The Conservation Conversation at Green Mountain College

The school day on June 15 began in the farmhouse parlor of Cerridwen Farm on the Green Mountain College campus. While we were finishing up with our breakfast of granola, yoghurt, and blueberries, environmental studies associate professor Philip Ackerman-Leist lectured on the history of Vermont forest and farm conservation. Philip supplemented what students had read in their textbook, Hands on the Land; A History of the Vermont Landscape by Jan Albers, with knowledge gained as a board member with Poultney-Mettawee Conservation District.

The history of conservation with Philip Ackerman-Leist of Green Mountain College.

The information was nutrient rich, but several pieces of information particularly stuck out for me:

1) Earthworms had been native to North America but disappeared with the last Ice Age. In 1620, the Pilgrims brought earthworms back in the ballast of their ships. The European “invaders” went to work on the 4-foot pile of duff that had collected in the old-growth forests, breaking it down so that it could be used in agriculture. Over time they changed the natural progression of forests dramatically.

2) Fencing played a critical role in the relationship between Colonial settlers and indigenous people from the beginning. The livestock were allowed to range free and often devastated native corn crops. Fences were built of stone to keep livestock out rather than in. Literally they “trampled the diet” of Native Americans. Ironically, fencing, now electric and designed to keep animals in rather than out, plays an important role in water conservation, keeping cattle out of streams.

3) Ag improvement was the mantra when land trust universities and county fairs began to proliferate in the 1860s. Genetic breeding replaced mongrel cattle with the better milking Devons, Ayshires, Jerseys, Guernseys, and Holsteins. “You can’t knock improvement, but you can’t go down the improvement road with blinders on either,” said Philip. As an example, he talked about the increasingly fewer lines of diary and meat cattle since then, which has led to “genetic erosion” and decreased resilience.

Laying the groundwork for food systems analysis.

When the session with Philip ended, the group went back to the common area in the dorms. There Lisa Trocchia, lead instructor for the Summer Study Tour, set up blank sheets on a wall for students to catalog food system terms and concepts the group had encountered in the preceding two weeks. Next, they began to establish links between topic areas to begin to synthesize what a food system really is in its entirety. This exercise would lead to an expanded discussion later in the day about systems thinking, network theory, and complex adaptive systems.

Before long it was time to pack up again and drive to Burlington and the University of Vermont, check into the dorms, and get prepared mentally for the next two days at the UVM Food Systems Summit.