Episode 10

A Nourishing Conversation with Gwyneth Harris

Published on: 17th September, 2021

Gwyneth Harris, Sterling College’s Garden Manager joins Emergency to Emergence hosts, Nakasi and Dakota, for a rich conversation on the intricacies and advantages of small scale farming. Though farming is often misconstrued as a simple vocation, Gwyneth portrays the elegant complexities of an agro-ecological farming system, particularly one that balances education, experimentation, production, and nourishment. Sterling’s educational farms offer opportunities to learn core skills for cultivation, puts animal, plant, and soil science into practice, and integrates food sovereignty, social justice, and systems thinking. The farm management choices Gwyneth and her colleagues make have ripple effects on the land, the people in our community, and the plants, animals, insects, fungi, and microbes with whom we share this space. Those choices also influence the lessons that students draw from the Sterling farm and carry forward onto their future farms that will nourish their communities in the years to come. This conversation also illuminates the enduring contributions of smallholders and positions community-scale food and fiber production as a viable and valuable alternative to industrial agriculture and production systems of extraction. By listening to Gwyneth, you’ll get a better sense of why so many of our students come to Sterling to study Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems -- and of the intentionality that they find when they work alongside our farm managers. 

[03:17]-educational farm, not a single path; carpentry; animal, plant; soil science overlayed with food, social justice and systems is endlessly fascinating

[10:01]-Sterling farm experience has real impacts on animals and community

[14:04]-scale; systems of production; smallholders produce most of food; recognizing value of community scale

[21:22]-synergistic farm systems; thinking beyond the U.S. model of agriculture

[24:33]-balance of education of food and production; relationship to Sterling and outside community; Sterling addressing food insecurity regionally

Transcript

GWYNETH HARRIS TRANSCRIPT

OPENING CREDITS: [:

Welcome to Emergency to Emergence, a podcast produced by Sterling college. I'm Nakasi fortune and I'm Dakota La Croix. This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialog about intersecting, eco-social emergencies, featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully, engaging in ecological thinking and action. While fostering active, community engaged, responses that offer hope.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

Joining us today is Gwyneth Harris. Gwyneth is a family farm owner, the current garden manager in charge of Sterling three acres of vegetables and perennials and co-manages the draft animal program. She has worked since high school at the variety of farms and has coordinated several agricultural outreach programs, including the Vermont pasture program. Gwyneth has been gardening for as long as she can remember, and all these years later finds limitless opportunities for creativity, both on campus and in the community. Gwyneth, thank you so much for joining us. And so Gwyneth, besides the formal titles

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Yeah.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

And all of the official stuff, who is, who is Gwyneth Harris, how long have you been into, um, family farming?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Sure. So, uh, I think my interest in farming started when I was a kid. I had my first goat when I was about five and I learned to hand milk with my mother at that point. Um, also have always been really fascinated with plants and gardening. Um, and I think probably my time at Sterling, um, all of the different titles that I've held, including faculty in sustainable ag and, uh, livestock manager and garden manager and overall farm manager, um, really reflect that, those early interests that bridge all of the parts of farming. So, um, oftentimes people will, I guess, gravitate to either livestock or plants, but my real fascination is sort of how those different parts of a farming system overlap and interact. And so, um, I enjoy being here and being able to sort of have my hands in all the different pots and, and be able to, um, really look at the landscape as kind of a canvas and, and be able to, uh, see how those pieces interact and, and are dynamic and, and, uh, sort of reinforcing of each other.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

What are some of the lessons that you've learned through life from being a farmer and, and, and how has that changed since you've been with Sterling?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

I think they're all kinds of things. One of the things that really draws me to farming is that it's, it's not a single path. There are so many different things that you can do through farming, and then when you add an educational setting, it's really, um, You know, keeps me interested and I find myself able to, um, explore different facets and, and learn new things.

So everything from, you know, carpentry to business management, to veterinary medicine, to, uh, plant science, animal science, um, soil science. All of those different things. And then when you overlay the food systems, elements of community and food access and social justice and all of that stuff, um, it's just sort of endlessly fascinating.

