Guiding Principles for Teaching Farming and Food Systems


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GUEST AUTHOR: Terence Bradshaw | Director of the UVM Apple and Grape Program and Horticulture Research and Education Center | University of Vermont

This piece previously appeared on the author’s blog “Science, Communication and Agriculture“. It appears here by permission.

Montpelier Cows by Tony Fischer | Flickr | CC License

Where I’m Coming From

I have the best job in the (my) world. I was raised in the 80s and early 90s on a seventh-generation Vermont dairy farm in Orange County, where the cows have two legs shorter on one side than the other so that they can navigate the side hills that preclude large-scale ‘crop and chop’ farming that is practiced in other parts of the state and country. This was a small farm that operated during a time of great change in the industry, when greater economic conditions forced farms to “grow big or get out”, and alternative markets like organic and value-added were just beginning to be explored by the earliest adopters. Our scale and type of farming was an economic challenge, putting it mildly in some years, and I was never encouraged to come back and take over the farm because it was considered an economic dead-end to do so. (The farm is still there, yet the cows are gone- my parents make hay and rent the land out to several other producers who make maple and raise beef.)

The author’s grandfather getting it done. 1974 (Courtesy Terence Bradshaw)

I went to college a first-generation University student initially with an expectation that I would get a degree in engineering to land a lucrative career in some city far off, but that didn’t last long. At the University of Vermont I was initially a student in the Environmental Studies program and was exposed to a more critical lens that questioned farming and other practices, and I even went so far as to label my father an ‘environmental terrorist’ because he used herbicide in our cornfield. That was an awkward Thanksgiving…

Picking apples, Catamount Farm – UVM – Facebook

While this new-to-me focus on environmental problems opened my eyes a bit, I was fast disillusioned by what I thought was lots of hollering and little concrete action to make change within the system. I transferred to the Plant and Soil Science (PSS) major in fall 1994. I still didn’t plan to be a dairy farmer, but I found my place. In PSS, I worked for the UVM Apple Team as a research assistant and was exposed to the Vermont apple industry, which includes multiple scales of production from small pick-your-own orchards to 250-acre farms where every apple is shipped out on a tractor trailer to impersonal wholesale markets. My boss and eventual mentor, Dr. Lorraine Berkett, headed up the UVM Integrated Pest Management program, and through our work, we were having substantial effect on moving the conversation on farm sustainability forward. 

After a stint working on a 50-acre retail orchard in Massachusetts, I return to the UVM Apple Team. In 2005, I was appointed assistant director of the UVM Horticulture Research and Education Center (Hort Farm). I’ve attained two more degrees in the PSS department, receiving my Ph.D. in 2015. The year prior to that, upon Lorraine’s retirement, I was appointed to the PSS faculty and have served as director of the UVM Fruit Program and continue to direct the hort farm and Catamount Educational Farm. In the past few years, I have also been increasingly teaching students in small-scale vegetable production and overall farm management.

Hort Farm – Google Maps

Taking Stock: Principles for Teaching Farming and Food Systems

In preparation for teaching a new (to me) course next spring, PSS 208 Small Farm Planning, I’m going through an intentional process to outline some of my principles which guide my teaching of farming and food systems.  In future posts, I’ll flesh out each piece, and those thoughts will likely inform new principles and re-thinking of ones I’ve already written on. So here begins my likely evolving list of Principles Supporting Instruction, Research, and Outreach on Specialty Crops Production in Vermont:

1. We’ve all got to eat.
2. Food production needs to happen at all scales.
3. Farming isn’t natural.
4. ‘Natural’ factors greatly influence farm systems and can contribute to both crop failures and successes. Our job is to foster the latter.
5. Farmers are managers of complex biological, ecological, economic, and social systems.
6. Farm and food system sustainability have benefited tremendously from modern scientific advances.
7. With few exceptions, farmers are good people who are as interested in stewarding the land as those who criticize them.
8. There are multiple sources and levels of knowledge that best inform the discussion around farming practices and food systems.
9. The food supply in the developed world is the safest it has been in our history.
10. The public wants safe, affordable food that is produced in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner, and that’s a good thing.
11. Vermont is a unique place to live and farm. We need to celebrate that, but we also need to understand where our scale and types of production fit the food and farming systems in our greater region, nationally, and internationally.

I plan to flesh these out as time allows. I look forward to synthesizing my thoughts and to a healthy discussion as the course proceeds. Until then, don’t forget to eat your fruits and veggies.

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