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Going straight to the source

By James Daly '13
May 31, 2011

Students in Elizabeth Hoover's Community Agriculture and Local Food Movements course get an up-close look at the livestock at Spring Wind Farm near Northfield.

If there exists a book that every student in a college environmental studies course reads, it would likely be The Omnivore's Dilemma. But how many students who have read Michael Pollan's bestseller have visited one of the food producers he describes?

Students in the new Community Agriculture and Local Food Movements course at St. Olaf College had the opportunity to see part of the book come to life this spring when they visited Lorentz Meats as part of a lesson on local meat production. The company's vice president invited the students to look out two large glass windows on opposite walls. One offered a view of the cutting floor, and the other looked out on something few Americans have seen: the slaughtering process that brings beef to their tables.

Lorentz is a small, family owned business that Michael Pollan praises for being one of only a handful of slaughterhouses in the nation that allow visitors a view of the "kill floor." And it happens to be just 15 miles from St. Olaf in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. What also makes Lorentz unique for a slaughterhouse is that it butchers 35-40 cattle per day, compared to large slaughterhouses that butcher upward of 300 cattle per hour.

After seeing Lorentz, the students headed to the grass-fed beef distributor Thousand Hills Cattle Company, which also happens to be located in Cannon Falls and is owned by Todd Churchill '93. The trip was one of several that Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Anthropology Elizabeth Hoover incorporated into her course throughout the semester.

Alexandra Thomas '12 and other students in the new Community Agriculture and Local Food Movements course file through rows of vegetables in a greenhouse during a tour of Open Hands Farm CSA.

"Field trips are a way to expose all of the senses to what one is learning about. These kind of experiences stick in the mind longer," Hoover says.

Each of the trips the class took during the semester — which also included visits to Just Food Co-op, Gardens of Eagan, Open Hands Farm CSA, Cedar Summit Farm, and Spring Wind Farm CSA — related to what the students were reading in class at the time. The course examined issues such as the meaning of organic, growing food in low-income communities and urban areas, vegetarianism vs. locavorism, the benefits and drawbacks of school gardens, and criticisms of the local food movement.

A service-learning component
To further add to their hands-on learning experience, students were given the option of forgoing a research paper in favor of completing a service-learning project related to food and nutrition at schools. One group of students, for example, developed a program at St. Dominic School called EGGPlants (Everybody Gets to Grow Plants at School). By talking to the kids about nutritious food, showing them how to grow vegetables, and explaining how food is grown, the group worked to get the third-graders thinking about nutrition and gardening at an early age.

"You can't just throw around words like 'organic' or 'sustainable' without defining them for the kids," says Charlotte Sivanich ‘12.

The St. Olaf students recently built a large garden outside the school that will provide educational opportunities as well as vegetables for the lunch program in the fall. In addition, the group took the young students to Simple Harvest Farm. "The kids don't know that there is a farm two miles away from their school that provides them with vegetables," says Anne Daily '12. "It was great to see them asking the farmers so many questions from what we had taught them in class."

Asking the experts themselves
Hoover, an ethnic gardens enthusiast, grew up in rural New York and remembers helping out in her family's vegetable garden. Years later, while completing her Ph.D. research at the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, she realized that she had taken that garden for granted.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Anthropology Elizabeth Hoover reaches out to a cow during a tour of Cedar Summit Farm with her class this spring.

There, she witnessed communities that in a few short years had gone from subsisting mostly on produce they grew and fish they caught to producing hardly any of their own food because of fears of contamination from three factories upriver.

Hoover's work at Akwesasne sparked an interest in community agriculture that has since expanded into topics such as ethnic gardens, food justice, and seed saving and heritage seeds. Yet she freely admits that there are some questions her students ask that she does not know the answer to. That’s where the field trips come in. Visiting the farms give the students the opportunity to ask the experts themselves: the farmers.

While not all students in the course will go on to have a direct role in food production, Hoover says it's important that all consumers understand how food is grown conventionally and know what alternatives exist. It's a point that has resonated with her students.

"I don't expect all of us to go out and become organic farmers or permaculture farmers, but I do think that we will have conversations with our friends about what we are learning," says Geoff Delperdang '12. "Food is such a social part of life. You can't really keep this information to yourself."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or