By Nicole Belanger, NOFA/Mass PR Coordinator & Newsletter Editor
Farming at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is seeing a resurgence after decades of waning interest in agriculture and shifting university priorities. A long way from its origins as an agricultural land grant college in the 1860s, many barns and other agricultural facilities on campus were dismantled or repurposed in the 1950s and 1960s as its student body, and the culture at large, became less interested in small scale family farms. Only one barn remains on campus, an old horse barn originally built in 1894 that is now out of place as new buildings rise around it.
In the past ten years enrollment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture’s Sustainable Food and Farming major has increased from five students to nearly 100. Many on campus hope that the days of students needing to drive to farm sites off campus, or worse, working solely in labs and greenhouses and never setting foot in a field, are long gone.
Stephen Herbert saw that last horse barn on campus, 40 acres of under-utilized farmland owned by the university, and the increasing need for students to get hands-on experience in the field as a match. Herbert was, until recently, the Director of the Center for Agriculture and is now returning to his role as teaching faculty. In the 1960s the 40+ acre field just north of campus was purchased by the University from four farm families. When the University of Massachusetts Medical School, originally slated for that parcel, was built elsewhere, those 40 acres became hay fields for the next 50 years.
This site has become the Agricultural Learning Center (ALC)–the only farm in walking distance of the Amherst campus. Students and faculty alike are enthusiastic about the possibility the center presents for future farmers. In 2012 a groundbreaking was held, with children of families who formerly owned the four farms in attendance to celebrate the university’s commitment to agriculture. With a well-documented aging farmer population, Agricultural Learning Center Project Manager Sandy Thomas says, “We need well educated young people learning how to grow food.”
Herbert’s ultimate vision is to relocate the last barn on campus to the ALC site, rehabilitating the barn into a functional classroom, laboratory and greenhouse space. According to Herbert, the cost of moving the barn alone is 1.5 million dollars. Rehabbing the interior could cost another million or more dollars, bringing the project’s total cost to 2.5 million. The Massachusetts Farm Bureau has raised the $500,000 they pledged to see the project happen. The ALC seeks additional major donors to complete the project. Until the funds are raised, the barn will not be moved.
In 2008, students approached professor Ruth Hazzard for permission to use part of a certified organic University research farm in South Deerfield to grow vegetables for Earthfoods, a student-run restaurant on campus. Since that first season, the Student Farming Enterprise has grown dramatically, now a year-round class that produces food for a 45-member CSA, a campus farmers’ market, as well as seasonal sales to the Northampton and Amherst Big Y supermarkets.
Students in the program work over the course of one year on every aspect of the business: choosing crops to plant, purchasing seeds, and overseeing the organic certification process. Professor Amanda Brown manages the site and the class. In 2013 the class began working on a six-acre plot on the ALC site. Brown intends to work with students to get the ALC plot certified organic in 2014. Though the Student Farming Enterprise has a lot of infrastructure set up in S. Deerfield, with its 15 certified organic acres, Brown thinks it’s likely that the program will have a larger presence at the ALC site going forward.
Like most public universities, UMass’s farming education blends organic and non-organic growing methods. Very few public universities have exclusively organic farms on their campus. (Washington State’s Evergreen State College and University of California Santa Cruz are some exceptions, only farming organically.)
As the Student Farming Enterprise at the ALC will coexist with non-organic vegetable production, land care, and apple production, care must be taken to ensure organic crops are not contaminated. Brown sees good record keeping, border maintenance, equipment cleaning, and making sure organic crops like corn are not fertile at the same time as non-organic, GMO corn crops as essential to maintaining the integrity of the organic land and organic crop.
NOFA/Mass Policy Director Jack Kittredge is enthusiastic that UMass is responsive to the increasing interest in farming and the needs of their students to have direct, on-farm experience. Kittredge also applauds efforts to relocate and preserve the historic campus barn, which he says, “captures the spirit of old-fashioned New England.”
He sees the new center and renewed interest in agriculture on campus as an opportunity for Massachusetts and UMass to take a leading role in non-GMO, organic and sustainable farming. As Europe has restricted GMOs, Kittredge believes GMOs will likely be restricted in the region and country in the near future and would like to see the University at the forefront.
The future of farming on campus
In 2012 it was announced that the ALC received a $10,000 donation from the Monsanto Fund, the philanthropic branch of the Monsanto Co. Some community members and students voiced their concerns that the multinational corporation would influence the direction of the ALC.
While John Gerber, Stockbridge School of Agriculture professor, thought there was legitimate concern, especially given the influence on corporate agriculture funding on other public universities, ultimately he doesn’t believe that industrialized agriculture is the future of Massachusetts farming, which has historically had small farms. According to the UMass Center for Agriculture, in 2007 the largest number of farms in the state was between 10-49 acres. Gerber sees an opportunity for Massachusetts to, “take a lead in organic and other sustainable types of farming.”
Though the USDA claims that organic and conventional crops can coexist in a close proximity, Kittredge believes that the two cannot coexist because of issues like genetic drift and ground contamination. Kittredge believes UMass is doing their best within the system and hopes to continue to see the University teach students about, and mitigate, potential problems with the two different systems coexisting.
Ultimately, John Gerber sees the push towards organic, sustainable, non-industrial farming as being lead by students, a trend he thinks will continue. In addition to their responding to a changing world, Gerber recognizes that students are hungry for meaning in their lives, in part led by a quest for an increased quality of life.
“Students want to see organic, sustainable things. A lot of [what is happening at the University] is in response to what students are saying they want to learn,” says Brown. She sees so much support for the Student Farming Enterprise and their production practices. She also recognizes there is a market for what they’re doing, saying that buyers like Big Y are “only interested in organic.”
A place for partnerships
The University does not have funds to pay for the relocation and rehabilitation of the old horse barn. Stephen Herbert hopes for a few more major donors and for individual donations to see the barn project happen.
The barn would provide needed classroom space for the University to meet growing student demand and to further partnerships with programs mitigating poverty in the Pioneer Valley, community education projects, and organizations like NOFA (who has held its 1000+ attendee summer conference at UMass since 2008), Amanda Brown is ready to get to work on the ALC, saying “whether there’s a barn there or not we are going to do it.”
To learn more about the UMass’ Agricultural Learning Center visit http://ag.umass.edu/agricultural-learning- center. To learn more about the Student Farming Enterprise visit http://extension.umass.edu/vegetable/ projects/student-farming-enterprise
The Bachelor of Sciences degree in Sustainable Food and Farming is described here.
Published in the NOFA November, 2013 Newsletter