Stockbridge School of Ag Students Serve the Local Community

amherstbulleJohn M. Gerber      –     Friday, February 27, 2015

One of the most exciting programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst today is an undergraduate major that serves the citizens of Amherst and surrounding towns by growing food, growing community and “growing” new farmers.

As local and regional food production expands in New England, so does enrollment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture’s Sustainable Food and Farming program. UMass graduates are engaged in creating ventures to relocalize the food system to create more community and to reduce the carbon cost of shipping food long distances.

UMass began as the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863 and recently the former “Mass Aggie” was recognized as having the third-best agricultural science program in the U.S. and the eighth best in the world. Levi Stockbridge, Hadley farmer and one of the first teachers at Mass Aggie, would be proud. Building on its historic mission of practical research, outreach to the community and hands-on education, today’s Stockbridge School helps educate young women and men in ecological landscape management and sustainable food systems — crucial training in an era threatened by the impact of radical climate change.

Many Stockbridge students and grads are committed to implementing the Food Solutions New England vision of producing at least half of New England’s food by 2060. They contribute to this goal by working toward careers in local food and farming, urban agriculture, permaculture, herbal medicine, community education and advocacy for a more sustainable and just world.

An example of a local business providing students with valuable experience is the All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, started by area people committed to the relocalization vision. Stockbridge students and graduates volunteer at this year-round farmers’ market, some selling products they produced themselves, such as organic eggs, milk, artisan tea, blueberries, fermented kombucha, mushrooms and other vegetables.

Other Stockbridge students engage with their local community by working with Grow Food Amherst, a network of neighbors and students uniting town and gown. Amherst Development and Conservation Director David Ziomek planted the seed, and Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello nurtures the project with monthly meetings that engage over 450 residents helping to move Amherst towards greater food-resiliency.

Many students gain valuable experience by working on local farms, nonprofit organizations, co-ops, local businesses and community groups. The vibrant local food economy of the Pioneer Valley provides a supportive environment for food entrepreneurs, and Stockbridge is closely tied to this rapidly growing community of young people.

Building on Levi Stockbridge’s commitment to experiential learning, students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major are actively engaged in hands-on learning projects that contribute both to their own education as well as to the local community. For example: The UMass Student Farm is a year-round class where students manage a small organic farm and sell their produce through food service and retail markets — including a popular on-campus farmers’ market.

The Permaculture Initiative has converted underused grass lawns on campus into edible, low-maintenance food gardens, winning the White House Champions of Change competition in 2012.

The Massachusetts Renaissance Center Garden is a demonstration garden open to the public, featuring the herbs and vegetables grown during Shakespeare’s time.

The Student Food Advocacy group and Chancellor Subbaswamy signed the Real Food Commitment, which ensures that by 2020, at least 20 percent of the food purchased for the dining halls will be local, organic, fair trade and animal-friendly.

The School Garden Project helps K-6 teachers at Amherst elementary schools create vegetable and herb gardens as living classrooms.

The Food for All Garden at the new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center is a student-led project that grows food with the help of Amherst community members, and distributes the food through Not Bread Alone and the Amherst Survival Center.

Stockbridge students and alums are committed to building a more sustainable food system focused on environmental quality, social justice and economic vitality. These young visionaries imagine a world where the bulk of one’s food comes from local and regional farms. They believe that a consciousness rooted in sustainability will deepen as producers and consumers become more self-aware members of a community of caring for each other and the earth.

But these young entrepreneurs need our help. We buy food from local farmers at a rate far greater than the national average, yet these purchases represent less than 10 percent of total agricultural sales. We can do better. We can support these young people by buying their products from local farms, at our new All Things Local Cooperative, and at our weekly farmers’ markets.

At the same time we can invest in one of the key economic development objectives of the Amherst Master Plan, relocalization, and help the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture grow local food, grow community and grow more local farmers.

John Gerber is a member of the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project, a professor in the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture and founding member of Grow Food Amherst.

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