded, of low environmental impact, local, and/or humanely produced. Thanks to a focused effort, more than 28 percent of meat is now sourced locally. At current count, about 14 percent of the food University Dining Services provides is “real.”
CALL TO [r]EVOLUTION
The Food Systems Summit
A bold idea from former Interim President John Bramley in the fall of 2011—that UVM host a large, intellectually vibrant, international institute surrounding the multilayered issue of sustainable food—was realized by summer 2012 with more than three hundred people converging on campus—including attendees from Mexico, Canada and as far away as the UK. Through a diverse group of speakers and workshops the summit delved into the broad question of how to create regional food systems that are viable alternatives to the status quo—a global, ecologically, and economically unsustainable means of feeding the world.
This summer’s theme will narrow to focus on scale, looking at rural versus urban food systems and considering what local means within these different contexts, recognizing the need to customize approaches for different regions. Food activists from New York City will be speaking from their own experiences, balancing their perspectives with that of Vermont’s “living laboratory” for creating new models of success in sustainability.
“What we really want,” says Cynthia Belliveau, dean of Continuing Education and a summit organizer, “is a convergence of ideas as issues of food security, production and distribution become increasingly critical. There are a lot of questions but there haven’t been as many answers in the form of actionable solutions. The key here is to combine UVM’s expertise with experts from around the world, to be honest about the issues, and learn from what we’ve all experienced in our different environments.”
Seventeen talks from last year’s conference can be viewed here:
Video of this year’s conference will be posted in July.
UVM Food Feed
Urban agriculture in Burlington. Public policy on taxing sugar-laden beverages. Insights on the current state of U.S. farm labor. A recipe for a mean French Canadian pork pie. Since April 2012, a number of members of the UVM faculty and others with expertise and interest in food systems have taken on diverse topics, posting away on UVM Food Feed, a blog focused on sustainable food systems and the University of Vermont.
Cynthia Belliveau, dean of UVM Continuing Education and a key player in food systems work at UVM and in the state, initiated UVM Food Feed. “We want to bring together people who are passionate about re-creating our food system to make it more sustainable in its practice and more equitable in its access,” she writes.
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GREEN MOUNTAIN RICE PADDIES?
The laboratory is the kitchen of Faren Worthington’s student apartment in Burlington. Jon Kraus holds up a small envelope. “Are we doing the Akitakomachi?” he asks. “We are,” says Worthington. Kraus and John Butler tip out their envelopes, pouring seeds, like a tiny stream of amber jewels, into a bowl of water. Butler skims seeds off the water’s surface. “The ones that float aren’t good,” he says.
The undergrad trio is germinating rice from Japan—to test at Erik Andrus’s farm in Ferrisburgh. Their experimental equipment: bowl, strainer, canning jars—and, from a USDA seed bank, envelopes labeled Matsumae, Hokkai 223, Hayayuki, Hokkai 116, and Akitakomachi.
As their senior capstone project, these three students in UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources are helping Andrus start, transplant, and, at summer’s end, harvest this rice. Their field trials aim to find which of these cold-hardy varieties perform best on Andrus’s patch of clay plain bottomland. He’s starting his third year of rice production and has an eye toward building a local seed supply.
Last year, Andrus sold 2,400 pounds, perhaps the first Northeast farm to sell rice in quantity. Now there are at least five Vermont farms testing it. As the state grows warmer—with more intense rainfalls and a burgeoning market for local grains—Andrus and these students imagine Vermont’s wetter farmlands dotted with rice paddies.
THE PROBLEM Food deserts, regions the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes as places with largely low-income populations and few or no places to buy affordable, healthy food.
THE PLACE Island Pond, population 1,260, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
THE RESEARCH Linda Berlin, professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences and director of UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, leads the Vermont component of a multi-state study. Working with colleagues and students, Berlin is gathering information regarding consumers’ buying habits, local stores’ inventories, and exploring the supply chain through which food travels to the Kingdom.
THE GOAL The researchers want to link what have often been seen as separate problems. On the one hand, 12 percent of the population in the Northeast, more than seven million people, are food insecure, according to the USDA. This means they face a challenge getting healthy, affordable food—and all the health problems, like obesity, hunger, and diabetes that are associated with this challenge.
On the other hand, regional farmers are struggling to stay in business, the land base for agriculture in the Northeast continues to decline, and a large percentage of fruits and vegetables eaten here—that can be grown in the Delaware-to-Maine corridor—are transported from farms in the Midwest, California, Mexico, and other parts of the world.
