Vermont — an agricultural classroom

By Chuck Ross

Higher education in Vermont is working to make the state the best place for farm and food education in the country.

“First,” “Most,” and “Highest” often describe the Vermont food system. On a per capita basis, Vermont has more local and organic farms, community supported enterprises, and farmers’ markets than any other state in the country. The state is also the per capita national leader in direct sales to consumers, and ranks No. 1 among the top five states for new farmers to get their start.

With the foundation of Vermont’s leadership in sustainable agriculture, food systems development and locally-sourced food products, our state’s educators — in partnership with entrepreneurs, food producers, and farmers — have formed a new collaboration to redefine farm and food system higher education in Vermont.

The Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium — comprised of leaders from Green Mountain College, Middlebury College, Sterling College, University of Vermont, Vermont Law School, and Vermont Technical College — are tapping Vermont’s agricultural traditions and entrepreneurism to make Vermont the emerging epicenter of the nation’s food system renewal.

Providing academic programming and certificates in almost two dozen core areas of food systems study, Vermont farm and food education emphasizes integration of classical academic instruction coupled with experiential learning engagements focusing on sustainability and service learning with seasoned entrepreneurs.

As part of this experience, Vermont’s colleges, universities and graduate schools are engaging a creative new generation of networked farm and food entrepreneurs as student mentors. These businesspeople are growing Vermont-scaled companies that create and market biofuels, beer, wine, and spirits, artisan and cave-aged cheese, specialty wood products, organic seeds, produce, fruits, grains, meats and many other value-added products.

Together, Vermont’s food system innovators are reaching potential students throughout Vermont, the U.S. and the world with a premier food system education experience — one that is grounded in the core Vermont values of entrepreneurship, community and committed leadership.

The Vermont food system education experience reflects Vermont’s identity, cultivating and inspiring the next generation of students interested in stewarding the working landscape while enhancing food systems enterprise development. By feeding Vermont higher education, a key economic driver, students are supporting the state’s working landscape, seeding the next stage of entrepreneurial activity, and creating an innovative sustainable food systems model that may be replicated in other communities and other regions. There are endless opportunities to learn among our leaders right here in the Green Mountains.

As part of the collaboration, the consortium has created a 21-day Vermont Study Tour, launching in June. In this moveable feast of learning, students will traverse the state to spend several days at each of the six schools, learning from farmers, policy experts, food justice advocates, agricultural education specialists, land conservationists, and entrepreneurs of all types. Examining place, players, policy and profitability, the summer study tour uses Vermont education and agriculture as a framework to provide an insider’s perspective on what it takes to create a just, sustainable and resilient food system. It empowers participants with invaluable tools for helping communities transform the way in which it sources, grows, processes, purchases and contemplates food.

The Consortium has launched website (www.vermontfoodeducation.org) directed at students to generate inquiries to schools within the context of food systems education in Vermont. The Consortium’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/vhefsc) reflects a dynamic collection of real-time events, achievements and news from Vermont’s corner of the food system education world.

Here in Vermont, educators and innovators are mentoring students from around the globe to become part of a larger community of leaders, researchers and catalysts for the sustainability and integrity of global food systems. Our higher education partners are making Vermont our classroom. Working together, Vermont food producers, farmers and educators are leading the way to real change.

Chuck Ross is Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture.