by Bethany M. Dunbar
CRAFTSBURY COMMON — Toby Marx-Dunn, a high school student from Jericho, was listening to National Public Radio one day, and it got him thinking about the food he eats. He decided he wanted to know more and get better, healthier food. This impulse led him to sign up for a brand new summer Governor’s Institutes of Vermont — one called Farms, Food and Your Future.
Last week the impulse left him standing behind the back ends of a pair of large, patient workhorses in a farm field at Sterling College.
Sterling was one of the hosts of this year’s institute, the first one to focus on these subjects. Mr. Marx-Dunn seems to be not alone in his impulse, judging by admissions numbers at Sterling. Last year the college — which teaches sustainable agriculture and food-related topics — had about 90 students. This fall the doors will open to a full class of 110. Tim Patterson, director of admissions and financial aid, said the dorms are full.
The Governor’s institutes are residencies for high school students with accelerated learning on college campuses in specific subject areas. This year’s institutes included ones on the arts, engineering, information technology, mathematics, and Asian cultures.
On Wednesday, July 31, Toby Marx-Dunn picked up the handles of a plow behind two big horses named Daisy and Rexi. His new job was to try to make the thing go straight.
“It doesn’t go straight by itself,” he reported shortly after plowing his very first two furrows. Asked if it was fun, he said vehemently, “No.”
Not fun, Mr. Marx-Dunn explained, because it’s much harder than it looks.
Even so, Mr. Marx-Dunn and a dozen other high schoolers did get the basics on how fields are plowed, and why good soil is important, and how Sterling plans to enrich the soil on the particular field they were plowing that day. Draft horse manager Rick Thomas explained that plows can only dig so deep, and the soil was hard below the furrow. In order to loosen it up and add some organic matter to the hardpan, they would plant daikon radishes as a cover crop. These radishes grow fast and have deep roots.
Also that day, the students met a flock of young turkeys destined for a flock of Thanksgiving tables, and they learned about the difficulty of growing turkeys to the right weight, why pasture is good for them and why they are good for pasture, and a little about heritage breeds.
Sterling raises 1,000 birds a year on its farm. The young turkey poults the students saw that day had already grown 12 pounds in a month and a half, so the farm manager explained they would have to be processed and frozen well before Thanksgiving, so they would not be too big to fit into a regular oven.
In between these outdoor adventures, the students heard about how the cafeteria works at Sterling College.
The college grows 20 percent of its own food, and 44 percent of the food in the cafeteria is grown on local farms. Faculty, staff, and students all eat together and each helps with the work of putting that food onto the tables.
Anne Obelnicki, director of food systems, explained to the group that last year the college grew 760 pounds of rutabagas and because of the skill of cooks at Sterling, no one got sick of rutabaga. She said they used it in all sorts of unusual ways, even mashed as an ingredient in cake.
“I think that deliciousness is part of sustainability,” she said. If the food doesn’t taste good, people won’t keep eating it.
She said another part of sustainability is making the food affordable.
“The food at Sterling doesn’t cost any more than at any other college,” she said. She said people are always saying local food is more expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Sterling has great cooks, she said, who can make a delicious meal out of rice and beans, for example.
Ms. Obelnicki passed out free samples of salami made at Sterling, which she explained is made with raw meat and bacteria so it will ferment.
At Sterling, she said, “We don’t just eat to eat. We eat because we’re trying to live our education here.”
Ms. Obelnicki said students at some colleges have started a “real food” challenge. They go into their college cafeterias and start asking questions about how much of the food is local, organic, and fair trade. If a series of questions can be answered in the affirmative, she said, the food can be called real. The students who came up with the idea set a goal, she said, “Let’s get real food into our college — 20 percent by 2020.”
Under these guidelines, Sterling’s cafeteria has about 70 percent real food, one of the highest percentages in the country.
Jonathan Kaplan, lead faculty for the Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food, and Your Future, teaches biology and history at Lyndon State College. He is a former state advisor for the Future Farmers of America (FFA). Lyndon State is also a participant in the real food challenge.
After hearing Ms. Obelnicki’s discussion of Sterling’s food system, he told the students they might want to take that real food challenge back home with them.
“There’s nothing stopping you from going back to your high school and making this happen,” he said.
Christian Feuerstein, director of communications for Sterling, noted the college now offers minors in draft horse management, climate justice, and sustainable food systems.
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at [email protected]