The researchers want to show that both problems can—and maybe need to be—addressed together. The plan: build a powerful model of how the whole system works. The hope: enhance the supply and availability of foods grown in the Northeast region.
"You sell cheese to France now. Think about that."
Chuck Ross’ 78, state secretary of agriculture, speaking at a recent Northeast Organic Farming Association meeting held at UVM.
THE BIG PICTURE
Nine billion by 2050. When Chuck Ross ’78, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture, discusses farming’s future he puts it in the stark numbers of the world’s projected population growth and the challenge that will be faced in feeding all of those people. An eighth-generation Vermonter who lives in Hinesburg on the same farm where he grew up, Ross has witnessed firsthand the intersection of population growth, agriculture, and land use.
He recalls countless car rides from Hinesburg to Gutterson for youth hockey practices and how he saw that landscape change year by year. While the ice time would help him develop into a future Catamount player, the rapidly developing farmland he watched roll by out the car window sparked his interest in ecology and economics and subsequent work in government and public policy.
Ross sees reason for optimism in Vermont’s approach to agriculture. He counts the state as a leader on many fronts—building community supported agriculture, farm to school programs, use of bio-digesters, artisanal cheese, the maple industry, and finding innovative ways to conserve farmland, among others.
Drawing food producers and food consumers closer is a common theme in Vermont. Ross suggests the erosion of that connection in American society led to difficulty in getting a national farm bill passed this year. “We don’t understand our food system,” Ross says. “We do not understand what is involved in our agriculture system to put a sirloin steak on the table or understand that a manure spreader going down the road is not an obstacle to getting to work but is actually recycling nutrients.”
Ross calls this need to build agriculture and food system literacy one of the biggest challenges ahead and, again, sees his home state helping lead the way. “People want to know what they’re buying—how it’s raised, organic, local, New England, Vermont. And our farmers are meeting that demand. That is helping to educate a whole new population of people about the food system and agriculture,” he says.
MAP OF MAPLE
Amy Trubek, associate professor of nutrition and food sciences, is a cultural anthropologist and expert on terroir, the idea that food tastes of its unique locale and that it’s influenced by the hands and hearts of its producers. She has helped create the “Map of Maple,” a collaborative effort between UVM researchers and the State of Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Foods & Markets, along with sugarmakers and sensory panelists. The map demonstrates that terroir, while more commonly associated with wine, affects the sensory qualities of maple syrup. Used in workshops for sugarmakers, among other venues, the map serves as a tool to help producers, retailers, and consumers engage around the intrinsic complexity of Vermont syrup in a fun and thoughtful way.
BEYOND THE BEANS
Coffee helps Ernesto Mendez think about Vermont farms. Sure, he loves a hot cup. But it’s the entire coffee system—from Central American smallholder farms to that $4.25 cup of Starbucks—that really gives him insights.
Mendez, professor of agroecology and environmental studies, has spent years with coffee farmers in his native El Salvador, as well as Costa Rica, Panama, and elsewhere. “I was asking: how can these coffee farms be more ecologically sound?” Mendez says. Then, in 1999, the bottom fell out of the market. “All of a sudden there is this global price crisis that these farmers have no control over. They don’t even know where the price gets set.”
For Mendez, this coffee crisis—that lasted until 2004, sending thousands of farmers off their land and into poverty—sparked deep reflection about his chosen field: agroecology.
Agroecology is an especially barnacled academic term. It first appeared in scientific journals in the 1930s, connecting ecological ideas to traditional crop planning. By the 1970s—paddling in the wake of the Green Revolution and environmental movements—agroecology was expanding its view to entire food systems, informed by ecological sciences.
But, as Mendez’s coffee studies make clear, many of the challenges of making food systems ecologically sound extend far beyond ecological science. They’re about politics and justice—a truth reflected in a recent broadening of the field’s focus.
“In the more natural-science type of agroecology, it’s easy to say: I just want to make dairy production more ecologically sound,” Mendez says. Sounds good. But that approach “ignores the fact that there are all these price issues and subsidy issues,” he says, that fundamentally determine whether a farmer’s effort to, say, invest in soil fertility will have a chance to succeed.
Mendez is blunt: “The global food system is really messed up and unfair,” he says, which is “the main problem farmers are facing.” Building on his long study of coffee, Mendez’s newer research projects in Vermont, including one exploring how farms might best adapt to climate change, all begin by listening deeply to farmers and finding out what research they think might help them remain on the land.
