TO: Stockbridge Students who have taken classes in French Hall
FROM: John M. Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food & Farming
While you were studying horticultural plant pathology with Bess Dicklow, or sustainable agriculture with Katie Campbell-Nelson, or visiting your adviser Doug Cox or Susan Han, did you ever wonder who French Hall was named after? Probably not.
You have surely walked by the plaque near the front door commemorating Henry Flagg French, the first President of Massachusetts Agricultural College (Mass Aggie).
A native of New Hampshire and graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, French loved agriculture but spent most of his career as a lawyer and a judge. He operated a farm, did his own agricultural research and was considered a leader in the emerging application of science to agriculture.
French held the post of president for two years, resigning in 1866 even before any students had arrived. According to Henry Bowker, a student who entered Mass Aggie with the first class in 1867, and remained connected as an alum and trustee for many years, “Judge” French “was a keen, sensitive man, with q good mind, highly trained and well informed, rather distant in manner, but kindly in nature.” Professor French was said to be well ahead of his time in his thinking on agriculture.
His short stay as President seems to have been because of an argument with the Board of Trustees (not an uncommon problem for college presidents then and today) over the proposed placement of new buildings. It seems that the original design for the campus was created by the famous architect who designed Central Park in N.Y. City, Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1866 the Trustees of Massachusetts Agricultural College requested that Olmsted, provide recommendations for the grounds of the newly formed institution.
Olmsted recommended that the college as a whole be modeled after a typical New England village. The Board of Trustees did not like the plan, fired Olmsted, and proceeded place buildings in a more expansive manner, spread farther apart among the fields. French seems have sided with Olmsted, and lost.
After leaving Mass Aggie, French moved to Washington D.C. and served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury on the President’s Cabinet. He also authored a book titled “Farm Drainage” which described the way a particular type of drain was used called a “French Drain” which were probably invented in France but popularized by Professor French.
While here for only a few years, “Judge” French had a lasting impact on the policies and core values of the new college. The following was taken from a report he wrote: “Our college is to be established as part of the great scheme of public education…., not as a rival to our other excellent colleges, but as a co-worker with them in a common cause.”
Remember that prior to the Morrill Act of 1862, signed by President Lincoln, all of the colleges in the U.S. were private institutions offering education only to the wealthy. Levi Stockbridge himself, was frustrated because his father could only afford to send one of his son’s to Amherst College, and his older brother Henry was chosen. Nevertheless, Levi attended classes with his brother, and was mentored by Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock in chemistry. Public institutions, such as Mass Aggie which offered a free college education for many years to anyone qualified, was a radical departure from the elite colleges of the day.
Judge French has strongly held democratic tendencies and claimed that Mass Aggie should “… differ essentially from any college existing in the country controlled by an aristocracy.” Further, he wrote in one of the first reports ever coming from the nascent University of Massachusetts Amherst that “wealth and education, monopolized by any class in any country, will draw to that class the political control of the country.” Sounds like Judge French would have camped out with the protesters at the Occupy Wall Street site!
One of my favorite quotes from French is above. He believed that we must “recast society into a system of equality.” Indeed he fully understood the purpose of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which was passed “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
Few things are more inspiring than seeing a young person create a meaningful place in society from scratch. That’s the case with Ava Bynum, who grew up near our home in Philipstown, N.Y., and — setting aside the idea of college — created a program for local schools, Hudson Valley Seed, built around incorporating basic learning with gardening and nutrition. The program now serves about 1,500 students a week in schools in several Hudson Valley counties.
These two videos tell the story far better than I could, so I hope you’ll spend a few minutes this Earth Day weekend watching and sharing them. (Here’s the program’s Facebook page.)
Are there gardening-education programs where you live? If not, I’m sure Bynum would be happy to spread the joy of learning.
For most of my adult life, I have been a teacher of sorts, first as a university professor, and now as the director of a science museum. While the students and settings have changed, the job has remained the same — to share the wonders of the natural world, and teach the science we need to understand and sustain our planet.
Over time, I have come to believe that our environmental problems stem from too many people not understanding, or intentionally overlooking, the physical and biological systems governing this planet. We have gotten very good at ignoring nature’s laws, pretending that we are exempt from them.
But we’re not, and that’s where our problems arise. Whether we’re causing dangerous climate change, degrading the world’s ecosystems, or collapsing our natural resources, environmental problems begin when we ignore the physical limits of our planet, and act as if they don’t apply to us. This is a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance.
