Support Food Democracy at Green Mountain College

The fate of a pair of oxen at Green Mountain College’s Cerridwen Farm (Poultney, VT) has attracted national media attention, but not because of the exemplary way the administration at this small college has engaged students in deciding the role of animals in their community food system.

Please read the appeal that follows by the Director of the Green Mt. College Farm & Food Project.  Philip Ackerman-Leist also directs the MA Program in Sustainable Food Systems, and on-line program in which I currently teach a course on Theory & Practice of Sustainable Agriculture.  I can attest to the outstanding commitment by Philip and his institution to both rational discourse and food democracy.

The attacks, threats and intimidation used by some self-styled ‘activists’ in this situation are deeply disturbing to me, and I have been horrified to read some of the comments posted by these food fascists as this story has unfolded.  My response is partly due to how creepily similar this situation is to what transpired among some activists when USDA released its first organic proposed rule.  A better analogy might be the extreme ‘pro-life’ activists who threaten and intimidate women seeking abortions and even try (and sometimes succeed) to assassinate abortion providers.

How can we as social ecologists express our support for this model of thoughtful and democratic food system design?

[Editor’s note:  Our colleagues at Rural Vermont have posted a response to this situation here.  Their statement includes this important observation:

No matter what one thinks of the college’s choices regarding [the oxen], this episode is emblematic of our culture’s tragic desire to remain unaccountable to the ramifications of how we feed ourselves. Let us be clear: Truly sustainable agriculture and food production is dependent on animals, not only for the nourishment of their meat and milk, but also for the fertility of their manure, essential to the production of the fruits, vegetables, and cereal crops upon which all of us depend. Indeed, to erase animals from the cycle of agriculture is to ensure dependence on fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Sustainable? Not exactly.]

Request for Common Cause from Philip Ackerman-Leist,
Director of the Green Mountain College’s Farm & Food Project

November 11, 2012

Dear Colleague in Food and Agriculture,

I am writing to request both your attention to and support in an issue that impacts farms of all sizes, the ability of livestock-based businesses and educational farms to function without the threat of harassment or harm from outside special interests, and the possibility for communities to determine the future of their regional food systems.

As you may have heard or read, the Green Mountain College community followed a decade-long tradition of discussing the fate of livestock on the college’s Cerridwen Farm before deciding to send our two longstanding oxen to slaughter.  Bill and Lou have been central elements of the college farm since their arrival ten years ago, but Lou injured his leg this past summer and is no longer able to work or even to walk any significant distance without experiencing obvious pain.  Therefore, in an open community forum this fall, about eighty students decided to send the much admired pair to slaughter and processing, with the meat to be used in the college dining hall, as we have done with sheep, poultry, swine, and cattle in the past.

However, an extremist animal rights organization, VINE (Veganism is the Next Evolution) Sanctuary, turned our community-based decision into an international advocacy and fundraising effort.  VINE recently set up its new sanctuary and education/advocacy center in Springfield, Vermont in order to take on everything from backyard poultry to small-scale livestock production to the iconic Vermont dairy industry.  They allow for no distinction between any form of livestock agriculture.  As a case in point, one of the founders of VINE states the following:

“Another issue we face is that Vermont is a big ‘happy meat’ place.  The happy meat people are convinced the animals are treated well.  It is just a myth, and regardless, any farmed animal on a factory farm or a ‘happy meat’ farm, can’t get away from ending up dead.”

Another VINE blog makes the point even more explicit:

“Despite the blather about respecting the bedrock of one of Vermont’s primary industries, and despite the inane lies pitched in almost hysterical fashion by ‘happy meat and milk’ farmers, cows are nothing more than potential money-making machines to people. That’s what they’re there for, after all.”

The Green Mountain College oxen case seemed to have been the perfect target for VINE’s efforts, quickly supported by Farm Sanctuary and PETA.  Why focus on our college farm and not a “factory farm” or some other farm with questionable livestock management practices?  Perhaps we find ourselves in this situation because the college has long been transparent about our community-based discussions regarding the fate of the livestock on our college farm—it is a vital part of our educational program here.  It could also be that we have been targeted because we are not only teaching and advocating for sustainable livestock farming, but some of our graduates are seeding the local landscape with these kinds of farms.

Unfortunately, this issue is not just about the fate of Bill and Lou or the intense local and international pressures faced by a small but diverse college community that opted for transparency, truth, and accountability in its own food system.  If the extremist elements in this activist agenda succeed in forcing our college to choose a course not of our own making in this issue, then they will have the power and the confidence to do it again—perhaps next time to a smaller and less resourceful community or farm or even to a bigger institution or initiative.   Such an outcome would be inconvenient to some and perhaps tragic to others. And it flies directly in the face of Vermont’s innovative efforts to develop community-based food systems, envisioned on a grand and courageous scale through our nationally-acclaimed Farm to Plate Initiative, a strategic ten-year plan to build the vision of interlinked local and sustainable food systems that can build thriving communities even in the most rural reaches of our state.

Imagine the pressures our college has faced in recent weeks and consider how other communities placed under such pressure might fare:

  • Numerous petition drives, with tens of thousands of signees from all over the world—people who know nothing of Bill and Lou’s conditions, much less the accountability and transparency we have built into our college food system
  • Action alerts that have generated email assaults (at least one staff person received almost 1000 emails in a single day) and switchboard and voicemail overloads of our campus phone system
  • One cyber-attack generated 3.9 million emails filtered in a period of several days—all from a single domain
  • Harassment and threats of physical violence to students, faculty, staff, and administrators
  • Constant surveillance of our college farm by stealthy intrusions, video cameras, and Facebook reports of our daily activities
  • Driving a livestock trailer to the edge of campus and barging into our administrative offices demanding that Bill and Lou be turned over
  • Dishonest and highly abusive postings on the college’s social media sites, requiring around-the-clock monitoring and editing
  • Attempts at widespread defamation of character of faculty, staff, and administrators through letters, emails, websites, and social media channels
  • Threats of continued negative publicity campaigns unless we turned Bill and Lou over to VINE Sanctuary
  • Online discussion of whether to give Bill and Lou medications that would render their meat unsafe and inedible
  • Slaughterhouses throughout Vermont and New York were threatened with protests, harassment, and potential violence if they agreed to work with the college, ultimately eliminating virtually all such possibilities for us, including our scheduled date at a local Animal Welfare Approved facility

Throughout it all, we have attempted to avoid a polarization among parties.  After all, our student body is comprised of approximately 70% meat-eaters and 30% vegetarians and vegans.  One of my colleagues in helping our students to think critically about these livestock decisions is Dr. Steven Fesmire, a philosopher and a vegetarian.  For ten years, he and I have tried to model open and civil discourse about dietary choices and related animal issues through forums, joint classes, and guest lectures.  We are unaccustomed to diatribe replacing dialogue, and our students tend to be open to a diversity of ideas and respectful of differences in opinion.  Our community finds it odd that certain extremists have opted to try and make us out as villains when one of our stated goals is to become the first college or university in the United States with a major food service provider to eliminate all animal products that are not humanely raised and slaughtered.

Our college honors different dietary choices and encourages a diversity of philosophical perspectives related to agriculture and animal ethics.  Were that not the case, we would not have a higher than average population of students who are vegetarians and vegans.  We teach animal rights perspectives in our classes, as we believe that these philosophical ideas can help to illuminate the path toward more humane and sustainable livestock agriculture.  The challenge we are now facing is not one of a philosophical perspective that we find inappropriate but rather of an extreme activist agenda that is divisive and destructive.  The end goal is the abolition of livestock agriculture, whereas our college is invested in the transformation of livestock agriculture.