THE QUESTION THAT FOCUSES MY RESEARCH
Rocki-Lee Dewitt, professor of business, grew up working on her family’s New York dairy farm. That personal experience grounds her academic pursuits regarding family business and agriculture.
What role do family businesses play in the emergence and evolution of industries, specifically those that are land-based?
“We tend to think of family businesses as stewards. Are they? Do they shape what is considered the appropriate use of resources? Does their persistence from generation to generation help explain why practices become institutionalized and help shape competitive expectations?
“Of course, there is a surprise in all of this. We tend to think of the ‘family business’ as the iconic mother, father, and children working together. It pulls at our emotions and desire to reward those who toil on our behalf. But, family businesses, businesses that are owned and operated by related parties, come in so many sizes and approaches that I frequently wonder how the selective use of family imagery causes us to be less mindful of just what is going on in our food systems.”
EPIPHANY IN A TAMALE
Amy Trubek has long fought a cultural stigma to her research—the notion that embracing the sensual experience of food is either unseemly or rings of elitism. But taking students on a study trip to Oaxaca, Mexico last spring, learning to make a local specialty, tamales de chepil, from women in a small Zapotec village, Trubek watched a scene play out that confirmed her deep-rooted beliefs about those who take time and care with food. The family matriarch called away, a relative added what seemed to Trubek to be an excessive amount of salt. Later, when everyone joined to share the meal, the matriarch was aghast tasting the tamales, insisting on remaking them so the Americans could taste the dish as it should be. Here, in a situation Trubek describes as one of poverty, was a cook invested in her art. “Yes!” thought Trubek. “Confirmation that expertise creates sensory analysis and sensory analysis means you understand the concept of the good.”
GARDENS WITHIN FARMS
Anthropologists note contradictions. Take this one: On Vermont’s approximately 970 remaining dairy farms there are at least 1,200 Spanish-speaking migrant workers, mostly from Mexico. Many of these workers put in seventy or more hours per week, producing perhaps half the state’s milk. Many have years of experience growing staple crops, like corn, back in Chiapas or other parts of Central America.
And yet—here’s the contradiction—many of them have a hard time getting food in Vermont. Sometimes feeling trapped on farms, sending large portions of their pay to family members back home, often without access to transportation, and not finding familiar foods in grocery stores, these workers contend with varying degrees of food insecurity.
“People that are directly putting food on the proverbial American Table are going hungry or facing nutritional deficiencies—that is a very striking issue,” says professor of anthropology Teresa Mares. Her research aims to understand the complex networks, both in local communities and the global economy, that make this problem possible.
Mares wants to better understand the situation these people face—and she also wants to help directly. Which is why last year she joined forces with Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, the migrant health coordinator with UVM Extension’s Bridges to Health program. Since 2009, Wolcott-MacCausland has helped lead a project called Huertas, which in Spanish means “kitchen garden.” And that is exactly what the project provides.
On about twenty-five dairy farms in Franklin County (where Wolcott-MacCausland herself grew up on a dairy farm), and a handful in other parts of the state, farm owners, Latino workers, community volunteers, and UVM students have joined together to build gardens. With donated seedlings, the workers grow foods they want, many that are part of traditional Mexican cooking: jalapenos, epazote, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and habeneros.
It’s a harvest that plays a role in both feeding the body and also bringing people together to ease the pangs of isolation.
"We’ve come a long way from not so long ago when farmers hesitated to label their food ‘organic’ because they worried people would assume there were worms in their broccoli.”
Enid Wonnacott G’92, director of Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, speaking at an April 9 panel discussion on “UVM and the Future of Vermont’s Agriculture.”
The UVM Farmer Training Program is an intensive, six-month program for aspiring farmers and food system advocates that provides a hands-on education in sustainable agriculture. The program offers participants the opportunity to manage their own growing site, take classes with faculty and expert farmers, and work and learn on diverse, successful farms in the Burlington area. Participants earn a Certificate in Sustainable Farming, a deeper understanding of agricultural management and small-scale farming, and the entrepreneurial skills to start their own operations. The farmland in Burlington’s Intervale, just a mile from campus, is a key resource for the program.
FARM 2 SCHOOL
by Megan Camp ’84
Across the past fifteen years, a quiet revolution has taken place in Vermont as initiatives have been launched to help schools build relationships with farmers in their communities, serve local foods in their cafeterias, and integrate food, farming, and nutrition education into their curricula. These diverse efforts fall under the umbrella label “Farm to School” and they are the work of thousands—farmers, parents, teachers, administrators, doctors, nurses, food service staff, funders, businesses, nonprofits and government, including our Vermont legislators and congressional delegation.
