Ag College Students Contribute to Local Community


studentbannerOne 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.

140926-global-universities-woman-with-badge-design_1UMass began as the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863 and recently the former “Mass Aggie” was recognized as having the eighth best global agricultural science program and 3rd best in the U.S.  Levi Stockbridge, Hadley farmer and the first teacher at Mass Aggie, would be proud.

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.

50by60Many 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.

atl2An 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.

gfaOther 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 Massachusetts Renaissance Center Garden is a demonstration garden open to the public, featuring the herbs and vegetables grown during Shakespeare’s time.

  • 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.

SSA Logo -- blue on white with UMASS

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  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.

Adapted from the Original:

We must choose either “cheap” food or 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. (More).

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.

Our industrialized food system consisting 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 the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, where I live, the locally grown vegetables are generally 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.

I suspect the reason that 90 percent of the consumers in my (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 major supermarkets.

atlstoreBusy 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 All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, I always bump into friends and neighbors.

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

Some 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. 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. Of course, if we were concerned about our own health, the health of our community and the health of the environment, we might choose to eat less meat altogether and when we do we can buy local. This would be an investment in a higher quality of life for ourselves, for local farm families, and for the animals we consume.

On the other hand, there is little difference in price between local and shipped vegetables, especially during our growing season.

But “cost” includes more than “price.” The industrial food system that produces cheap food does so at the expense of 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.  Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez’s death is also part of the cost of cheap food.

When we consider the quality of life we enjoy in those regions like my own 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.


Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.  Go here for more of my posts.

NOTE: this post  was adapted from an editorial I wrote for the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project and was posted originally here.

Creating a Renaissance Era Cottage Garden in New England


Have you ever wondered what the garden of an English commoner might look like during William Shakespeare’s time?   Well, a group of University of Massachusetts and Mt. Holyoke College students did – and they learned quite a lot – often not what they expected!


This project, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Interdisciplinary Center for Renaissance Studies and the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture, asked six undergraduate students to investigate what an English commoner’s garden might look like pre- and post-1492. Once the research was completed, we planned to design and build demonstration gardens at the Renaissance Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

wh18_columbianexchangeWe began this project with a hypothesis.  We believed that the Columbian Exchange would have changed the way common people grew their food during this period.

Our original plan was to create two gardens, representing pre- and post-1492 northern European cottage gardens to demonstrate the impact of the Columbian Exchange.

However the students learned early in the project that New World plants coming to Europe after 1492 did not have a dramatic impact on cottage gardens in northern Europe until after the period we think of as the Renaissance.  Most New World plants were better adapted to the Mediterranean climate and those that did find their way into northern Europe were found mostly in the gardens of the nobility.  Aaron wrote in her research blog;

“…about 127 new plants came across the Atlantic from the Americas during the first hundred years after Columbus. These plants diffused through the Old World at different rates, mostly from the port city of Seville, where the plants initially arrived.”

Corn (maize) which is native to the Americas became well-established in the Mediterranean region within 20 years of being brought to Europe by Columbus.  Other warm-season vegetables such as squash, sweet potato and various types of beans, also spread through the region but did not find their way into northern Europe quickly.  Aaron continues:

“…other crops were not such an easy sell to Europeans. The sixteenth century tomato was little like the delicious, juicy red fruit we know today. It was small and hard, and very bitter.  The tomato and other Solanaceae plants (peppers and potatoes) were outright rejected by most of Europe because they were recognized, by their flowers and leaves, as being members of the poisonous group called the nightshades.”

Although plants from the Americas did arrive in Europe following the explorations of the 16th century, they did not become a significant part of the common people’s diet for some 200 years.

The nobility, on the ohenryfoodther hand, seem to have benefited from the Columbian Exchange.  Jennie writes in one of her blog posts, Henry VIII reined in England from 1509-1525 and according to John Harvey in Vegetables in the Middle Ages, “…there was a very marked enrichment of diet during the reign of Henry VIII and royal and noble tables first saw delicacies such as asparagus, globe artichokes, melons and apricots.”

labyrinthOne of the difficulties in learning about commoner’s gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries is that most resources focused on gardens of the nobility.  Clearly, most common people weren’t writing books at this time. Thomas Hill’s classic, The Gardener’s Labyrinth, was printed in 1570 and is still available today.  Hill’s book recommends gardeners employ a labyrinth garden design for aesthetic reasons.  He writes “it much availeth in a Garden to frame seemelye walkes and Alleys, for the delight of the owner, by which hee maye the freelier walke hither and thither in them…” 

Its not very likely that the kitchen garden of commoners were designed to “freelier walke hither and thither….”  Nevertheless, the student research (which may be found here) discovered quite a bit about the diet and the gardening habits for commoners during the Renaissance.  This and my next few blogs will share some of what they have uncovered.

One of the most interesting stories that emerged from the research focused on the common food called pottage (sometimes confused in the literature with porriage).  Jennie continues in her blog post:

“Andrew Boorde, Dyetary of 1542, states that pottage, NOT porridge, was most defiantly a primary food staple of England. Pottage has been commonly confused with the word and food porridge, but it is quite different. Oat based Porridge was not a primary food staple in England.”


“Pottage, also called Porray or Sewe, is the what we might think of as a watered down savory/herbal soup, consisting of different herbs/plants, grown specifically for pottage.  Pottage was cooked over a fire in a metal pot, water or stock from meat, fish or poultry was added and then the ‘good pottagersthat is, leaves of colewort (Brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), peas (Pisum sativum), and broad beans (Vicia faba) were added.

bavariaThe student’s research brought forth some really interesting ideas that we will include in our garden at the Renaissance Center.  We plan on designing a vegetable/herb/flower garden typical of the period.  We believe we can use the garden to tell some interesting stories about how common people lived (and ate) during the 14th to 17th centuries.

Of course, pottage plants will make up a good part of our garden at the Massachusetts Renaissance Center, as it represents a major part of the diet for English commoners.  Other typical plants to be included are garlic, leeks, onions, turnips, hops, and even roses along with many common medicinal and savory herbs.


To see part two of this series on the garden, see: Renaissance gardens include more than food plants.  And if you would like to follow the development of the garden and/or be kept informed when we are planning events at the Renaissance Center, please join our “friends and fans” mailing list here:

Join the Renaissance Garden “Friends and Fans” mailing list

We also encourage those of you who are knowledgeable about English kitchen gardens during the Renaissance and related subjects to share your own thoughts in the comments box below.  We would appreciate your ideas and may include them in the garden design.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  If you are interested in sustainable food and farming, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And please check out more of my posts or my personal webpage.