UVM, Food Systems and Vermont Farms

The University of Vermont and State Agricultural College is the formal name of UVM. It has served Vermonters for two centuries and now faces difficult choices. The strategic ambiguity of UVM’s effort to both compete as a “public ivy” with other liberal arts and sciences universities, and to maintain its status as an agricultural land-grant college in service to many Vermonters is increasingly challenging. Most dual missions are.

It’s funny how one remembers the “authorities” in one’s childhood.  I grew up in Morrisville in the middle of the last century. There were the cop, the game warden, the school teacher, and the UVM extension agent. The farmers in this largely agricultural community depended heavily on the extension agent for information about nutrition, cropping, stray voltage, mastitis, and the myriad other challenges to small scale farming. Few farmers had the benefit of an education at their State Agricultural College, so they lived and breathed the advice of their extension agent. When TV debuted in the late 50’s, UVM’s Farm Extension Service program Across the Fence joined the farmer at lunch time.

One might be tempted to argue that the economic stress on dairy farming in Vermont today and the legislature’s modest 8% contribution to UVM’s operating budget, leave little reason to maintain UVM’s tradition of service to agriculture in Vermont. But we shouldn’t forget that life is often cyclical. The now obvious risks of a highly centralized and industrialized food system as seen against the fresh and determined faces of Vermont’s new farmers and the rise of an artisan or “slow food” market culture in Vermont bring agriculture once again to the forefront for Vermonters. Farming and food systems will play a major role in our future economic growth and in the preservation of our working landscape.

In fairness, UVM has been engaged in the emerging food culture, though in a way that is more academic than tactile. The real test of UVM’s dual mission will come shortly when the departmental competition to be one of President Fogel’s “Spires of Excellence” is decided. Will “Food Systems” have a chair when the music stops?

UVM needs not only to reconnect with the agricultural land-grant side of its historic mission, but also with the myriad entrepreneurial farmers laying the ground work for a high quality food system.

Fletcher Allen hospital, UVM’s partner in the UVM College of Medicine, has led the way by institutionalizing the obvious connection between food quality and personal health, transforming its own food service to chemical and hormone-free, local, fresh food sources, and working directly with farmers to ensure a continuum of healthy food. Anyone doubting this should have lunch at the Harvest Café in McClure.

President Fogel’s deep knowledge of the humanities and his commitment to research are critical to UVM’s future, but so is Vermont’s equally deep agricultural tradition, now undergoing an entrepreneurial renaissance of quality. They need UVM to take a leadership role and to re-earn the role of trusted advisor to agriculture that it enjoyed in the past.

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