Buying local is an investment in a better quality of life for all!

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm in Central California, when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. Only a few days in the country, this undocumented field worker, who didn’t have easy access to water, shade or the work breaks required by law, passed out from the heat and died two days later.Maria-Isabel

Maria was 17 years old. The Center for Disease Control reports that heat-related deaths of farm workers are on the rise in the U.S.  This deadly trend is unfortunately one of the costs of cheap food.   When you buy cheap food at the big box stores, you also invest in this deadly system of industrialized food.

Compare this experience with that of working at a local farm like Simple Gifts in North Amherst.  Here the farm workers work hard but are treated fairly.  As apprentices who live on the site, they are gaining a valuable education in preparation for the day when they might manage their own farm.

Farm apprentices and farm managers at Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst

Our industrialized food system of mega-farms, long-distance shipping and big box-stores has driven down the retail price of food to the point that Americans, on average, expend about 9 percent of their annual income on food. The industrial food system in the U.S. produces relatively “cheap” food, but at a cost. Fortunately, in some parts of the U.S., we can partially opt out of this exploitative and costly system.

In our community of Amherst and surrounds, the locally grown vegetables are of higher quality than anything shipped from a distance.  We can enjoy the freshness and flavor of the food available at our local farmers’ markets, farm stands, food coops and some regional supermarkets.  Yet most experts agree that less than 10 percent of the produce purchased in our region is grown locally.

Why don’t more of us in Amherst “buy local”?

I suspect the reason that 90 percent of the consumers in our fairly progressive region of the country don’t regularly buy local food is due to its perceived higher price and the convenience of shopping at the big box stores.

Busy people treat food shopping as just another task, rather than a pleasurable social experience.  Studies indicate that we have 10 times more conversations when we shop at the farmers’ market than at the supermarket.  I know when I stop in at the new Simple Gifts Farm Stand in North Amherst, I always bump into friends and neighbors.

The “grand opening” of the new Simple Gifts Farm Stand was an example of the sort of celebration of good food and community, some of us have come to value.  When we stop in at Simple Gifts, we invest in a food system that strives toward a better quality of life – fall all!

Shopping locally isn’t an “efficient” use of time in a task-driven life – which is one of the reasons I make the effort slow down and shop at the farmers market or Simple Gifts.  Yes…. for me, buying locally is an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).

bigy.jpgSome regional supermarkets do try to offer local products.  The Big Y in Western Massachusetts, for example, is a family-owned business and a major supporter of the UMass Student Farm, which grows organic vegetables for sale locally. When we do choose to shop at supermarkets, we can support local farmers by asking specifically for locally grown products.

And what about price? How often have we heard the statement that local food costs more?

Certainly, local beef, pork and chicken cost more than meat raised in a factory farm. You just can’t beat the efficiency and scale of the industrial animal factory for low price. Hve you ever experienced “sticker shock” when you see that local, fresh eggs may be priced at $5.00 a dozen or more when industrial eggs may be closer to $1.50?   Well, there is a reason!   Just look at the pictures of local eggs and free-ranged hens compared to factory farmed eggs below….


The fact that local meat products are generally produced with less stress on the animals may not be worth the higher price to some of us.   And some people truly can’t afford to pay the higher price for meat, dairy and eggs that are produced in a sustainable manner. But many of us have a choice!  On the other hand, there is little difference in price between local and shipped vegetables, especially during our growing season.

If we were truly concerned about the health of the animals, our own health, the health of our community and the health of the environment, we would choose to buy local meat, dairy and egg products, wouldn’t we.  We would investment in a higher quality of life for ourselves, for local farm families, our community, and for the animals we consume.

When we buy local bacon and sausages, we can even introduce our children to the live animals that provide these products for us, like “Pig Floyd” at Simple Gifts Farm!

Pig Floyd is helping to clean up the weeds at Simple Gifts Farm

“Cost” includes more than “price”

The industrial food system that produces cheap food does so at a great cost!  The retail price does not include the cost of harm done to the workers in the food system; on farms, in factories, shipping terminals, big box-stores, and the fast-food restaurants serving the food. These workers earn near minimum wage. A federal minimum wage law that leaves families in poverty is part of the cost of cheap food.

When we consider the quality of life we enjoy in those regions like ours where local food is plentiful, we might also wonder about the quality of life of those who are working to produce, ship and sell cheap food. When we buy food shipped from long distances, we say “yes” to an exploitative system designed primarily to maximize financial returns of corporate shareholders – at the expense of others.

It is true that relocalization of the food system may result in higher (but fairer) food prices overall.  At the same time buying local food will create local jobs and build community.

When you buy your food locally you are making an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).  I think this is an investment we can’t afford not to make.


The North Amherst Community Farm is a small, local, not-for-profit organization devoted to preserving farmland and promoting sustainable farming practices in our community. The capital campaign we completed in 2016 will preserve a 30+ acre farm property in North Amherst, MA that is currently managed by Simple Gifts Farm.

Please sign up for our mailing list to learn more! 


We are apart of – not a part from Mother Nature

 Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the environmental challenges that face us. Photograph: Plum Village

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.

Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” Continue reading We are apart of – not a part from Mother Nature

Who are we and what are we doing here?

The Tree of Life and the Cosmos are One

This morning I prayed….. in fact, I pray every morning.  I pray for the knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry it out.  I pray to a God that is beyond my understanding. I pray because doing so has resulted in long periods of serenity, moments of clarity, and the chance to practice using spiritual tools that allow me to get through the difficult times and dark periods.  I pray for peace – and I work for a more sustainable world that will be free from want and fear – for all.

I was born into a religious tradition that taught me to fear that I would be punished (for Continue reading Who are we and what are we doing here?

Saving the World – One Clothespin at a Time


NOTE:  A printable version of this blog may be found here.

I start each of my classes by leading the students in a “centering breath.” The purpose of this exercise (which most students appreciate) is to invite our mind, body and spirit into the room. Many of us “do space and time travel” with our minds. We are distracted and rarely available to our present experience. While we bring our bodies into the classroom, Continue reading Saving the World – One Clothespin at a Time

Getting started with your personal Holistic Goal

Some Personal Holistic Goal Resources

The following resources were created for use by students in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture with the permission of Holistic Management International.

The Holistic Goal Workbook for students is linked here.

Additional Resources

  1. John Gerber’s Introduction PowerPoint to the PHG – Personal HG Intro

and a video: Introduction to the Personal Holistic Goal

2. John’s Second PowerPoint on the PHG – Personal HG Part II

and a video: Fine tuning your Quality of Life statement

3. Some more videos:

4. An old blog with examples is linked here.


Find your True North

Before the Land Grants

Criticizing public universities for their inability to change has become something of a cottage industry these days. While there is a good bit of ill-informed rhetoric in the many books and articles that have appeared, some of the criticism is worthy of consideration and should not be ignored. The Wingspread Group report on higher education for example, reported that “a disturbing and dangerous mismatch exists between what American society needs of higher education and what it is receiving.” We all recognize that American society is changing at a more rapid pace than at any other time in our history. In spite, or perhaps because of this, university fundamentalists claim the institution should remain a source of stability to counter-balance the potential negative affects of “popular fads.”

My own vision for the future of the university is one of radical change (see Communiversities: Land Grants and Beyond). Any responsible transformation of the university, radical or otherwise, will require an understanding of our history as the source of our current traditions. This is my biased view…

The Beginning
While the university as an institution is less than 1000 years old, the ancestors of university faculty go back to 2500 BC. The tablet writers of ancient Mesopotamia were the earliest recorded class of intelligentsia. These court scribes had great political influence as they handled the correspondence, records of taxes, and other affairs of state for the rulers of the day. Although the scribes were not members of the ruling class themselves, they helped those in power make decisions, much like scientists and many academics today. Preparation for the job of scribe was through the study of accounting, geometry, musical notation, law, grammar, poetry, history, and court etiquette. Like faculty today, many years of training were required for admittance into this exclusive guild of literate advisors. While the record is incomplete on these early scholars, there is little doubt they were an elite class of learned men devoted to study, learning and influence.

More is known about higher education in classical Greece beginning around 500 BC. The Greek sophists were the first full-time, paid, teachers. These men gave “sample” lectures in public places to attract students, and then charged large fees to continue with a standard curriculum of prepackaged lessons. Over time, the sophists became known for their superficial and costly teachings. Unlike the sophists, the philosopher Socrates believed that wisdom would not be gained from prepackaged lessons, but had to be earned through critical reflection and intellectual dialogue. This controversy between the value of standardized lessons versus critical reflection was a harbinger of later debates such as that between professional training and personal learning during the early 20th century.

