A Full Day Spent at Universitas Viridis Montis

Tuesday, June 2, began early with an inspiring lecture by Fred Magdoff, UVM professor emeritus of soil and plant science and founding regional coordinator of Northeast  Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).

Fred Magdoff, , UVM Professor Emeritus, leads a discussion of soil science. (Photo by Chantal Mullen)

Fred spoke at length, and with great appreciation by participants of the Summer Study Tour, about “the unappreciated natural resource” – soil. As a grad student at Cornell in the 1960s, he had found it was almost considered “a cult” to talk of healthy soils, soil science, and the importance of organic matter in growing crops. Since then, his work and that of others in this area has put this “basic building-block of life on Earth” at the center of the discourse about growing food. With engaging humor, he talked about such topics as types of organic matter (“living, dead, very dead”), why organic matter matters, ranking systems for soil evaluation, chemical interactions in soil that protect plants, overuse of nutrients (even with organic practices), and special issues with urban gardening. Many in the group expressed feeling fully immersed in new knowledge and grateful for it.

Susie Walsh-Daloz leads a tour of UVM’s Catamount Farm.

In the early afternoon, the group went on a tour of the 10-acre Catamount Educational Farm, part of UVM’s Horticultural Research Center. This walk-around was led by Farmer Training Program coordinator Susie Walsh-Daloz. We passed students working the fields, driving tractors, tending to row covers, and experimenting with new vegetable crops and ways of cultivation. Our last stop at that site was in the farm classroom, where we engaged virtually with Vern Grubinger, vegetable and berry specialist at UVM Extension.

After the usual fiddling and frustrations with Skype, we eventually engaged and were treated to Vern’s PowerPoint slides of Vermont vegetable and berry production statistics and real-life examples of local and regional agricultural entrepreneurship and markets. He provided numbers, analysis, trends, and creative approaches to sustainable agriculture in the state, and how these compared (favorably) to the national oligopoly of industrial processed food enterprises and commodity farming. A lot of the discussion centered on terms. For example, Vern prefers “economies of scope” rather than the more common “economies of scale,” which appears to emphasize size over values such as low fossil fuel use, low soil loss, and high resilience of farms. Focusing on “agro-ecology” rather than monetizing it all was much more important to him.

Again with much appreciation for what we had learned, we finished the day with a trip to downtown Burlington. There we scattered to follow our own dining preferences before returning to our rooms on the UVM campus to complete homework and write our reflections on all that had transpired.

Strangely enough (or maybe not strangely), the song “Working for the Yankee Dollar” was humming in my head.