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Sustainable Agriculture 9-1-1, or, That Time a College Tried to Feed Its Mascot to Students

• August 02, 2013 • 10:00 AM

A Green Mountain College student guides oxen while another drives a cutting machine. (PHOTO: GREEN MOUNTAIN COLLEGE)

Collegiate sustainability programs are booming. But consider the case of Green Mountain College as a cautionary tale for where they can go wrong.

Imagine spending upwards of $30,000 a year so your kid can go to a liberal arts college and learn the fine art of milking a cow. If that idea gave you pause, even just a little bit, I regret to inform you that you’re on the losing side of a growing trend. As higher education goes agrarian, you—with your affection for walled classrooms and seminars and stodgy canons—have gone old school.

Collegiate sustainability programs are booming. Many of them are focused on agriculture and many of them are housed in liberal arts colleges. Given the extent of agriculture’s contribution to our planetary implosion, such curricular innovations are understandably proliferating like women’s studies programs did a generation ago. It used to be that kids worked to get off the farm and into college. Now they go to college to get onto the farm. Strange, right?

Not really. It might be easy to dismiss this earthy educational development as fickle or lightweight or ephemeral—underwater basket weaving and that sort of thing—but this story has a bit more heft and, I think, staying power. For one, the popularity of sustainability studies reflects the kind of market-driven educational adaptation that colleges and universities have long been urged to embrace. Mercifully, this one doesn’t ask kids to go home and log onto laptops. For another, “sustainability” currently sells better than sex and, as students flock to it as a legitimate field of study, there’s good reason to hope they might graduate and do something environmentally beneficial with their eco-conscious degree besides buying a hybrid and avoiding plastics.

Officials hired a crane and buried the oxen in an undisclosed location. “We are standing our ground,” Farm Director Philip Ackerman-Leist had declared, even as an allegedly innocent oxen rested below it.

Personally speaking, I’m skeptical. For much of the last year I’ve closely followed developments at Green Mountain College (GMC), a school of 700 students located in Poultney, Vermont. Perhaps more than any other institution of higher learning, GMC blends bookish inquiry with barnyard reality to pursue a heady version of sustainability. Although I wish it were otherwise, what I’ve learned about hands-on agrarian education in the trenches of this liberal arts school bodes poorly for the future of such programs, at least as they now exist.

If the GMC experience is even remotely appropriate as a cautionary tale—and you can be the judge of that based on what follows—the big problem with practicing sustainable agriculture as part of a liberal arts degree is that these programs do not really teach farming. They teach ideology. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. However, in taking agrarian ideology into the fields, they unavoidably join a public brawl over what we mean by “sustainable agriculture” while—if GMC is any indication—expecting to be left in peace. And that’s not fine.

GMC BEGAN ITS AGRARIAN turn in the late 1990s. Facing financial trouble, the school reinvented itself as a so-called “environmental liberal arts” college. The “centerpiece of campus life” became its 22-acre working farm, an outdoor classroom that Farm Director Philip Ackerman-Leist hopes will teach students to “reclaim what matters about nature.” To this end, Kenneth Mulder, the farm’s manager, writes how students are taught to “drive oxen … raise heritage breeds of livestock and poultry … butcher pigs and chickens … [and] shear sheep.” He further explains: “At GMC, we are not just discussing statistics about soil erosion, global hunger and malnutrition, agricultural pollutants in our drinking water, or climate change—all linked to the most essential of human activities, farming. Rather, we are developing, teaching, and—most importantly—practicing the solutions to these problems.”

Note the lexicon of agrarian empowerment here. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the rhetoric of “the sustainable food movement,” or have never read Michael Pollan, you might still recognize GMC’s articulated mission as an ideological ambush of North American agribusiness. To GMC’s credit, action adheres to ideology on the school’s farm. Student farmers use oxen to pull a plow in order to condemn agribusiness’ reliance on fossil fuel; they seek to cultivate “community decision-making about the food we raise and eat” in order to condemn agribusiness’ disruption of local “foodsheds;” and they learn to slaughter their own animals in order to condemn agribusiness’ cruel lock on the expansive abattoir. In essence, every agricultural lesson taught at GMC is more than a lesson. It’s a little monkey wrench designed to help derail that relentless zephyr known and loathed as industrial agriculture.