As a science educator, I feel we can and should do a far better job of helping people see and understand the systems that govern our world, and internalize the lessons they can teach us. In other words, we need to truly learn the lessons our living planet can teach us, and start living by them. Only then can we truly sustain our environment, and our civilization, into the future.
And we must share these “planet lessons” with as many people as possible — presidents and preschoolers, CEOs and cab drivers, parents and policy-makers. We all need to learn the lessons of our living world, and act accordingly.
I’ve decided to do my part by sharing some of the planet lessons I’ve learned so far.
Lesson One. Physics Trumps Politics and Economics. Every Time.
The first lesson I learned from the planet is about the absurdity of our “real world” politics and economics.
Despite what many people claim, politics and economics are arbitrary systems of belief that people in power have invented over the years. And regardless of what we have been brought up to believe, the planet does not actually obey the rules of politics and economics. It never has.
Although our beliefs about these systems are often useful, ultimately they are entirely negotiable. After all, people in power just made them up. Believing otherwise isn’t just lazy thinking, it’s an excuse people use to justify poor decision-making and maintain the status quo. When you hear someone dismiss something sensible and necessary — like protecting our oceans, shifting to 100% renewable energy sources, or making agriculture sustainable — because it “isn’t economical” or “isn’t political feasible”, what they’re really saying, whether they realize or not, is “that’s kind of inconvenient for people in power right now, so please don’t talk about it.”
Instead of allowing ourselves to be trapped by arbitrary economic and political systems, we should instead focus more attention on what really governs the planet: the physical systems that have been operating here for eons.
Unlike politics and economics, Earth’s physics, chemistry, and biology are natural systems based on empirical, reproducible facts. And these facts are fixed and entirely non-negotiable. Nature doesn’t care what we choose to believe, and you can’t cheat the laws of physics. Ever. Ignoring them is at best shortsighted. At worst, it guarantees the demise of our civilization.
That’s why it is so alarming that some political leaders ignore the laws of physics and profess that climate change is not “real”. Of course it is. The greenhouse effect has been understood since the early 19th century, and we have overwhelming evidence that increasing CO2 levels are warming the planet. Denying those facts is either dishonest or delusional. While the basic physical realities of climate change are no longer debatable, the political and economic concerns are. For example, what should we do about climate change? What will it cost us, and who will pay? But let’s not confuse negotiable political and economic frameworks with the non-negotiable, inviolable laws of physics.
We can — and should — have debates about how our political and economic systems solve the problems we face. After all, economics and politics are meantto be debated. But for these debates to be rational and productive, we need to understand and acknowledge the physical realities of the planet. What we cannot do is pretend that the laws of physics are somehow ours to control or ignore, as we see fit. On that path lies delusion and ruin.
Lesson Two. Thermodynamics and Systems Thinking are Powerful Tools.
The next lesson I’ve learned over the years is that thermodynamics and systems thinking are very powerful tools for understanding and describing the workings of our planet.
Thermodynamics is the study of energy — how it flows through the universe, and how it changes from one form to another. It is also a good way to learn about life, as living systems are ultimately all about energy — energy gathered from the sun, converted to biochemical form, and consumed by countless creatures until it is ultimately released back into the universe. Energy is what fuels everything on this planet, and maintains its order, organization, and evolution. To understand Earth’s biology, climate, water cycle, chemical cycles, and so on, you must first understand the basics of thermodynamics.
Systems thinking is another powerful tool for our mental toolbox, as it helps us organize our view of the world, seeing connections among all of Earth’s living and non-living things. Systems thinking provides a framework through which to view the planet — through the lenses of complexity, feedback loops, and the countless connections of stocks and flows coursing through the environment. Systems thinking also helps us build powerful models — whether conceptual models in our heads or numerical models running on a computer — that enable us to test our understanding of the world. Of all of the things I’ve learned in my education so far, systems thinking has been the most useful.
Thermodynamics and systems thinking, combined with some keen observations of the natural world, can give us many important insights, including:
Earth is powered by renewable energy. The sun provides nearly all of the energy used to power life on Earth, as well as fueling all of our weather, ocean currents, and water cycling. Earth receives 1,370 Watts of heat and light per square meter of sunlit space — something we call the “solar constant” — and that’s been enough energy for the planet to do everything for billions of years. In fact, for all of Earth’s history, natural systems have lived on this “solar income”. And we can, too, if we put our minds to it. Sunlight — and associated energy from wind, waves, and biomass — can provide all the energy we need. Ultimately, it has to.