Um, and so I guess that's, that's one of the big things. The other things are more of the day-to-day pieces that, um, that you have to, have, uh, sort of under control in order to be an effective farmer. So it's given me ah really good sense of, um, the importance of ritual and rhythm in your life. You know, the importance of showing up every day, um, observation, and it's a, it's a great way to raise kids too. So I've really enjoyed having my children, uh, be a part of the farm operation, um, and all of the things that they've learned through that, uh, kind of the, a, work ethic and, you know, follow through and things like that.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

So, Gwyneth is there a line between, you know, being a Gardner and being a farmer? And if there is, what's the distinction between the two and why does it matter?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Some people like to be called gardeners more than, than farmers or, um, and I, but I think. Sort of in the general mind, the differentiation is production and focus on production. And I'm never sure whether I want to, uh, sort of take that step. Um, I, I like to keep that creative and, uh, sort of, um, the element of fun in what I'm doing, but I do, I do think that there's value for our students and, and for the world as a whole in, in having a focus on production as well. Obviously, everyone eats, everyone needs to have agriculture that is not just fun, but it's also productive and can feed a lot of people.

And, and so looking at that line and kind of, um, exploring how we can maybe have elements of both in a farming system, I think is really important.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

Farming at the scale that you practice and teach is often, uh, really a labor of love, and, and you've basically described that, you know, that finding the balance between that enjoyment and the practicality or the practical aspect of it here at Sterling. What kind of sacrifices, you know, do farmers routinely make that maybe they shouldn't even have to make.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

I think the biggest thing, um, is, is probably that, um, farming is, is a difficult way to make money. You have to be good at it. You have to be at a certain scale and you have to, um, sort of set yourself a, uh, kind of a line where you're comfortable with the, the ethical and sort of, um, personal sacrifices that you're making, but you're also comfortable with the income that you're making, cuz those things are so interrelated. Having a reasonable income, um, is important and we try to teach that to our students that, you know, it's not just about enjoying what you're doing and, and, you know, doing it in a, a, an ecological way, but it's also, um, being able to make a living and be able to then, you know, ensure that your, your personal life is supported. I think some of the things that people see as sacrifices.

I don't, I don't see quite so much as sacrifice because, and so that's why I do what I do, right. Like, so we just purchased a livestock guardian dog. We have horses and cows and sheep, um, and poultry and herding dogs and so on and so forth at home, and so that makes it difficult to go places and leave the farm, but on the other hand, it makes it really fulfilling to be on the farm. And there's, it's not, you know, our home is where we want to be and it's, it's not a place that we want to leave. Um, that often.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Can you speak to some of the complexities of the sacrifices and the joys and the pains of farming and, and perhaps in, within this educational model as well? Um, because I'm, I'm so fascinated and kind of about the sacrifices and these complexities, as they intertwined with also people coming into their own growth.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

You know, there's, there's that Ben and Jerry's bumper sticker that says if it's not fun, why do it?

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Oh.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Um, and I think, you know, on one hand, farming is fun, but on the other hand, I think that that's a little bit of a false premise, you know, because a lot of the things that, that cause us to grow as people. A lot of the things that, that, um, develop our understanding of the world are not entirely fun and they can be very challenging, and so, and I think perhaps those things are more, um, more fulfilling in the long run than the things that are just fun in the initial moment, and so, um, I guess, I guess there's a lot of that and I think that's a lot of what we impart to students as they're on campus here, but then again, like you're not going to get the fulfillment of sitting down to a meal and knowing that you grew the food that's on your plate. Um, if you don't put in some of that time and sacrifice and,

um, I think one of the things about farming in an educational setting that is really, um, Beneficial or useful to teaching is that the, um, the consequences are very real. Um, so if you don't show up, it's not just that you lost five points on your grade or you, you know, don't get the assignment for the next day or whatever, it's that you actually have a real impact on the living thing, whether that's plants or livestock, and I think that people need that. They need to understand that their actions have real impacts, and so that's another way, especially through the work program at Sterling, um, where students can both have consequences, um, that are not imposed by some outside party. They just happen if you don't follow through, and then they also get the rewards. They get to be the person who walks into the barn at 3:00 AM and sees a lamb being born, you know? And so those moments of joy, um, are really, you know, really exciting for the students.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

So Gwyneth, all around the world, there's the case of the aging farmer and Vermont is no exception, and so I wanted to know, why does the world need more farmers and specifically more farmers educated and trained in the way that you know, you and your colleagues go about it.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Yeah, I think that can be a hard question to answer, if you look at it from the paradigm that we're in from the paradigm of sort of, you have to go out into the world and make a good income, and that's sort of the measure of your success, but I always come back to, there is no end to agriculture, right? Like. Unless we were to very, very drastically reduce our population we're not going to return to any other way of meeting our, um, our food needs and our fiber needs. Um, and so I don't see that it's a question of sort of, is this the way to make a living or a, a livelihood or a, a fortune. It's a way to see if we can continue as a species, right? Like we have to eat, we have to work out how to preserve the systems that we depend on, and there's a sort of, um, sort of arrogance to thinking that, that, that is something that can be done only by people who are in poverty or people who have no other choice. Um, and I think that to think about agriculture critically is the way forward. We need to look at what we're doing and what works and what doesn't work, and we need to try out different things.

