“Earth, Ourselves, Breathe and awaken, Leaves are stirring, All things moving, New day coming…”
Six years ago, Chris Howell read this Pawnee Native American prayer to a crowd huddled on a small plot of land just a quarter mile from the central Middlebury campus. There was a certain prophetic ring to his recitation.
That afternoon, a train of students, professors and community members wended through the fields to the site, following a student with a bag of winter rye over his shoulder. It was Bennett Konesni who led them, and as each person stepped forward to toss a few seeds over the freshly tilled earth, a year of careful organizing and petitioning came to fruition. The Middlebury College Organic Garden (MCOG) was born.
“Come back in 10, 15 or 20 years to see the effects of this garden,” urged Konesni to those assembled. Six years later, the garden has been transformed into a vital shared space in the community, touching countless lives.
As envisioned by its founders, the garden has become a site of celebration as well as intersection between College and community. Because the College subsidizes the garden’s labor, MCOG has a non-competition policy with local farmers. In fact, rather than selling at farmers’ markets or local stores, the majority of the garden’s produce goes directly to the College’s dining halls and local restaurants. The only crop they sell retail is honey; everything else goes at wholesale prices.
What is more, each year, the garden tries out different seed varieties for local farmers in the area. Last year, the grape harvest went to a fledgling vineyard in the area.
The garden also continues to evolve with the help of various student initiatives. One student drew upon his interest in architecture to design and help construct an outdoor classroom on the site. Associate Professor of Geography Anne Knowles and Professor of English and American Literatures John Elder routinely hold class meetings at the garden site, and a group of geography students recently teamed up with a professor to use GIS and Google maps to chart where food is consumed.
“Over the course of the garden’s existence I estimate that over 400 students have volunteered at the garden and many more students and community people have come to relax and enjoy the garden’s beauty,” remarked Jay Leshinski, farmer and adviser to MCOG.
“The point is to enjoy the space – not to feel obligated to work on it,” said Leshinski. “There’s something for everyone.”
In a world in which there is a gaping disconnect between the average producer and the average consumer – where food, appearing seemingly at will, is rendered mysterious and inexhaustible – MCOG has been able to offer participants a different perspective.
The summer internship program, which employs students to work on the garden, has been a transformative experience for countless students.
Dan Kane ’09 was one student who was inspired by his summer experience.
“I want to farm now,” wrote Kane in a recent blog posting, “I want to use these very hands-on skills. I learned to promote environmental and social justice wherever I can. I want to be fully engaged in what we’re calling the ‘food revolution’ all because of this space that the MCOG founders envisioned and invited me too.”
For Htar Htar Yu ’09 of Burma, working at MCOG this past summer was special because it reaffirmed a part of her identity.
“I never thought of myself as a gardener partly because growing plants is so common where I come from,” said Yu. “Everyone grows. There is a Burmese saying, ‘A place Burmese leave behind is a forest.’ And that is true. Where I grew up, we grew the food we ate. We grew all kinds of vegetables and rice.”
This past summer, Yu had the chance to plant Burmese sour leaves for the first time in five years.
“It is like I am back to the real me,” she said. “I love the feeling of knowing the plants around me are edible. I love picking things with my own hand.”
While the principal goal of MCOG is to serve as a common space that is both celebratory and informative, no doubt one of the desired outcomes is also to help assuage the current disconnect people have with food.
“People here think it takes a lot of courage, time and means to have a garden or to plant crops with a capitalistic life style that considers ‘time as money,'” explained Yu. “Growing up in an armed conflict area in Burma, when I was young, we had a lifestyle in which ‘time was survival’ and we still had our gardens. Vermont has great soil. Any plant that can survive in Vermont weather will grow,” said Yu, who only hopes “more people in Vermont will have little gardens.”
The seeds have been planted. While the garden has not yet reached its 10th anniversary, it has already had a profound rippling effect on the surrounding College and community. This fall, a group led by Max Kanter ‘10.5 secured funding and a plot of land to start a community garden here in Middlebury.
“Institutional bureaucracy can be stifling and frustrating, disinterest from students and administrators can be disheartening,” said Kane, “but food has that unique power of bringing us together, of equalizing and calming the discourse, of truly setting the table for progress and discussion. At Middlebury, MCOG has certainly been key at setting that table.” Aylie Baker