Nature has almost zero waste. Earth is essentially a “materially closed” system. Short of the occasional meteorite, nothing much enters the planet, and nothing much leaves the planet either. That means there are only so many carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus atoms, water molecules, and so on, on the planet to work with. So natural systems have gotten very good at recycling everything. In fact, living things rarely create “waste.” What’s waste to one organism is quite often food for another. For example, a single phosphorous atom — a necessary ingredient for life — can be recycled hundreds of times within a forest, before it’s gently redeposited into Earth’s sediments, where geology will ultimately recycle it once again. Unfortunately, we humans use many goods only once before they become waste or toxic pollution. We need to mimic nature’s frugality with material, and get much, much better at emulating Earth’s “circular economy.”
Earth’s ecosystems build strength and resilience from diversity.Evolution has created a remarkable diversity of life, which is extremely resilient in the face of change. Nearly every flow of energy and matter, and practically every ecological niche, functional trait, and space is being used by something. And if one ecological link fails, others typically pick up the slack. Sadly, humans seem to ignore this lesson. We tend to build monocultures, especially in agriculture, with only one link; if that one fails, the whole system fails. We need to realize that diversity is essential to building strong, enduring, and sustainable systems.
Lesson Three: We Need a Big Dose of Humility.
The natural world has also taught me that we should be far less arrogant about the power of our science and technology. We still have so much to learn.
It’s humbling, but we have to admit that nature does things that we cannot yet do ourselves. Even the simplest pond scum is able to run entirely on renewable energy, with nearly infinite recycling, with extraordinary diversity and resilience. In short, nature is one hell of an engineer.
Sadly, we are still far from matching the capabilities of the natural world. We still use dirty fossil fuels, not renewable energy — leading to air pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, and other critical problems. We still recklessly extract raw materials from nature, far faster than they can be regenerated, so they inevitably run out. Our throw-away culture then uses something once, creating a dangerous waste product that is tossed into the environment. Unfortunately, we continue to ignore the lessons even simple pond scum can teach us.
What we need is a big dose of humility, and to admit that we have much to learn from the rest of life on Earth. The rest of life has learned the lessons of the planet, and we have not.
Lesson Four. Go Outdoors and Observe Nature.
Nature is the best teacher I’ve ever had. I learned about photosynthesis, carbon stocks, and nutrient cycling from my garden. And I learned about meteorology and oceanography by watching clouds and waves. While classroom learning is certainly important, it is crucial that we spend time observing and interacting with the natural world to truly internalize the lessons of the planet.
Thankfully, many people are beginning to look to nature as a source of inspiration and solutions. And we can follow their lead.
For example, keen observations of the natural world have led to the basic concept and innovations of biomimicry, which seeks to design products that emulate solutions already found in nature. Observations of nature have also spurred the development of agroecology and permaculture, which seek to design agricultural systems that emulate processes found in nature. We have also begun to more keenly recognize the flow of ecosystem goods and services and how they support human wellbeing.
We should look to nature for even more practical solutions for living sustainably on planet Earth. After all, if we just stop to look, and learn, nature can teach us how to build extraordinary things, with zero waste, amazing resilience, all powered by the sun.
Final Lesson. Get to Work!
Finally, the natural world has inspired me to roll up my sleeves, focus on the problems we can solve, and get to work.
Whether we realize it or not, the fate of the planet is now in our hands. We are a driving force on an enormously complex planetary machine, and most of the people in charge have no idea how it operates, or are still under the mistaken belief that political and economic systems outweigh the laws of physics. They simply don’t know the rules. Worse yet, they are obeying the wrong rules. This is a very dangerous situation.
Our leaders — hell, all of us — urgently need a crash course in how the planet really works, including the principles we need to follow in order to thrive into the future. We must learn the lessons of the planet so we can build a civilization that endures.
So far, there is no major, and no degree that teach these lessons of the planet. It’s not that simple. In the meantime, a mix of humility, a little training in physics and systems thinking, a keen eye for observation, and a lot of time in the natural world would be a good start.
Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the Academy or any other organization.