Don’t get me wrong: I think monkey wrenching industrial agriculture sounds like a lovely plan. It’s just that some entities are better situated to do it than others. When a small liberal arts college steps into the fray with its own working farm, charging students $30,500 a year to work its soil, it unavoidably goes from the ivory tower to the tower of Babel, sacrificing the comforting silence of the private sphere for the raging and unregulated din of the teeming agora. GMC, which I’m sure has been thrilled to benefit from an influx of relatively wealthy students who think farming is pretty hip, has demonstrated in stark terms not only how reluctant it is to debate “sustainability” on the ideological battlefield but, more ominously, it has revealed the illiberal outcome of such a refusal.

TROUBLE BEGAN TO BREW at GMC in October 2012, when the farm decided to slaughter its working oxen and turn them into hamburger meat for students to eat as cafeteria grub. The oxen were about a decade old, evidently adored by students, and an iconic image in GMC’s promotional material. Still, one cow had hurt his ankle, the other refused to budge without his co-yoked partner, and fossil fuel was, of course, verboten. These beasts had exhausted their use. Farm manager Mulder summarized the decision thusly: “Bill and Lou cost approximately $300 per month to keep and will provide enough hamburger and beef to the college dining hall to last for a couple months. It is the general feeling of the farm crew and the farm management that the most ecologically and financially sustainable decision was to send them for processing.” In other words: dead meat. Literally.

This decision, one that squared with GMC’s concept of sustainability, was well and good until something that the school never expected to happen happened: The general public caught wind of the news. Unlike the school, which claimed to overwhelmingly support the choice to slaughter the oxen, outsiders went veritably haywire. For months, a stream of outrage resulted in over three million angry emails, an offer of tens of thousands of dollars to free the oxen, a plea by two farm sanctuaries to take the oxen for the rest of their lives, a proposal by the founder of Tofurkey to donate two months’ worth of his fake meat to replace the hamburger, an endless patter of disapproving phone calls, and placard-wielding protesters encircling the campus with peaceful scribblings of mercy. Major news outlets, including The New York Times and the Boston Globe, showed up. Social media went into overdrive.

The attention was, understandably, an awful headache for GMC. Still, if ever there was a teachable agricultural moment, a time to pause and highlight for a global audience the murky relationship between sustainable agricultural and animal welfare, this was it. The outside world, however unhinged it could be in its opposition, was nonetheless watching, waiting, and hoping for an answer from GMC. Given the politics surrounding the contentious issue of agricultural sustainability, it indeed had every right to know why GMC’s choice to eat the farm’s plow team was, in fact, considered essential to its ideology of sustainable agriculture.

To be fair to GMC, major corporations confront public relations disasters of this sort all of the time. These organizations, however, maintain internal divisions of paid staffers well trained in the nuances of damage control. GMC, by contrast, had merely a handful of stressed and defensive professors, administrators, and farmers caught like deer in the oppressive glare of a relentless global headlight. Perhaps inevitably, they booted it, squandering the opportunity to undertake a rational discussion about sustainability and animal agriculture, retreating into isolation, and building around itself a great wall of defiance. GMC, hunkered down as it was, wasn’t going to let matters go gently.

FROM BEHIND THAT WALL it began lobbing a series of increasingly retaliatory grenades. “Outsiders” were initially and systematically dismissed, by virtue of their outsider status, as unworthy participants in a rational discussion. One GMC student wrote to the critics of Oxengate: “You know NOTHING of our college outside of your ridiculous argument.” Another followed up with, “Do you even know where Poultney, VT, is … or are you all from other countries … like the petition signers?” Farm Director Philip Ackerman-Leist wrote to his colleagues in “food and agriculture” that GMC had a right “to function without the threat of harassment … from outside special interests.” He noted that communities should be left alone “to determine the future of their regional food systems” without distracting external input. Sustainability, as GMC saw it, was theirs and theirs alone.