What happens next in this situation may have ramifications far beyond our campus community.  If VINE, Farm Sanctuary, and PETA succeed in harassing and threatening not only us but also our regional livestock businesses to the point at which we succumb to their abolitionist desires, then they will march forward with their activist agenda and wreak havoc not only on the rebuilding of community-based food systems but also on the longstanding efforts in our region to create increasingly humane and ecologically appropriate livestock production and processing.

It is time for more organizations and individuals to come forward to denounce the intrusive and unethical bullying orchestrated by these organizations.  Their tactics do not promote discourse, diversity, or democracy.  Ultimately, they impede animal welfare reform by putting backyard poultry on the same level as a poorly managed “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation” (CAFO).  You may or may not agree with our community’s decisions regarding Bill and Lou.  We recognize that people can come to different conclusions in what is the best alternative for each of these animals, and these discussions can be civil and frank.  Regardless of your opinion in this particular matter, it is important to recognize that the extreme bullying tactics employed by these groups need to be countered with the courage, reason, and civility of people and organizations that believe in the transformation of livestock agriculture, not its abolition.

During the early morning hours of November 11th, under the cover of darkness and with complex security plans in place, we had to euthanize Lou and bury him in an undisclosed location, as outlined in a statement to our community by President Paul Fonteyn.  It was a difficult and complex decision. President Fonteyn offered these words regarding Bill: “Bill will not be sent to a sanctuary but will stay on Cerridwen Farm and will be cared for in a manner that follows sustainable, humane livestock practices, as is the case with all of our animals. We take responsibility for our animals on the farm–it is an obligation we will not ask others to bear.”

Please make your voice heard on this issue, whether it be through letters to the editor, calls and emails to your elected officials, or by appropriate direct action through your organization.  Green Mountain College has decided to stand up against the bullying directed at us while also standing up for farmers, businesses, educational farms, local food systems, and burgeoning farm-to-institution programs—in Vermont and elsewhere in the country.  It is our ardent hope that reason and civility will prevail and perhaps save some other farm or organization from the onslaught that our college has opted to engage, oppose, and defeat.

Sincerely,

Philip Ackerman-Leist

Director of the GMC Farm & Food Project

Director of the Masters in Sustainable Food Systems (MSFS)

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies

The links below will provide you with some insight on this issue:

 

12 Responses to Support Food Democracy at Green Mountain College

  1. mijnheer November 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    Those interested in the other side of the story may want to explore James McWilliams’ site:
    http://james-mcwilliams.com/

  2. Ben November 22, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

    Hi mijnheer,
    Dr McWilliams’ blog has at best, 3rd hand information on this situation filtered to support his specific view on food ethics. His blog posts show very little concern for understanding the actual details and nuances of the situation.

  3. Dawn November 23, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Was Mr. Ackerman-Leist’s request for common cause in any way an invitation to community dialogue? When you label people as food fascists, vegan terrorists, and milder derisive terms, do you think that helps your point?

    I saw one reference to a conversation with Stephen Wise. Other than that, was there any attempt to publicly engage anyone from animal rights or sanctuary or environmental sustainability or veganism, anyone of the multitude that disagree with you, in a dialogue?

    Is the death of two oxen really the answer to man’s place on this earth? Are two draft animals in 10 years really the solution to sustainability?

    With Green Mountain College’s food plan wholeheartedly supporting factory farms, is there any way for Green Mountain to pretend that they are a sustainable program?

    Can you all really blame vegans and vegetarians for the existence of factory farms? Do you really believe that they are not doing something for the planet, and against factory farming?

    Why does the Green Mountain College community hate vegans so much?

    Do you think that, even if you had a discussion in 2000 with vegetarians in your class about your farm community, maybe it’s time for a new conversation?

    Do you think that people actually were asking you not to kill Bill and Lou because they wanted to take away your food freedom or your food sovereignty?

