Last November, a group of Vermont colleges announced the formation of a consortium to promote food and farming education in the state.
The idea is to attract worldwide attention to Vermont as a place to learn about agriculture and food systems.
Next summer the group will put that idea to a test.
Still in the early stages, the Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium isn’t trying to create something new.
The consortium includes the University of Vermont, Vermont Technical College and the state college system, Vermont Law School, Middlebury College, Sterling College and Green Mountain College.
Their most immediate goal is to connect the dots between existing college programs. To do that, the consortium will offer an intensive summer course that is a sampler of Vermont agriculture and food programs at the participating colleges.
The consortium grew out of an initiative by the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Executive Director Paul Costello calls the summer course a moveable feast.
“It’s a 21-day study tour where students can get graduate or undergraduate credit for participating in educational offerings at each of the seven consortium members,” says Costello.
Each of the participating institutions has a different focus, which will be highlighted during the course. Students will learn about everything from cheese making to the legal fine points of food systems advocacy.
The summer course will be for credit, which raises an issue consortium members are wrestling with: Credit requirements, costs and financial aid rules are different from school to school.
Coming to terms with those differences is important if there’s going to be greater collaboration in the future. Some groundwork has been laid through agreements that already exists between schools over transferring credits and the summer course will also be a test of how the colleges can collaborate.
The course is also a marketing tool. Costello says the hope is that students who participate will be interested enough in one of the colleges they visit to come back for more.
“It’s important to think of this as a pilot. We are thinking much longer long-term about the potential for collaboration and the potential to draw students together from other places around the country,” he says.
Even as the colleges explore ways to work together, they’re adding to their own programs. Middlebury College is a recent addition to the consortium.
Vice President for Academic Development Tim Spears says the college is building on existing courses to create a food study program. It’s also looking at the programs available to its students through study abroad program.
“I think that for Middlebury College, getting involved in the consortium is going to make our students that much more aware of what’s happening in the state of Vermont, right around them,” says Spears.
“When you enhance that with a clear understanding what’s going on internationally I think that makes for a really comprehensive, well-rounded education," he adds.
Middlebury is not alone in exploring international partnerships in the study of local food systems and agriculture.
Sterling College and Vermont Technical College have announced a two-week course called Agricultural Adaptations to Climate Change that will center on farms in an area of Mexico.
The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School is adding two new master’s degree programs on farm law and food policy.
And the University of Vermont is instituting a first-in-the-nation certification program for food hub management.
The consortium summer course will be marketed primarily out-of-state. It may provide an early indication of whether the food and farming programs offered by the colleges have the potential to draw young people to the state, bolster college enrollment and attract widespread interest in Vermont's efforts to diversify and support local agriculture.