The Early Academy
Neither Socrates nor the sophists carried on their teaching and learning in any particular physical place. Plato, a student of Socrates, was the first to have a school at a preset location, a grove dedicated to the Greek folk hero Academus (the first “academy”). For Plato, the purpose of learning was the development of a class of educated rulers or “philosopher-kings.” Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, believed knowledge should not be pursued to develop society’s leaders, but for its own sake. Thus, the debate between knowledge for social purposes and knowledge for its own sake began 2500 years ago. Other schools emerged at this time. A school at Cynosarges developed a particular mode of thought later known as Cynicism. Another which met among the “stoia” or the colonnades of the Athenian market developed a school of thought later called Stoicism.

Throughout this period schools grew up around individual scholars, but only took root when they became associated with storehouses for scholarly manuscripts, or libraries. The first known library was the museum at Alexandria, the Temple of Muses, on the Egyptian coast. Here, beginning around 250 BC grew a museum library that had more than 500,000 manuscripts. This resource for study attracted the great scholars of the period, like Archimedes and Euclid, who came to do full-time research and learn from each other.

Foundation of the Early University
During the Roman period, schools of lesser quality sprung up as minor businesses. Most of these schools disappeared during the Middle Ages when the only institutes of higher learning were devoted to religious studies. During the 11th century, Europe began to emerge from the dark ages, with education becoming more open and available again. The major cathedral church colleges in Bologna and Salerno in Italy, and Paris and Montpelier in France, added new courses to traditional clerical studies and began to attract larger numbers of students. This marked the beginning of the modern university.

In the medieval university, masters (teachers) and students working in close association organized themselves into guilds with a common disciplinary interest or national background. At the University of Paris for example, four national guilds in the “arts” emerged alongside a faculty of theology, law and medicine. A bureaucracy began to develop as these subdivisions of the faculty needed ways to set standards and accept student fees. By the end of the 14th century an administrative structure had emerged at the University of Paris that continues today with little substantive change. Paris had a university assembly of faculty, a university council of deans, disciplinary-based colleges, and an elected chief executive who served as head of the university.

Medieval university instruction was in Latin and students entered at age fifteen or sixteen. The baccalaureate or “beginners” degree followed about four years of study and acceptance as a “master” took one to three more years. Many of those students working toward masters degrees were also teachers in the lower level courses in the arts, much like graduate students today. Students of the day took time for leisure, often as drunken evenings sometimes growing into riots. One of the most famous was a 2-day brawl in Oxford that began as a tavern fight between students and “townies.” Several scholars were killed, books were destroyed and classrooms were burned.

By the end of the 13th century most of the foundations of the modern university had been established including ornate college structures, competitive recruitment practices, standardized teaching methodologies, entrenched administration, examinations, degrees, and the academic regalia. Little has changed at universities since the 13th century and that which has changed has done so very slowly.

The major social upheavals associated with the Italian Renaissance in the 16th century and the scientific and technical revolution in the 17th century did not affect the traditional universities, at least at first. Florence became the center of Italian humanistic studies under the patronage of the Medici family, and other centers of learning emerged as alternatives to the unexciting studies at the university. The leading families of the day were business and political leaders who preferred to send their children to popular academies or private tutors rather than the major universities.

Exploration of new continents and new areas of scientific and technical study marked the business environment of the 17th century, but had little impact on the universities. Francis Bacon for example, in the early part of the century challenged colleges and universities to look beyond their ancient teachings. Universities largely ignored the growing scientific movement of the era, much as they had ignored the humanistic movement of the previous century. By the 18th century, older European universities were in a serious state of decline. Struggling institutions progressively lowered their standards to attract students, becoming the diploma mills of the era. Edward Gibbon described the impressive buildings that had been built for universities as “masking the dry-rot within.”

Universities in America
By this time colleges had been built in America, mostly under the influence of various church denominations to train clergy and political leaders. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers and Dartmouth were supported partially by colonial governments and mostly by student tuition. Enrollment was from a few dozen to a few hundred students, at most. These were elite institutions that offered traditional training in medieval studies such as Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric, ethics and theology.

Westward expansion and denominational rivalries contributed to the rapid proliferation of colleges in the later part of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Generally small, these new colleges offered training in geography, languages, law, mathematics, geology, history, ethics, natural philosophy, literature and biology. There was a growing tension between classical training and an emerging scientific and professional training. In response, President Day of Yale University commissioned a study on the academic needs of the students of the era. The resulting 1829 report stated that the criticism of academic institutions of the time “as out of date with the needs of the nation” was overstated. President Day believed that universities should build character among the young men of leading families, not encourage economic development by the masses. Even then, the major academic institutions of the time were out of touch with the needs of the nation. By the mid-19th century there was a public call for a more utilitarian education available to more people. The result was a national investment in the public land grant universities.