    Do you really believe that your lives will be diminished if you do not eat 11 year old oxen meat? Is there any opening in your minds, for the possibility that saving Bill, and engaging in dialogue would enrich your lives?

    Do you really think that Ackerman-Leist’s “communications” are nuanced and unfiltered?

    If Bill lives, will it really damage your lives? More damage than you have done to yourselves? More than the many pounds of factory farmed beef that you are eating have done to us all?

    Do you really believe that the problem here is that none of us know where our food comes from?

  4. Grace Gershuny November 24, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    It doesn’t appear that Dawn actually read the letter from Philip, but it seems necessary to at least call out the way she uses questions of the ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ variety. I posted the original message because of my association with Green Mountain College and respect for their commitment to reasoned discourse and engaging their students and community in decisions about their food system.

    The question, “Why does the Green Mountain College community hate vegans so much?” betrays an inability to engage in this kind of discussion. Its nonsensical quality is made apparent by a quick scan of Philip’s message:

    “Our college honors different dietary choices and encourages a diversity of philosophical perspectives related to agriculture and animal ethics. Were that not the case, we would not have a higher than average population of students who are vegetarians and vegans.”

    Anyone interested in a brilliant discussion of the sustainability advantages of animal agriculture versus the kind that would eliminate livestock should read Simon Fairlee’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance, available from Chelsea Green.

  5. Dawn November 24, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    I did read it, as I have read all the communcations from GMC, and the courageous students and alumni who have tried to dissent. When you address people as food fascists, you do not invite conversation, in spite of all claims of doing so. I have been completely appalled by the tone of GMC’s communications and their total lack of respect for any surrounding community, small and large. Aren’t you doing the same thing? Anyone who disagrees is just uninformed or stupid. Saving two oxen, and now just one, is hardly the elimination of animal agriculture.

  6. Grace Gershuny November 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    If you read their letter, I wonder where you found the term ‘food fascist,’ which I have not seen Philip or anyone from GMC use. I did use it – referring only to some of those who posted comments attacking GMC’s decision – and I stand by that term, which refers to anyone who seeks to dictate food choices to others, and who believes that their particular food choices are the only moral or ethical ones possible. This can refer to some advocates of ‘paleo’ diets who advocate elimination of all forms of agriculture as well as to some vegans, whose views are quoted in Philip’s letter as supporting the elimination of animal agriculture in general – this is not exaggeration or hype.

    By reading the comments posted by ‘courageous’ attackers of GMC, for even considering humane slaughter of their oxen, you can find many worse epithets than ‘food fascist’ employed. Is this respectful dialogue?

  7. Chuck Morse November 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    I recognize this is only tangentially related to the discussion at hand, but I just wanted to point out that followers of the “paleo” diet do not actually argue for the elimination of agriculture (as you just said, Grace). I can see why one would make the link between “paleo” and opposition to agriculture, but people who eat paleo consume tons of meat and other cultivated food products. They just don’t eat grains and try to eat food that is as unrefined and naturally sourced as possible. . . . . I follow this diet more or less.

    For a fabulous book on the relation of diet to radical politics, I strongly recommend Warren Belasco’s Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (Cornel, 2006). I thought his discussion of the creation of a “countercuisine” was fascinating.

    OK, apologies for the tangent.

  8. Dawn November 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    I don’t believe that that there has been respectful dialogue, though it has been requested and tried on the sanctuary ‘side.’ The response to Bill and Lou was not a vegan issue or a food democracy issue. The appeal for sanctuary, which arose from students, was not an attack on any of the issues that you or Ackerman-Leist or Fonteyn raised, although GMC’s entrenched views have provided a perfect platform for many issues. I would expect a school administration to protect its students, but sometimes that requires engaging in dialogue, and stretching one’s perspective.
    I was aware that the ‘food fascist’ term came from you, and that you were using it in response to Ackerman-Leist’s characterizations, but I don’t think it is a useful epithet in the context of Bill’s life. Mr. Ackerman-Leist has used other terms, and many students have used derisive terms for vegans and animal activists that surprised me by their venom. I really had no idea before this that there was so much vegan hatred.
    Much exaggeration has come from the campus administration, and they have raised the property issue. “The oxen are ours. We can do what we want, and it’s none of your business.”
    Of course, for what your organization purports to do, and what GMC believes itself to be, that isolationism is not true. We are part of a community, and Bill has become the center of that community.
    The request for common cause is not an invitation to civil dialogue or community. I have been quite surprised at the inability of the GMC administration to engage in any useful discourse.
    Direct democracy is a messy thing. The public is engaged in this issue. They care about it. Some attention should be paid to that.

  9. Grace Gershuny November 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    I did raise the ‘paleo’ example, so not such a huge tangent, Chuck – but again, I don’t mean to slam that dietary choice (which is closer to the way I eat than is veganism – but almost all of my meat is either home raised or local). But there are some radical paleo advocates who attribute most of society’s faults to the advent of agriculture, and think we would be much better off becoming hunter gatherers (which is a likely scenario if we fail to avert climate chaos).

    I am not going to spend any more time debating whose name-calling was worse, and leave it at a disagreeable disagreement about how we engage in community decision making and who counts as a decision maker when it comes to managing a college farm.

  10. jkelvynrichards November 26, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Grace,
    following your lead:
    This discussion has revealed clearly the fundamental problems associated with open, democratic, community debates and decision making: how do you allow members to express fully their views and opinions, and come to a consensual decision, without losing your temper?or expressing insults? or walking out? The art of community democracy is to keep everyone involved in the business of running the community.
    I now live in Greece. The standard approach in all discussions is to speak loudly and without restriction, to shout abuse and insults,at each other and agree to differ, or come to agreement so as to reach an agreeble disagreement or a disagreeable agreement. Any name calling is considered acceptable but irrelevant. Insults are considered an essential part of the debate. I suggest that we move to carry out open debates and express ourselves without hindrance so that we are able to say what we mean.
    So my response to this matter has been that it seemed that the colleagues at the College treated the oxen as pets rather than livestock, and that eating their friends seemed bizarre. If you are going to raise animals for food, obviously you treat them with care,and attention, but so as to improve their food value.Or to raise their market value.

  11. Gman November 28, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    James McWilliams!? He is the most infamous anti-localism, anti-eco ag, pro GMO, pro-industrial ag, pro-GMO Monsanto shill on the planet. Many have been baffled as to why someone such as McWilliams, who has no ag training or experience whatsoever, regularly has his anti-eco-ag screeds published in major news outlets, when the same outlets haven’t given all the world’s foremost sustainable ag experts combined a tiny fraction as much press. The answer is actually quite simple. As Tom Philpott of Grist and others have pointed out, it is because he has made a career out of saying what Monsanto wants him to say, which has proved to be the fast tract to massive media coverage despite the idiocy of his arguments.

    The vegan activist McWilliams realized that the Achilles heal of vegan abolitionism is that animals are essential to every major form of sustainable agriculture, so he decided to make a career out of attacking eco-ag. With help from McWilliams, Farm Santuary, a vegan abolitionist organization, has poured an enormous amount of money and resources into a massive anti-sustainable-animal ag campaign. What they are doing is absolutely unconscionable.

    Tom Philpott summed up McWilliams’s anti-eco-ag crusade aptly when he said:

    “Whatever his reasoning, this moralistic vegan must live with the fact that the net effect of his public-intellectual work has been to serve the interests of an industry that treats live animals as industrial inputs, ruthlessly exploiting them while trashing land, water, and public health in the process. McWilliams’ career may be benefiting from this strategy, but his stature as a defender of animal welfare is nil.”

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    […] of expressions of discontent—most of them polite and genuine—with a handful of zealots. Ackerman-Leist referred to suffering “email assaults” and insisted that, instead of responding to critics, the local […]

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