And so that's another way here at Sterling that we really try to, um, to help students forward, so we're not in a system where it matters entirely, whether we get everything right. There is a place here for students to try things and to fail and to see if new and different systems work well or not so well. Um, and I think that's the way to sort of move forward and to create a more ecologically sound, a more sustainable farming system that will take us into the future.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Gwyneth given kind of the degree again, of consolidation and the current food systems thinking. What do you feel like needs to happen to defend the space for the smaller, mid-size, mid-sized farm and or perhaps what might we invite in as a new way of thinking and experiencing?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Yeah, I mean, I think one, one thing that I always come back to is that, um, the systems of, of production, um, that we have sort of on a smaller scale and, and more oriented towards the ecosystems that we live in are not new systems they're systems that are taking place constantly all over the world. Um, small holders produce most of the food in the world. Um, but I think more, what we need to do is to recognize and value the production that is happening in corners of the community. And there is a lot of land that is not being used incredibly productively, just because one person can manage 10,000 acres or one company can buy up, uh, you know, vast tracks of land that doesn't make it the best answer, um, and I think there's a little bit of a tendency for folks to look at that as modernization and that modernization is necessarily a good thing and that a decrease in the amount of human labor that goes into agriculture, it as a good thing, I don't know what the latest numbers are, but I think it's less than 2% of the us population is engaged in agriculture.

And so, um, I think encouraging people to farm where they are to garden, to keep a few chickens, to, um, to do those things that allow them to produce food and to engage with the food system in a very personal way, um, can really help with that, that question of sort of, how do we, how do we justify going forward with a different model? So, yeah, I don't, I don't think it's so much that we need to change things. I think we need to hold onto the vast sort of, um, traditional or, or ancestral knowledge that we have of how to produce food, um, in the spaces that we have, and that it's not something to be done by professionals in a, in a separate setting, you know, with giant tractors and petrochemicals and fertilizers. It's something that everyone can do. You can grow food on your window sill. You can grow mushrooms in your, you know kitchen closet. It's not something that has to be done somewhere else.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

And then on, on, you know, mid and larger scale farms, do you think there's space for both the traditional, um, agricultural practices and, um, modernization and, and all of the tech, uh, agricultural technologies that are, that are now coming into place, into being?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Yeah, absolutely. I do. Um, and I don't. Hope it didn't sound like, I think it's an either or situation,

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

No, you didn't.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

But there are certainly innovations that can be added to our systems that are going to make them more effective going forward. Um, I think currently one of the biggest, uh, sort of trends maybe in agriculture is a return to low or no till techniques, which is hugely beneficial. Um, anytime you turn soil or cultivate soil, you release carbon into the atmosphere. And we all know that, um, carbon sequestration is, is really important part of decreasing our global, global warming. Um, And so those techniques can be used on a larger scale and you'll see that happening for example, um, on Vermont dairy farms right now, there's a big move towards using cover crops in, um, corn fields and other cultivated crops. The other side of that, that we need to balance is that there's also been a huge increase in the use of herbicides, which burn down those cover crops to make the land ready for planting.

And so looking at kind of how, how do we modify those systems so that they're working to both keep soil in place, keep soil covered, decreased tillage, but also using less herbicides. There are techniques for, um, killing back cover crops that don't involve chemicals. So something like that I think is where those things fit into the larger system. Also ag uh, livestock, agriculture, uh, grazing animals rather than feeding them concentrates can happen in a lot of settings where we can't crop land on land that is too slopey or too arid to grow crops on. Um, and that can happen on a very large scale. You can have thousands of cattle moving across land, um, and do it in a fairly low impact way.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

You know, diversity is a big thing right now, and within farming, you know, diversity is incredibly important. What does diversity mean in the context of a, of a well-managed farm? And can you tell us about, you know, the role of diversity in a healthy society?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