GMC’s next maneuver was to disingenuously conflate millions of expressions of discontent—most of them polite and genuine—with a handful of zealots. Ackerman-Leist referred to suffering “email assaults” and insisted that, instead of responding to critics, the local community should “denounce the intrusive and unethical bullying orchestrated by these organizations.” He added, “If the extremist elements in this activist agenda succeed in forcing our college to choose a course not of our own making in this issue, then they will have the power and the confidence to do it again.” Stephen Fesmire, a GMC philosophy professor, further intensified the martial atmosphere by smearing GMC’s detractors as “animal rights abolitionists.”

As Ackerman-Leist and Fesmire were painting the opposition black, the president of GMC, Paul J. Fonteyn, jumped on the bullying bandwagon as well. He took the remarkably ill-advised step of contacting, on at least one occasion, the employer of a person who had emailed disapproval over the proposal to kill the oxen. The email read:

I am writing to you because I believe the individual sending these e-mails to Green Mountain College is an employee of your company. I have two questions: If she is, do these uncivil and hostile e-mails reflect well on your company? Would you embrace this level of activity by an agent if this was occurring in Cincinnati? Please note every e-mail has been sent during the workday hours.  Please note that the Governor of VT and the Secretary of Agriculture have publically supported the position of the college that DELETED is so against.

The apex to this drama came in the form of a development so paradoxical that, had it been a script, matters would have seemed too contrived. GMC, you will recall, identified its mission as an ideological affront to an industrial agricultural system marked by ecological disaster, inhumanity, and complete disregard for local foodsheds. As the dust of discontent settled, however, Stephen Fesmire, the philosopher, could be found doing an interview with Drovers, a meat industry trade magazine.

The introduction to this piece praised Fesmire as “an authority on animal ethics.” It said he deserved empathy for being the victim of “an aggressive campaign to demonize the college.” In its headline, the magazine called Fesmire, the industry’s new hero, “The Voice of Reason.” Returning the compliment, Fesmire immediately established rapport with his new audience of ranchers and feedlot owners, remarking that, “What we’re dealing with here are vegan abolitionists, the folks who think that animal agriculture itself has to be abolished.”

This was no random defection from the cause. As Fesmire was nurturing bonds with industrial agriculture—or at least sharing hatred of animal rights crazies—so was his colleague Ackerman-Leist. In his aforementioned letter to the food and agriculture community, he highlighted “an issue that impacts farms of all sizes,” hoping to preserve “the ability of livestock-based businesses” to function without flak. Tellingly, he reminded all participants in animal agriculture that, next time, the abolitionist attack could strike “a smaller and less resourceful community … or even a bigger institution or initiative.” A “bigger institution or initiative”? Sure, as in industrial agriculture, an institution with which GMC now showed symbolic solidarity by “euthanizing” the oxen with the hurt ankle under cover of darkness.

Local slaughterhouses, which had been harassed as well, wouldn’t take the corpse. Officials hired a crane and buried the oxen in an undisclosed location. “We are standing our ground,” Ackerman-Leist had declared, even as an allegedly innocent oxen rested below it.

I REALIZE THAT GREEN Mountain College, in the illiberality of its response, might be in a sad league of its own. But when a small liberal arts college lets its ideology out of the same barn in which it holds the animals it exploits, and when it does so in the name of agricultural sustainability, there’s every reason to expect a vocal and at times impassioned public response. With that response comes a duty to participate in the forum of discourse that a liberal arts education supposedly teaches us to embrace. To avoid that conversation while resorting to the tactics of the oppression suggests that an institution of higher learning might want to ditch the farm and go back to school.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications.

More From James McWilliams

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