Last Thoughts
The publicly funded land grant universities represented a radical departure from earlier American and European colleges. Even so, today many characteristics of universities “before the land grants” endure, for example: the elitism of the faculty much like the tablet writers of Mesopotamia; the continuing debate about education for social purposes (Plato) or for knowledge itself (Aristotle); the “research” library like the one at Alexandria; the bureaucratic administrative structure like that of the University of Paris; the drinking parties such as those at Oxford; and finally the failure of the accepted curriculum to address the needs of society during periods of major social change as in Italy during the Renaissance, most of Europe during the first stage of the scientific revolution, at Yale in the early 1800’s, and perhaps even among public universities today.

This history was influenced by “American Higher Education: A History” by Christopher J. Lucas. St. Martins’s Griffin, NY. 1994. For Part Two of this line of thought, see the essay “Universities: Land Grants and Beyond.”

John M. Gerber, Professor
University of Massachusetts
December 1996

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Transitions – navigating graduation and other life changing events…

change2College students spend 4 years (or more) looking forward to the big day when they graduate – when they finally don’t have to take another exam – or write another term paper – or get up early for an 8:00 am class.   But when that day comes, it often feels kind of unsettling.  College life is familiar.  And what’s next feels like the unknown.  Leaving college is a time of transition. Learning to navigate transitions in life, like graduation, getting married, having children, changing jobs or careers, retirement etc., is a skill that can be practiced and learned.

Around graduation time each year, I share this essay with seniors on transitions.  I also get to thinking about the last day of my own college career.  I took a final exam in the morning, packed my car to drive home, and was working at my first post-college job that same night – pumping gasoline (39 cents a gallon) at a Mobil station a half-mile from the house I grew up in.  Not much progress yet.  By the next week I had a job cleaning bathrooms at a local synagogue.  Not much prestige yet.  But I was making money, which I needed because I was to be married within a few months and then off to graduate school.  Big transitions!  My memory of that last day in college was all about “so what’s next?”   I didn’t attend the graduation ceremony – I was moving on – but not navigating this big transition with dignity and grace.

Over time, I’ve learned a bit more on how to navigate endings, beginnings and particularly that confusing time in between called “the transition zone.

You would think that humans would be good at managing change.  We see so much of it in our daily lives.  There are revolutionary changes occurring in our society, our institutions, and among individuals that seem to come at us faster and faster.  Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason makes the case that “change is not what it used to be.”  In the past, trends could be analyzed and future directions could be predicted. This allowed for continuous, evolutionary transitions. Today we are faced with mostly unpredictable, discontinuous, and almost revolutionary change.

While some people see this period of rapid global transformation as an opportunity, for others it is a time of painful and reluctant adjustment to a seemingly confusing and chaotic world.  In fact, when faced with the possibility of change most people choose the more familiar, the status quo.  Perhaps this is due to fear of the unknown, or fear of losing power, status, control, or possessions.  Letting go is frightening – like jumping into a void. Henry David Thoreau seemed to be recommending the life of a change seeker when he wrote in his journal on March 11, 1859; “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”

Graduating college can surely feel like a “leap into the dark” even when you know where you are headed tomorrow – a new job, an old job, a vacation, or the uncertainty of heading back to your parents house, to figure out what’s next.  So I wanted to give you a few thoughts on the process of transitions to help you think about how you are managing this transition out of college.  This will not be the last transition of your life, so you might as well learn how to do it well.

William Bridges book, Transitions, reminds us that all new stages of life actually begin with endings.  Letting go of the familiar is the beginning of beginning and requires two things; ceremony and grieving.  The graduation ceremony is an important step in acknowledging that something significant is over.  Ceremony is needed whether you loved college or hated every day.  It is over.  Saying good-bye is an important part of the process of letting go.  In some of my classes, we sit in a circle on the last day of class and students are invited to say a few words of appreciation to the group and than conclude with the words “good bye.”

I find that we are not good at endings.  We are a future focused society always looking forward and moving on to the next thing.  This was certainly my focus on the day I graduated college.  But a constant focusing on what’s next can result in a “treadmill existence” that can become quite pathological.  Some of us leave destruction in our wake – broken relationships, unfinished work or learning.  You may recognize this trait in friends – or perhaps yourself.

So my first gift to graduating seniors is the knowledge that endings are important.  And saying the words “good-bye” is an important part of the process of moving on.