I mean, obviously yes, it's, probably the most important thing. I think, um, one of the biggest barriers to incorporating diversity is, um, the complexity that comes with it. And, uh, I think humans, aren't so great at recognizing and sort of um, dealing with the complexities that come with diversity and so I think that people tend to gravitate to livestock or plants, um, but plants generally need fertility that's provided by livestock and, um, livestock eat plants. Right. So, um, but we don't always want to deal with that, and I think that's one of the biggest barriers is, is embracing that diversity and complexity.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

Yeah.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

And to that Point Gwyneth we've, we've spoken to many different people and essentially we continually come back to accessibility, privilege, but also this idea brought forth and it's Vadana Shiva's, um, use of the words, "monoculture of the mind", if I have that right? And I think you were just speaking to that. I, It sounds like we need a re-imagining and a re-diversification, a new story to be told. So much of what, uh, I think Nakasi and I are discovering, and I can't speak for Nakasi, but is that much of this comes on our early experiences that develop our relationship to what is diversity?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Yeah. Um, I mean, it's such a huge question. I think one of the things I was going to say, I think people can see and kind of grab onto is, is synergisms, so places where sort of two to different organisms or two different parts of a system brush up against each other, and the positivity of the outcome is increased because of the different pieces. So, uh, running laying hens on food waste, for example, which is something we're developing at Sterling, um, where you have basically a waste product that is then, um, turned into a feed source for your livestock and the outcome is eggs and decreased feed costs and less reliance on imported grains from a distant place, but I think, you know, that that idea of monoculture, I think also applies to the, uh, the farming techniques that are familiar to us and that we, we think are sort of the, the totality of, of what we have to work with, and so thinking of the word culture as also, um, not just culture of growing things, but culture in the human sense.

Um, and looking at all of the different cultures that have farmed and produced food over, you know, across the globe and over

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Yeah.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Centuries and understanding that those techniques are, are all available to, um, increasing the sustainability of our systems. And so not thinking sort of that us agriculture is the only, you know, model that we have and also that, you know, people who have lived on land for a longer time than white colonials are full of systems that, that have been in place for a very long time, and so, um, you know, thinking about just all of those different things that we have access to and all of the different tools and ideas and trying to, to broaden our minds because it's very easy to become, um, a product of the culture and the place that you live in, and so that, I think that's a challenge for me because I have spent a lot of time in this place and on this land.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Can you speak a little bit about the synergy and the cause and effect between the farm and the plates of food that people are nourishing themselves with their at Sterling?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Sure, yeah, so this has been. Um, again, one of those places where we try to strike a balance between production and, um, education, uh, because I think there's a huge value to a student sitting down to a plate of food that was produced on the Sterling campus and knowing that the, the meats and the vegetables are the same, that they helped to feed and nurture. But at the same time, we can't let that interfere with a student's ability to, as I was saying, um, make mistakes and, and, uh, so we never want the focus to shift over to just producing food. There are also other other elements to think about, so for example, we've been running ah, CSA or community supported agriculture program for several years at Sterling, and obviously that food doesn't come into our kitchen, it goes out to our community, and so we're trying to do some things that, that will support our community more, um, as well as producing food for our campus. So striking that balance, um, this year, for example, our CSA is pushing to, um, to find members who are maybe, uh, at risk of food insecurity in the local community, and so we're changing up our model a little bit. We're inviting people to support our CSA by buying a share for a low-income family for example, um, we're working to accept snap benefits and we're advertising in places where local families might be more likely to look.

So for example, some of the, um, the local school, uh, notice boards and, and email groups will have information about our CSA and ways for people to access those low or no cost shares, and so, yeah, just producing food to go into the dining hall is maybe not the whole answer, but it is, I think, important for people to feel really good about the work that they've done and then also really helping them to see and feel the impact that they have, um, when they offer a share to a low income family is super important too.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

You know, talking about the CSA and the excellent work that I think you all are doing, you know, to reduce food insecurity, um, across, across the Northeast kingdom and, you know, build this food hub, um, and I, I wanted to know in what are the, what are the ways is Sterling, um, addressing the issue of food insecurity within the specific Northeast kingdom area?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Yeah, well, um, The, so the CSA is, is sort of one part, the food hub is, uh, is another part, and, um, what the food hub does is it brings in products from local producers, and so in that way, we can kind of broaden the access to food that we offer at the CSA or at the, at that forum. It's not really part of the CSA, but, um, the other thing that we're doing there is we're reaching out to really, um, very early startup businesses, and that could be someone in the local community. It could be a student at Sterling and giving them the opportunity for a different market for their product. So if you're just trying to work out, if you want to make a certain kind of cookie to sell to, you know, the open market, then this is a place where you can try it. If you were a Sterling student, who's exploring something as a part of the value added products class, for example, maybe you create a product that can be sold through the food hub, and that's a way for students to sort of have a very real experience, but also to get credit for it and to maybe make a little income. So, um, we do some work in the community that is a little bit tangential, but also I think addresses food insecurity. So we've historically had a lot of students who've worked with farm to school programs, helping to get fresh local food into schools and helping students in the schools to, to enjoy that food food, and to, I guess, place value on it, to learn how it's produced. Um, we've also worked a little bit with gleaning programs, so going into the fields late in the season and harvesting excess food, which then is distributed through, um, you know, the. Bank or, um, different food shelves locally.

Um, we've instituted sort of a second shelf that is accessible to campus, and so any produce that doesn't end up being used for the CSA or the kitchen, or that is, you know, aesthetically less than perfect, will go into a place, walk-in and then students are given, um, priority access to that. So food insecurity certainly doesn't stop at campus just because we produce a lot of food here.

So we're, we're hoping to continue that and to make it a really comfortable and, um, you know, non-judgmental space for people to, to come and take food when they need it.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

GWYNETH HARRIS: [00:30:28]

Yeah.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

In this community that you've been building all these years and going forward?

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

So what keeps me up at night right now is all of the things that need to be done in the spring with the farm, and so, you know we just got new ponies at the farm, and so I need to get their harnesses fit and I need to get all the pieces that go in the harnesses and I need to make sure that we start socializing them and I get to know them and that we start working them and get them some exercise.

And so, you know, and then at the same time, the garden is going crazy and I, I need to get a few new implements for the summer and I need to, you know, make sure the plants are good and so on and so forth, so it's very like immediate stuff, and I think that is part of what keeps me coming back because, um, I think sometimes those big pictures, you know, how do we feed the world and how do we change our agricultural systems are so lofty and so, um, sort of unmanageable in their complexity and size that it's really hard to think about them, but being involved directly with a farm and with educating our students gives me that, kind of an easy out, right?

Because everything that I need to do is right in front of me. Um, And so yeah, those things keep me up at night, but also I get up in the morning and I go do something and it's very, very tangible. So I feel lucky to,

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

especially in this zoom universe, yeah.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Yeah, uh, I think, um, the danger of that is getting so wrapped up in the day to day that you stop thinking about those big picture future, sort of big answers to the questions, and so this conversation has been really nice to sort of remind me of those things.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

Well, Gwyneth, thank you so much for, for taking time again,

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Yes, thank you so much.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

To join us and engage in this, in this wonderful conversation. Um, I'm certainly appreciative of the fact that you're sharing some of your wisdom and your experiences.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Yeah.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

Yeah. So thank you again so much.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Thank you.

GWYNETH HARRIS: [:

Yeah. Thank you for taking the time and having the conversation. It's been really fun.

DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Ah, thanks Gwyneth.

NAKASI FORTUNE: [:

We enjoyed it.

CLOSING CREDITS: [:

If you enjoyed this conversation, do come back to the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests identifying the specific works that inspire them, so you can root further, draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities.

And before we come to a close, Sterling acknowledges that the land on which we gather, places now known as Vermont and Kentucky, are the traditional and unceded territories of several indigenous peoples. The Abenaki in North, the Shawnee Cherokee, Chickasaw and Osage people to the south. We also learn in, and from a range of landscapes that belong to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin.

As we seek deep reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention are just a first step, we must match them with acts of respect and repair.

Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to Emergency to Emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern Maddie, for her musical creations. For more information on how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action. Visit www.sterlingcollege.edu. If listening is prompted something new to emerge in you, we invite you to share your thoughts as a written message or voice recording, which you can send to podcast@sterlingcollege.edu

Until next time, this is an Emergency to Emergence.

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About the Podcast

Emergency to Emergence
Dialogue about Ecological Thinking and Action
This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialogue about intersecting ecosocial emergencies featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully engaging in ecological thinking and action while fostering active,community-engaged responses that offer hope.

About your host

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Sterling College

Sterling College uses education as a force to address critical ecological problems caused by unlimited growth and consumption that is destroying the planet as we have known it. Our mission is to advance ecological thinking and action through affordable experiential learning that prepares people to be knowledgeable, skilled, and responsible leaders in the communities in which they live.

Sterling acknowledges that the land on which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the Abenaki people on our Vermont campus, and the Shawnee, Osage, and the Eastern band of the Cherokee on our Kentucky campus.