Down on the Farm: ES Students Dig Into Food Systems

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Students in Environmental Studies 1101: Our Earth recently visited Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick during the unit on food and agriculture

This semester, for the first time, Bowdoin’s popular environmental studies intro class included a unit on food and agriculture. Along with studying issues such as pollution, fisheries and climate change, students in ENVS 1101 also are learning about the nitrogen cycle, the industrialization of agriculture, the green revolution, food deserts, public health, and the politics and ethics of our food system.

“Food and agriculture are at the nexus of the many challenges that we as a community, a country and a planet face,” Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matt Klingle said. Klingle, who is teaching the class with Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Lichter, added, “We have to produce healthy, nutritious food while limiting the negative consequences to ourselves and the environment around us.”

A second-level environmental studies class, Perspectives in Environmental Science, also last year incorporated food and agriculture into its syllabus. “A lot of our students will go on to take our science course and it made sense to give the students an intro here,” Lichter said. He added, “Students are also very interested in local food production now. It’s a regional trend in New England and in other places.”

Christian Heath ’18, a student in the class, worked at a farm last summer. “For me, [agriculture] is one of the most important aspects of environmental studies,” he said. “It is one of the largest impacts people make on earth.”

To connect classroom lessons with life beyond Bowdoin, the professors organized a recent field trip to Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick. The farm, which grows and produces about 100,000 pounds of organic vegetables and meat a year, is owned by the local land trust that hires a farmer to work the land.

Once the students disembarked from the Bowdoin vans and gathered in the farm’s former abattoir, they were greeted by one of Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s founders, Tom Settlemire, an emeritus Bowdoin professor of biology. Later in the visit, farmer Seth Kroeck took the students to his fields and spoke about his job.

Settlemire talked briefly about the history of farming in the United States, which operated mostly on localized, small scales until Richard Nixon revamped agricultural policy with Earl Butz, his agriculture secretary. The result was large-scale monoculture farms focused on corn (for fructose syrup) and soybeans. Local food economies dwindled.

But people here are trying to reverse this trend. Maine today has 84 farmers markets (the Brunswick market, with Crystal Spring Farm at its core, is one of the largest). Still, much needs to be done to link customers with Maine-based producers and growers, Settlemire said. If done at the right scales, he observed, these local food markets could inject billions of dollars into the state economy. “We need all the brainpower that you can provide to make this work in the next 20 years,” Settlemire told the students.

Lichter said he hoped that the farm visit would show students that farmers must understand not only soils, crops, field rotations and other technical aspects of farming, but also how to do business.

Moreover, bringing students to Crystal Spring Farm reflects one of the ES program’s missions — to take advantage of Bowdoin’s location in Maine. “We wanted to further emphasize the longstanding theme in the class to use Maine as a classroom, lab and archive,” Klingle said. “Maine is a great place for ES because of the diversity of its physical environments.”

At the end of the food unit, students will have read articles by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Wendall Berry and many others. They will have considered the benefits and drawbacks of both industrialized agriculture and local farming. “The trade-off is [that local farming] is more expensive generally, but there are a lot of environmental advantages to having small farms as opposed to the large Midwestern variety,” Lichter said.

Students will also have studied farming subsidies, and the history of those subsidies. “When they emerged [in the United States],” Klingle said, “they were understandable ways to respond to the crises at the moment.”

They will have looked at some of the consequences of our current food system — diabetes and obesity. But Klingle complicates this cause-and-effect conclusion by pointing out that better medical tests, lack of exercise and chemical exposure are also potentially contributing to our higher disease rates. “I don’t want the students to leave the class thinking that if we eliminate high-fructose from our diets it will solve all our health problems,” he said.

The aim of the the introductory ES course and its unit on food is to help students recognize the complexity inherent in all environmental issues. “I want students to go away understanding that there are no simple questions and no simple answers, and to embrace that complexity — not shy away from it. Complexity doesn’t mean they should be paralyzed by inaction.”

Klingle continued, “It’s a muddle, but this gives us the opportunity to ask innovative questions as well as potentially come up with pathbreaking answers to those questions.”

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