The second gift I’ll share is the knowledge that there is a little-discussed period of time between endings and new beginnings called the transition zone.  It is a period of time that may be no more than a weekend or may take years, in which you may feel lost, empty and frightened.  This is good.  The transition zone is a real thing.  To avoid it, or to not notice that it is happening isn’t healthy.

Our culture doesn’t generally value or appreciate the “in-between” times.  Earlier cultures developed rites and rituals to mark these periods.  We just don’t know how to deal with the feeling of emptiness that is quite normal during these periods.  We are somehow embarrassed about not being “productive” and we don’t know what to call ourselves at these times.  You are no longer a college student but you may not yet be a doctor, lawyer, artist, poet, account executive, farmer, teacher or whatever.

During the transition time, nothing feels solid.  Many graduating seniors spend the summer or part of the next year living at home.  Yet that doesn’t feel quite right.  Both of my older sons took this route for convenience and economy.  It is a normal part of the transition time, yet both reported feeling like they didn’t quite belong.  Bridges suggests that we learn to value this transition period as a time that can give us a unique view on our personal growth.  He offers several suggestions for activities that you might consider to help you appreciate this special time.

The first suggestion is to find a regular time and place to be alone.  This doesn’t mean laying in bed all day, but rather trying something that you might not ordinarily do.  Some people get up early and read, meditate, walk, or just enjoy a cup of coffee in the presence of the early morning sun.  The point is to be as completely unproductive as possible and just notice how it feels.  For me, I do some spiritual readings every morning and in the summer I try to spend a few minutes in my garden just noticing the plants.  This is a practice I developed one of my own transitions.

The second recommendation is to keep a journal or perhaps to write an autobiography of your life.  The journal should be used to record feelings not to make “to do” lists.  The paradox of this recommendation of course is that this might be a time when “nothing is happening.”  If so, write how you feel about that.  The practice of journaling was one I began during a period of rapid change.  I now have dozens of personal journals recording what I was thinking and feeling at various stages of life.

The third recommendation is to ponder the question “what would be unlived in your life if it ended today?”  What is it about you that feels to be core to how you think of yourself, that others don’t know about or you haven’t done yet.  For me, I spent much of my life thinking of myself as a sailor  – but I didn’t sail much.   I was always too busy doing the next productive thing in my career or family life.  So I bought a sailboat where for many years I spent much of the month of June – with family on weekends but during the week, mostly alone.   Today, I am a caregiver for someone I love and I feel fulfilled in this work.

Bridges recommends that you spend time completely alone in a totally new environment where nobody knows you.  This may be the modern day version of a Native American vision quest.  It may be a week or weekend at the beach or in the mountains.  Don’t bring a book to read or a cell phone – that’s right… no Facebook!  No outside stimulation to distract you from just being you.  This is can be really difficult.  This is a journey into emptiness.  Find a place to walk and notice your surroundings.  Pay attention to details.  Journal about your feelings and thoughts.  And don’t worry about being productive.  Just be.  If it appeals to you stay awake one entire night with the only activity keeping a fire going or counting the stars, try it.  And don’t tell anyone what you are doing to avoid the questions and odd looks you will get.

If it feels right, plan your own symbolic acts of emptiness.  One person may sit outside, draw a circle around them self in the dust, and just be.  Another may write a list of all the things they wanted to accomplish in the past year and burn it.  Another may talk to the moon and still another may carve a walking stick.  Find a ritual that works for you

This transition will surely not be your last, so it might be useful to practice living in the transition zone before it gets too complicated.  There is more acceptance of “doing nothing” right after college than there is in midlife.  Since over 70% of UMass graduates report that they do not have employment in their area of study immediately after college, if you don’t yet have a career – well, you’re not alone.  Good.  Enjoy it.  When your parent’s friends ask you the inevitable question, “so what are your plans?”  You can respond that your immediate plan is to “actively experience the emptiness of the transition zone”.  That will usually end the questioning.

And so the final stage of transition is new beginnings.  We generally celebrate beginnings as a time of opportunity.  But we also recognize it as a time of uncertainty.  It is like the first step of a trapeze artist onto a high wire crossing Niagara Falls.  The first step is the most difficult and requires letting go of both the patterns of the past and expectations for the future.

Remember the scene in the Disney flick “Finding Nemo’ when Dory and Marlin (Nemo’s dad – the clown fish) are inside the belly of the whale trying not to get sucked down the vortex of water that seems to lead to death?

Remember…. “we must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”

John M. Gerber



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