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Students Traverse Vermont on Food Systems Tour


By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent, Lancaster Farming:

ST. ALBANS, Vt. — Long Island native Kasey Wien had never been to a dairy farm prior to visiting Vermont earlier this month.

After five days on dairy farms, she was “sick of the smell of manure and ready to talk about produce and policy again.”

Wien is between her sophomore and junior years at Duke University studying public policy with possible minors in global health and statistics. Duke does not have a food studies program — Wien’s primary area of interest — so she’s bolstering her studies by taking as many food classes as possible.

Wien augmented her studies even further by participating in the inaugural three-week Vermont Food Systems Study Tour. From May 31 to June 20, about 10 people from across the U.S. who are studying how communities source, grow, process and purchase food, journeyed through the Green Mountain State for a unique study tour.

The group primarily consisted of graduate and undergraduate students from New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Ohio, as well as Vermont. Nontraditional learners also joined, including a former banker in the finance industry and a Culinary Institute of America instructor.

Even though the students came from diverse backgrounds, they each shared common interests including a passion for the social aspects of food, practical land-based experiences, sustainability and diversification, connection to working land, global health, and local food.

Together, they traveled 404 miles in 21 days to six schools and countless Vermont food and farm destinations, traversing the state in a one-of-a-kind experience that was anchored each morning by classroom instruction at the University of Vermont, Sterling College, Vermont Technical College, Vermont Law School, Green Mountain College and Middlebury College.

Students visited the fields, forests and offices that make Vermont a model for food systems implementation. They also met with policymakers and nonprofit organizers including Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, representatives from the Vermont Land Trust and Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, and more.

“I’m definitely learning a lot about the production side of food,” Wien said. She grew up “very disconnected from agriculture or where food comes from” growing up in suburban New York City. Her parents now live in Harlem.

“The extreme diversity of places we’ve seen and people we’ve spoken with really stands out to me. Wien said. “It’s truly amazing that we’ve had access to such busy, important people who have been instrumental in advancing Vermont’s food system to the point where it is today.”

Media fellow Ivars Balkits, a writer from the Midwest with a background in agriculture and ecology, chronicled the tour through his blog, “Field Day,” and shared images posted on the Vermont Food and Farm Education Facebook page, Twitter feed and the website,

Two lead instructors also accompanied the students on the tour: Elissa Johnson, a master’s student at the University of Vermont, and Lisa Trocchia, a Ph.D. student from Ohio. Trocchia earned her master’s degree in sustainable food systems from Green Mountain College in 2013 and has kept close tabs on Vermont’s food and farming industry.

Trocchia said she was excited to hear about the Vermont Food Systems Study Tour and was eager to be involved. The tour was “exceptional on every level,” she said, adding that students were intelligent, passionate and engaged.

“This has made the learning environment very rich,” said Trocchia, who, like the other tour participants, plans on taking her new newfound knowledge and applying it to her studies and work. “It’s been a great privilege to work with them as they get excited about all that’s happening here in Vermont, but it’s also rewarding to support them as they begin to see the big picture and begin asking the hard questions that need to be part of the discourse of food systems change.”

The Vermont Food Systems Summer Study Tour is a project of the Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium, which includes all seven schools that were involved in the tour. A group of Vermont’s education and agricultural leaders formed the consortium about 18 months ago, according to Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development and consortium facilitator.

“We’ve all seen the reports: Vermont is first for number of CSAs, best place to start a small farm, blue-ribbon cheese, brews and other value-added agricultural products. The list goes on,” Costello said.

As part of these achievements, Costello said, Vermont colleges, universities and graduate schools recognized their cutting-edge curriculum, research, field study and instruction on food systems — from a local to a global scale — is at the center of Vermont’s agricultural identity. The schools were inspired to share their story as part of the Vermont food story, Costello said.

Every member school was involved in planning the Vermont Food Systems Study Tour. Philip Ackerman-Leist, of Green Mountain College, took the lead in working with the schools and field destinations to weave everything together for the tour.

Students on the tour paid to earn undergraduate or graduate credits with some subsidies from their home schools available.

Costello said the tour is just one of several efforts the consortium has considered moving forward.

“By telling the story of Vermont as the epicenter of the food systems renaissance, our seven members are attracting students to study at their institutions. These schools are detailing the new face of education, agriculture and entrepreneurism,” he said. “The subject and potential impact is mammoth.”

Leon Thompson is a freelance writer in Vermont. He can be reached at