Yesterday, I took a tour of the UMass Agricultural Learning Center with our summer class, Clean Energy and Sustainable Agriculture, taught by Sarah Berquist and Amanda Brown. The Ag Learning Center is something of a “student playground” where Stockbridge School of Agriculture students get practice farming and gardening.
You are welcome to visit the facility and if you bump into any students be sure and ask them about their projects! Here is a Map to the farm and here are a few photos from the tour….
The end of Spring Semester is the time of year when “change is in the air.” Days are getting warmer. We have lots of daylight and we’ve even been threatened by a few late afternoon thunderclouds. Of course, the annual change of seasons is dwarfed by the significant life change those of you who are graduating college are experiencing. Leaving college is a big deal – right up there with going to college, getting married, having children, changing jobs or careers, retirement – you know, the big changes. Continue reading An open letter to graduating seniors→
1. Improving efficiency in the use of resources is crucial to sustainable agriculture.
Modifying current practices can do much to improve the productivity of many food and agricultural production systems. This principle focuses on the engine of transformation. Further gains in productivity will still be needed in the future to ensure sufficient supply of food and other agricultural products while limiting the expansion of agricultural land Continue reading So, what is Sustainable Agriculture?→
Earth Day has long been a day to celebrate joy in our relations with the earth, and renew commitments to do our personal best to respect the Earth’s needs and act on our ability to protect the planet.
In that vein, I want to introduce you to an article on researching food system agendas; it just came out in the April edition of a journal called Food Security. I think it’s game-changing for professional practitioners, citizen activists and young people looking for a career path in the food sector, as well as the target audience of academic researchers.
Join UMass Sustainable Food and Farming for a FREE and public screening of the short documentary “Brooklyn Farmer” which tells the story of Brooklyn Grange, a group of urban farmers who endeavor to run a commercially viable farm in New York City.
The film will be followed by a panel discussion with Dana Lucas (Freight Farms Boston and UMass Hydroponics) & Frank Mangan (UMass Professor of Urban Farming).
The film will be held in
W.E.B. Du Bois Library,
Floor 19 – Room 1920
Film at 6:00pm
Panel at 7:00 pm
Synopsis of the Film:
“Brooklyn Farmer” explores the unique challenges facing Brooklyn Grange, a group of urban farmers who endeavor to run a commercially viable farm within the landscape of New York City. The film follows Head Farmer Ben Flanner, CEO Gwen Schantz, Communications Director Anastasia Plakias, Farm Manager Michael Meier, and Beekeeper Chase Emmons as their growing operation expands from Long Island City, Queens to a second roof in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. The team confronts the realities inherent in operating the world’s largest rooftop farm in one of the world’s biggest cities.
Frank Mangan A focus of my program has been to evaluate production and marketing systems for vegetable and herb crops, with an emphasis on crops popular among immigrant communities. Since 2003, farmers in Massachusetts made more than five million dollars in retail sales of crops introduced from my program, crops that had not been grown in Massachusetts before. A majority of the research done by my program is at the UMass Research Farm in Deerfield MA. We also evaluate practical postharvest and pest management strategies for these new crops. Our program works closely with nutritionists at UMass to provide nutritionally balanced and culturally-appropriate recipes for these immigrant groups. This webpage provides information on the crops evaluated and introduced by my program: http://www.worldcrops.org/
Starting in 2011, we have begun to work with urban growers as part of an overall systems approach to provide fresh produce to urban populations. As part of this work we’re also evaluating the carbon footprint used to produce and transport fresh produce to urban settings. We have created a Facebook page to report on this work: https://www.facebook.com/umassurbanag
I am from a city and I cherish local food. I have found this appreciation for sustainable produce to be extremely helpful in my own personal development within controlled environmental agriculture.
I work for an urban farm that owns three Freight Farms. I have learned to successfully manage and market almost five acres of hydroponic produce. I also have recently created my own company for urban farm consulting. I design and build hydroponic systems for commercial and residential spaces around Boston, MA. I am most proud of recently receiving a grant to build and design a vertical farm on campus at UMass Amherst, which will provide hydroponic produce to dining halls on campus starting this winter.
I believe the further expansion of city farms will help to give urbanites the opportunity to experience food systems more accessible. Completing my education in agriculture is extremely exciting and important for my career and our world’s future sustainability. I believe that urban agriculture will have a great influence on social, economic, and resource consumption problems.