Math, Literature, and...Sheep Flock Management?

For several students at Green Mountain College in Vermont, a normal day at schools means milking cows and butchering livestock

Story and photos by Felicia Bonanno

what's this pic about?

Student-painted artsy windmills decorate the side of one barn.

“The farm? It’s behind the library, that building right over there,” says the bundled up student. He is wearing full snow gear, bent over a person who is lying, seemingly asleep, in a sleeping bag in the snow. The man is taking notes furiously, hardly looking up from his notepad as he answers my question. Behind him, a woman is building a snow fort, and two other students are bent over people wrapped in sleeping bags.

 “Sorry we can’t help more,” says the face from the sleeping bag. “We are in the middle of a situation for a class.”

I return to my Volvo and drive behind the library to an empty parking lot. In front of me is a barn atop a hill, displaying a sign with red and yellow letters: “Cerridwen Farm.” Brown chickens roam freely in and around the barn; a milk cow stands about contentedly, surrounded by blue, green, and yellow wooden flowers atop fence posts; a pink and black pig comes out to greet me; a couple of oxen gaze down at the greenhouses at the bottom of the hill.

 “Sorry we can’t help more. We are in the middle of a situation for a class.”

Cerridwen Farm is a centerpiece of Green Mountain College, a four-year liberal arts college in Poultney, Vt.; enjoying the outdoors is almost a prerequisite. During the warm months, one can pass by the college and observe dozens of tents pitched on the lawn where students often reside during the summer farming intensive. It would be difficult to find someone on campus who wasn’t willing to talk about sustainability or their love for nature — unless, of course, they were in the middle of a situation for a class. Cerridwen Farm showcases their passion for sustainability and nature.

With over 20 acres of production, the college farm boasts of livestock, vegetable gardens, two high tunnels, plenty of enthusiastic student workers, and close to no fossil fuels. The farm is part of the GMC Farm and Food Project, which aims to teach students about the importance of nature, nurture and nutrition by allowing them to work on the farm. “I think it's important for everyone to understand where their food comes from and how much effort it takes to produce it,” says Laura Wolfgang, a senior at GMC studying Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production.

“I think it's important for everyone to understand where their food comes from and how much effort it takes to produce it.”

Since farming is a year-round job and students tend to come and go, Cerridwen Farm is not totally student-run, although close to a quarter of the student body has worked on the farm at one time or another, according to Philip Ackerman-Leist, director of the GMC Farm and Food Project.  This work could include anything from keeping records to regular farm chores like caring for the animals to seeding, watering, and maintaining vegetable gardens. Some of Wolfgang’s daily activities on the farm have included communicating with the farm’s CSA members, overseeing spring planting, managing the sheep flock, and opening and closing the greenhouses. “They have to be incredibly committed,” Ackerman-Leist says. Eventually, the farm’s ultimate goal is to use no fossil-fuels at all. “Students are really drawn in their first year or two. Some stay for years, others devote a few hours here and there. Either way, it’s pretty amazing to be on a college campus and see students coming out to do chores at 6 or 7 a.m.”

After the third or fourth year, he says, some students stay at the farm and become mentors or leaders, but others feel they need to move on to other farms to build their knowledge base. Others don’t become farmers at all but instead become farm and food educators or policy workers.  

“The beauty for me is seeing what happens when they leave here,” Ackerman-Leist says.

“For students who don't want to be farmers, I see the value of the farm as a way to connect them to their food system.”

 “For students who don't want to be farmers, I see the value of the farm as a way to connect them to their food system,” Wolfgang says.  “We have lots of volunteers who just want to hang out with the animals and get their feet dirty. After I graduate I want to work towards creating a self-sufficient, sustainable, small-scale, draft-powered, communally owned and operated farm. I definitely see myself using a lot of the same methods we practice on the college farm.”

what's this pic about?

A chicken roams free around the barn.

The college recognizes a need for sustainable practices, and they emphasize that need in their course work.

“The kind of farm we are is one that is pushing the limits of sustainability,” says Keith Mulder, manager of Cerridwen Farm.  “We utilize solar, human, animal, and wind power and try to show how these can all fit into agriculture everywhere.”

A windmill and an array of passive solar panels power the high tunnels. The farm also uses human-powered vegetable production, a draft animal power system with their oxen, and small scale equipment, all of which are part of a long-term 10-year research project comparing the three. Mulder works with students and postdoctoral students to look at minimizing fossil fuels in vegetable production and then actually measure the production. The research also includes a weeding-out  process based on whether certain methods are cost effective or not, whether they will pay off and how long it will take to pay off, the pros and cons of each method, and the assessment of each method to create better designs.

“It frustrates me sometimes because everything is so experimental and our system is constantly influx, but that's also what's so wonderful about it,” Wolfgang says.  “It's a safe space for students to test their ideas, build new skills, and see if they're cut out for this whole farming thing before going out into the real world.”

“The kind of farm we are is one that is pushing the limits of sustainability.”

“We are really pushing the envelope in terms of fossil-free agriculture,” Ackerman-Leist says.

The Farm and Food Project began 14 years ago when Ackerman-Leist wanted to start a quarter acre college garden.

“Then, it was just me,” says Ackerman-Leist, who used all his own labor and money to create a garden during its first year. “The first year was a little lonely, but after students tasted the cherry tomatoes at the end of the first year, lots of people started flocking out.”

By the third year, says Ackerman-Leist, the students had taken the garden under their own wing. In 2000, his Sustainable Farming Systems class came up with a way to turn the farm behind the library (then used for training horses for the Saratoga Racetrack and Yonkers) into a working farm for the college. From there it was transformed from a garden into what is now known as Cerridwen Farm, named after the Welsh goddess of fertility and agriculture to keep up with the regional community’s strong Welsh tradition. Today the vegetables for sale have to be taken away in vehicles instead of just carts because there is so much to carry.

“We are really pushing the envelope in terms of fossil-free agriculture.”

Cerridwen Farm is subsidized by the college in many ways, but the farm has generated much of its income through sales, which are reinvested into the farm’s infrastructure. This year’s profits should be roughly $30,000, according to Ackerman-Leist.

what's this pic about?

Students working on Cerridwen Farm know the importance of farms in communities.

The students butcher the livestock and gather the vegetables to sell locally. One regular buyer, restaurant owner Dale Sullivan of Café Dale in Poultney, Vt., has her very own row in the vegetable garden.  “I purchase all of my produce from them,” Sullivan says. “They really have a great variety.” Sullivan makes canned tomatoes and pickles with their produce and also buys zucchini, onions, green beans, and three kinds of squash to use in her restaurant’s home-made soups and sandwiches. “I like buying locally,” Sullivan says. “It’s very important to me that I support the college kids because they support me. I think it’s wonderful what they’re doing, and I hope they continue because I enjoy it immensely.”

The food is served in the school’s dining hall, as well. “You would be hard-pressed to find someone on this campus who has never eaten anything from this farm,” Mulder says. “It’s very exciting.”

According to Mulder, the Farm and Food Project has also received about $250,000 in grants over the past four years to help fund their research. “The funding has helped in the last couple of years,” Ackerman-Leist says. “It’s really neat to see it all come together.”

 “The college farm is an incredible resource for students on campus,” Wolfgang says. “It has been my classroom, my laboratory, my playground, and my sanctuary for the last year.”   

 “What’s important to me is seeing the contagion factor,” Ackerman-Leist says. “I love seeing how students gravitate toward the farm. What I hope it means is that it’s a seeding of a lot of new farmers in this region and nationwide.”

How important is buying local food and practicing sustainability in your household?

Top of Page