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: