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Green Mountain College. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK)

Cultivating Values on the College Farm, or, Revisionist History Has No Future

• August 15, 2013 • 12:00 PM

Green Mountain College. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK)

There are plenty of awful factory farms in the U.S. living up to the expression that “meat is murder.” So why did a small college going the extra mile to be humane and sustainable face an orchestrated avalanche of wrath when it planned to slaughter two of its admittedly iconic oxen?

The following is a response to the August 2nd article, “Sustainable Agriculture 9-1-1, or, That Time a College Tried to Feed Its Mascot to Students.”

Irony is a great teacher, if not a stern taskmaster—something I learned last fall.

I was in the midst of teaching an undergraduate course on sustainable farming and a graduate course on sustainable livestock production at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. Students in both courses represented not only a wide geographical spread but also different points on the ever-evolving spectrum of animal ethics and dietary choices: vegans, vegetarians, discerning omnivores, animal rights advocates, and experienced livestock farmers.

As is the case with any good class, setting the tone for mutual respect and civility in the complex dialog surrounding animals and agriculture was just as important as the content. A livestock farmer myself, I knew it was important to let the students know that all opinions and critiques of different farming systems were welcomed and encouraged, as long as the ideas were well-substantiated and delivered in the spirit of discourse, not diatribe.

At the same time, I was finishing the final edits on a book focused on community-based food systems, and I had even soft-pedaled on the topic of “food sovereignty”—the idea that communities should be able to determine their own food choices without undue outside pressure, be it economic or political. After all, any community can become insular and myopic. In contrast, Green Mountain College is a place where exploration of the outside world is not only fostered but essentially required by virtue of the way we dismantle classroom walls and challenge students to analyze problems, propose possible solutions, and work toward change with others outside our own community. We’ve flattened the academic ivory tower, and we temper theory with firsthand experience, such as student work on our college farm. Sierra magazine has recognized our college as the “greenest” college in the U.S., and we are one of very few colleges to achieve a perfect score of 99 in the Princeton Review’s environmental ratings.

The delay in creating sustainable and humane agricultural systems will dictate, at least to some degree, the speed and efficacy of change that will enhance animal welfare. In lieu of such change, animals will continue to suffer, by the billions.

Therefore, when the outside world began to weigh in on our community’s decision to slaughter two aging oxen (after one of them, Lou, developed a chronic leg injury) and serve them in our college dining hall in lieu of beef from other sources, the ironies began to accumulate with bewildering intensity.

We were at first surprised by the outside interest and then quickly shocked not so much by the volume or even the international spread of responses, but rather by the vitriol and vulgarity in so much of it. (For a time-lapsed map of petition signatures, go here.)

Since we first acquired livestock on our college farm in 2000, we have maintained an open dialog about livestock management and decisions about all end-of-life decisions in an effort to expose students to the complexities of decision-making inherent in animal husbandry.

Instead of making a unilateral administrative decision in the summer about the fate of these oxen, we opted to hold a public forum to discuss the options and determine a resolution based on the overall opinion of the persons present. Approximately 30 percent of our students are vegetarians and vegans, well beyond the norm for the rest of American society, so these kinds of discussions are not only important in our community but also part of the norm. In fact, the moderator of the forum was the well-respected philosopher and ethicist Dr. Steven Fesmire, who also happens to be a vegetarian (see Fesmire’s perspective on the debacle here).

After an hour and a half of discussion, the decision was reached to slaughter both oxen and serve them in our dining hall through the academic year, providing about a third of our campus’ annual beef consumption. While there was dissent about the ultimate decision, there was general agreement that the process was as fair and open as one could expect for such a diverse number of perspectives. Nonetheless, an outside organization learned of our community’s decision and launched a petition drive in response. With little knowledge of the condition of the animals or the manner in which our college community functions, people from all over the world signed the petition, often following up with emails and phone calls.

As it became clear that our college community was going to maintain our decision, despite external pressure what became two petition drives, the tactics became more draconian and went on for approximately six weeks: a cyber-attack of more than 3.9 million emails in a two-day period from a single domain, constant phone calls and personal emails, a 24/7 onslaught on our Facebook page, photo and video surveillance of our college farm, and, of course, sundry threats of ruin and harm. The culmination of the campaign came in a full-scale effort to harass and threaten slaughterhouses in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, and even Quebec, making slaughter in any USDA slaughterhouse virtually impossible, much less our choice of an Animal Welfare Approved facility. As a result, we temporarily had to trade transparency for stealth, and we euthanized Lou in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness.

All the while, journalists from the Associated Press, The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere spent hours and in some cases days openly visiting our campus and interviewing anyone they met, following up by phone and email to clarify statements and facts before printing their stories. Their stories, as they unfolded, were less about our community’s decision-making process than the forceful anti-slaughter campaign that our college and the livestock sector throughout our region endured for six weeks following the decision. These stories also revealed the distinctions between a continuum of philosophical approaches to defining relationships between humans and non-human animals, ranging from animal rights to animal protectionism to animal welfare.

How did this issue become such a big story? Simple: irony. Why? Irony depends upon surprise and incongruity, and we all love stories that are counterintuitive. In fact, we seek them out.

Green Mountain College is not only focused on sustainability and the ethics of agriculture and eating, but we are also working hard to help rebuild our local and regional food systems. Our students cut their teeth on the college farm and then step into new agricultural enterprises, sometimes buying and conserving farms with the Vermont Land Trust. We not only work hard to source locally and sustainably produced foods for our dining hall, but students get unusual firsthand culinary experience through the efforts of our talented chefs. We helped found and support the Rutland Area Farm & Food Link, a regional organization dedicated to filling the gaps in our regional agriculture and food economy. We bring in nationally renowned experts on food and agriculture policy and open their presentations to the public, free of charge. We built a new Community Commercial Kitchen, available to the public for making value-added products at minimal cost—free, if the products go to the charitable food system, non-profits, or public schools. So, why attack us?

In some ways, our focus on sustainability and animal welfare proved to be a lightning rod. With the rising popularity of sustainably and humanely raised meat, it seems that animal rights activists are concerned that meat is becoming more, rather than less, acceptable. While most of these activists understand the quality-of-life differences between humane/sustainable and factory-farm conditions, there is certainly an aim among some animal rights activists to abolish the raising and consuming animals for food, period. So, to some, what has come to be called “happy meat” is even more frustrating than factory-farmed meat because it is widely considered an ethical food choice.

That frustration, it seems, is what attracted activists to the college’s decision to send Bill and Lou, two working animals who had lived their lives in the best of conditions, to slaughter. Ironic, considering the fact that on average nearly three million cattle are slaughtered in the U.S. every month.

I would argue that rather than activists directing their focus on places like Green Mountain College or the family-operated slaughterhouses in Vermont (a state where animal welfare training for slaughterhouse workers is now mandatory), that they join our work in crafting common values and helping to make positive changes in our local, regional, national, and international food systems.

Concerned individuals, organizations, and institutions like Green Mountain College have limited resources that can be dedicated to the reform of animal agriculture in this country: namely, the pursuit of agriculture that better cares for animals, the land, and human health. In contrast, corporate interests dead set against change have ever-swelling powers, and money, to counter our momentum.

The delay in creating sustainable and humane agricultural systems will dictate, at least to some degree, the speed and efficacy of change that will enhance animal welfare. In lieu of such change, animals will continue to suffer, by the billions. Concentrated livestock operations are not only continuing, but they are intensifying nationwide. Consequently, not only are animals suffering in ever-larger numbers, but humans are also bearing the brunt of increased antibiotic use and resistance, fouled waterways, health problems, and insufferable jobs.

We should be coming together to craft mutually agreeable strategies that are values-based—not ideological—in order for us to make progress at all. Ideologies tend to be tightly circumscribed and therefore circumspect. While it is almost impossible to find common ground between competing ideologies, the overlap between the shades and hues of values is much easier to discern and define.

In the end, common ground is valued because it is made, not stumbled upon.

Philip Ackeman-Leist
Philip Ackerman-Leist is the director of the Farm & Food Project at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, where he founded and directs the nation’s first online Masters in Sustainable Food Systems graduate program. He and his family also raise grassfed American Milking Devon cattle on their farm in Pawlet, Vermont. Philip is the author of two books, Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems and Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader.

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