Many symbols of American culture have come out of Detroit, Michigan. Motown Records and classic American cars are some of the things that come to mind when someone mentions Detroit. However, since the collapse of the American auto industry and the economic decline that followed, the city is also known for its high crime rate, poverty and abandoned buildings. The city filed for nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013. Detroiters however, have not given up on their city and what has now become one of the largest urban agriculture initiatives in the United States is a testament to their determination and the power of local food.
One of the most exciting programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst today is an undergraduate major with a tradition that goes back 150 years and yet still serves the citizens of the local region by growing food, growing community and “growing” new farmers.
As local and regional food production in New England grows, so does enrollment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture’s Sustainable Food and Farming program. UMass graduates are engaged in creating ventures to relocalize the food system, build community, and reduce the carbon cost of shipping food long distances.
Building on its historic mission of practical research, outreach to the community and hands-on education, today’s Stockbridge School helps educate young women and men in ecological landscape management and sustainable food systems — crucial training in an era threatened by the impact of radical climate change.
Many Stockbridge students and grads believe that global trends and the need for enhanced food security will make the Food Solutions New England vision of producing at least 50% of New England’s food by 2060 a realistic objective. Students and graduates both contribute to this goal by working toward careers in local food and farming, urban agriculture, permaculture, herbal medicine, community education and advocacy for a more sustainable and just world. Most “Stockies” choose to complement their classroom work with real world experience, often in the local community, earning academic credit for this work as part of their undergraduate studies.
An example of a local business providing students with valuable real world experience is the All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, started by area people committed to the relocalization vision. Stockbridge students and graduates volunteer at this year-round farmers’ market, some selling products they produced themselves, such as organic eggs, milk, artisan tea, blueberries, fermented kombucha, mushrooms and other vegetables.
Other Stockbridge students volunteer with Grow Food Amherst, a network of neighbors and students uniting town and gown. The vibrant local food economy of the Pioneer Valley provides a supportive environment for food entrepreneurs, and this project engages over 450 local residents helping to move the region towards greater food-resiliency through education and action.
Building on Levi Stockbridge’s commitment to experiential learning, students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major are actively engaged in hands-on learning projects that contribute both to their own education as well as the local community. For example:
The UMass Student Farm is a year-round class where students manage a small organic farm and sell their produce through food service and retail markets — including a popular on-campus farmers’ market.
The UMass Permaculture Initiative has converted underused grass lawns on campus into edible, low-maintenance food gardens, winning the White House Champions of Change competition in 2012.
The Student Food Advocacy group and the UMass Chancellor signed the Real Food Commitment, which ensures that by 2020, at least 20 percent of the food purchased for the dining halls will be local, organic, fair trade and/or animal-friendly.
The School Garden Project helps K-6 teachers at nearby elementary schools create vegetable and herb gardens as living classrooms.
The Food for All Garden at the new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center is a student-led project that grows food with the help of Amherst community members, and distributes the food through Not Bread Alone and the Amherst Survival Center.
Stockbridge students and alums are committed to building a more sustainable food system focused on environmental quality, social justice and economic vitality. These young visionaries imagine a world where the bulk of one’s food comes from local and regional farms, and production and marketing costs don’t exploit either people or the land. Stockies and thousands like them around the world need help from consumers who are committed to creating a more vibrant, peaceful and sustainable world. Americans on average spend less than 10% of our income on food. Many of us can afford to invest in our children’s future by spending a little more on local and regional food, and by doing so improve our personal heath, community health and the long term health of earth.
Dr. John M. Gerber is a professor in the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture and founding member of Grow Food Amherst. You may find more essays and commentaries on his regular blog at World.edu. This article was adapted from the original which appeared in the In Close Proximity column of the Amherst Bulletin and was sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project.