Over the past decade, 60 percent of Vermont schools have started a Farm to School program and the adoption rate is accelerating. In 2007, the first Farm to School legislation in the country was passed and funded in Vermont, creating a small grant program for schools. Programs as small as one school and as large as a whole region have blossomed into a statewide network.
What does that mean for Vermont? Farm to School enables every child to have access to nutritious food while building markets for local farmers. It offers nutrition and agriculture education, school garden development, composting programs, and farm visits. Teachers, food service staff, students and their families learn where their food comes from, who grew their food, and how their food choices affect their health, the environment, and their communities.
What could it mean for the nation? In 2010, a White House Summit on Childhood Obesity identified Farm to School as one of the top five strategies for improving student health and nutrition. Thanks to support from Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont was the first Farm to School program to receive funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate best practices. There’s reason to hope that ten years from now the United States might look back on a national Farm to School revolution and find its roots right here in Vermont.
Megan Camp ’84 is vice president and program director of Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit education center that offers programs for youth, families, and adults on sustainable farming and food. This essay is excerpted from a piece that appeared in the Burlington Free Press in August 2010.
by David Zuckerman '95
Farmers markets, more than just a place to buy veggies, are about a return to community. From the perspective of both a farmer and state senator, I find that these markets provide essential and vital opportunities for people in our state to come together. For me, it’s a key place to connect—with customers, friends, constituents. And as I overhear countless conversations among neighbors, it’s clear I’m not alone in that.
For twenty-six weeks each season, on Saturday mornings, City Hall Park in Burlington comes alive. Starting around 6:30 in the morning, we vendors of agricultural goods, prepared foods, and a variety of handcrafted Vermont products come together to set up our booths. As we all exchange our greetings, stories are shared from the past week. We’re truly a community in our own right.
Soon enough, the people of Greater Burlington start to arrive—retired bank officers, teachers, janitors, software developers, hair cutters, government workers, pilots, dog owners, teenagers, folks dressed to the nines as well as just about every other stripe from the community. While they’re certainly in the park because of the freshest vegetables and baked goods, what is really happening is far more than commerce. Customers start inquiring about things on the farm, discussing recent news, and connecting with friends from throughout the community.
Between weighing vegetables and making sales, I see all of this from my stand at the market. I revel in the spirit of what happens in downtown Burlington on those Saturday mornings and know that the same scene plays out in so many other towns and villages throughout Vermont. It’s a joy to be there watching folks slow down to appreciate what we have as a community.
David Zuckerman ’95, together with his wife, Rachel Nevitt, owns and runs the organic Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg. He is also a Vermont state senator representing Chittenden County.
UNDER THE SUN
Ice crystals and dust blow up from the winter-gray fields of Jericho Settlers Farm. It’s early April. A crowd of perhaps twenty-five farmers stomp their boots and blow on their mittens, waiting to get into a tunnel.
The owners of this farm, Christa Alexander and Mark Fasching, point to the tunnel’s entrance. There is nothing hobbit-like about it. Instead, a delicious warm breeze washes across our faces as we go in and sunlight filters in from all sides.
This is a “high tunnel,” basically a metal-pipe-frame shed covered in two layers of translucent plastic. It’s a low-cost variant of the traditional glass greenhouse. The farmers are here, on a tour sponsored by NOFA-VT and UVM Extension, to learn how a high tunnel might extend their growing seasons. Thousands of onion, tomato, and cilantro seedlings stretch in a green lawn across metal tables.
For Professor Vern Grubinger, the vegetable and berry specialist at UVM Extension, these tunnels are one of dozens of innovations he sees adding up to a quiet revolution in American agriculture that Vermont farmers are helping to lead.
He lists the ongoing rise of organic farming techniques, artisan cheese, expanding farmers markets, wholesale “food hubs,” direct sales from farms to schools, oilseed crops for on-farm fuel production, “deep zone” tillage, and many others—including various flavors of tunnels and hoop-houses.
These range from unheated ones made from scrap lumber to elegant giants that roll on metal rails with sophisticated fan and heating systems—but one goal is the same: capture winter as a profitable season for farming. Some hardy greens can be extended past New Year’s and other plants can be held dormant, ready for market in early spring.
“The main heat in here is propane?” asks Chris Callahan, an agricultural engineer with UVM Extension who is helping to lead this tour.
“And the sun,” says Mark Fasching.