There are now 145 UMass students majoring in sustainable food and farming, compared to five in 2002. That growth reflects increased interest in where are our food comes from, but it’s also attributable to the charismatic professor who coordinates the program.
John Gerber has been involved in many local agriculture initiatives. He’s one of the founders of Grow Food Amherst and the All Things Local store, and has an extensive fruit and vegetable garden behind his own home, which I will describe in my next post. Gerber has had perhaps his biggest influence in the inspiration he brings to young people who are interested in agriculture.
“He brings a professor’s presence with chill, peaceful, compassionate vibes,” wrote one student on the Rate My Professors website, on which he gets high grades. Gerber, 63, has been at UMass for 22 years and won the Distinguished Teacher Award in 2008.
But what awaits all those sustainable farming majors after they graduate? Are there enough jobs to keep all these idealistic young people employed? Gerber said some graduates are working directly in farming, while others are engaged in agricultural education, and others are finding their place in public policy or advocacy.
Many graduates become entrepreneurs, creating jobs that didn’t exist before. Gerber cites Ryan Karb, who created Many Hands Farm, which not only provides food to the public but also provides summer work for teenagers. Graduate Willie Crosby created a mushroom business called Fungi Ally.
“Jobs are tough to find these days, but these folks aren’t accountants. They are creating things,” Gerber said. “When I look at them, I think I’m 22 again.”
Six of the vendors at All Things Local are former students, giving Gerber extra motivation to promote this new business at 104 North Pleasant St. in downtown Amherst. It has had its growing pains, but he’s optimistic because new co-manager Alison Potter has brought a higher level of enthusiasm and organization.
In his classes, Gerber does more than teach about how to grow vegetables. He encourages students to explore their own personal growth and community responsibility through service, dialogue and contemplation. He has in recent years reclaimed the Catholic faith of his youth, partly because of Pope Francis, and found a spiritual home at the Newman Center at UMass.
“We need to reconnect with each other and the earth,” he said. “Unless we do that, no amount of recycling or Priuses or turning lights off will save the planet. We need to reawaken to the fact that we are part of, not apart from, Mother Earth.”
UMass was founded in 1863 as an agricultural college, so Gerber is helping to bring the institution back to its roots.
For those new to this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 120 past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, gardening, frugality, living without, and climate change.