Sterling College creates food hub: farm workers in vegetable field


CRAFTSBURY COMMON, Vt.––July 1, 2020––Throughout the pandemic, the Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems at Sterling College––home to the campus farm––, has been busy, growing and expanding its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program while observing COVID-specific health and safety procedures. But of all the adaptations implemented during this unprecedented time, “perhaps the biggest lesson has been about the importance of local food production and provisioning,” said Farm Manager Gwyneth Harris.

Sterling responded to this call to action by creating a Food Hub that supports the college’s mission to advance ecological thinking and action, addresses local food security, and supports start-up and micro-scale agricultural producers. As a result, the college is bringing affordable, high quality, and locally produced food to the greater community, including those who experience food insecurity.

In response to the financial stress the pandemic has caused so many, the college doubled the number of CSA shares offered this year, introduced a sliding scale, and gifted a number of shares. In late June, the CSA was approved to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, opening the program to customers who receive benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest program of its kind in the country.

Although CSA shares sold out quickly, early in the season, customers in the future can use their SNAP benefits to purchase shares. Current CSA customers can use their EBT cards to buy additional and “value added” foods offered through the college’s Food Hub. This year’s offerings include mushrooms, fermented products (kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha), tahini, hummus, and maple syrup. These Food Hub products are currently only available to CSA members, but as the hub becomes more established, offerings will be made available to the larger community.

As one of nine federally designated “Work Colleges” in the country, Sterling has long required work from its residential students in exchange for tuition cost credits. When they return to campus in mid-August, many students will play a key role in expanding the food production on the campus farm, allowing Sterling to not only feed its students with wholesome food, as it always has, but also to contribute to increased food security for local residents.

The formation of the Food Hub has been a collaboration among Sterling professor Tony VanWinkle, director of the Rian Fried Center, Farm Managers Gwyneth Harris and Azsa Greiner, and Jeff Richardson, faculty in sustainable agriculture and associate dean of work-learning. According to VanWinkle, the school is also considering opening a farm store in the future.

VanWinkle is also the force behind the Black River Seed Library, a heritage seed library made possible in collaboration with alumna Maia Usher-Rasmussen (‘20) who completed her Senior Year Research Project on Reciprocal Seed Systems. Not long after graduation, Maia accepted a job with Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, one of the oldest heritage seed companies in the United States.

The seed library is housed in a custom-built “card catalog” alongside the books in Sterling’s Brown Library and offers locally adapted, open-pollinated seeds from heritage plants to members of the public who can “borrow” the seeds, and “return” them as saved seeds once their crops are harvested. “We’re  growing out our own seed inventory, rather than starting with donated seed, so it’s not fully stocked yet,” said VanWinkle. “Local food sovereignty starts with local seed sovereignty.”

“Seed hubs operate by an ‘open source’ ethic,” said VanWinkle. “Meaning they are free and based on principles of sharing and trust. In this way, seed libraries work toward the preservation and perpetuation of local seeds through local exchange networks, rather than their privatization.”

VanWinkle has been collaborating for several years with the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation and the non-profit Abenaki Helping Abenaki. Indigenous seeds from such vegetables as Calais and Gaspé flint corns; Canada Crookneck and East Montpelier squashes; Penobscot pumpkin; and several varieties of beans have been grown on the Sterling farm, the food harvested, and the food processed and seeds saved for return––or rematriation––to the Abenaki.

As described by Mohawk seed saver and advocate Rowan White, “In the seed movement, we have begun to use the word ‘rematriation’ as it relates to bringing these seeds home again. In many communities . . . the responsibility of caring for the seeds over the generations is ultimately within the women’s realm. Both men and women farm and plant seeds, but their care and stewardship are part of the women’s bundle of responsibility. So the word ‘rematriation’ reflects the restoration of the feminine seeds back into the communities of origin. The Indigenous concept of ‘rematriation’ refers to reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources, instead of the more patriarchally-associated ‘repatriation’.”

For more information contact: Tony VanWinkle; or read more in the Winter 2020 newsletter of the Rian Fried Center at Sterling College.

About Sterling College:

Founded in 1958 in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, Sterling College advances ecological thinking and action through affordable experiential learning, preparing knowledgeable, skilled, and responsible leaders to face the ecological crises caused by unlimited growth and consumption that threatens the future of the planet. Sterling College is home to the School of the New American Farmstead and the Wendell Berry Farming Program, is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education and is one of only nine colleges and universities recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a “Work College.” Sterling acknowledges that the land on which it gathers is the traditional and unceded territory of the Abenaki people on its Vermont campus, and the Shawnee, Osage, and the Eastern band of the Cherokee on its Kentucky campus.