Down-to-Earth: Professor John Gerber, UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture

A Profile by Eleanor Burke

gerber-umass

Four young professionals, guest speakers in a seminar class at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sat with a dozen freshmen in a circle of standard-issue college desks. All four wore the garb of their chosen profession: jeans, mud-splattered work boots, and flannel shirts. A pungent aroma of hay, horses, and earthiness pervaded the classroom. Something was not quite typically collegiate here.

The first speaker, a plucky young woman named Nell, her long auburn hair pulled into a charmingly unruly ponytail, asked the wide-eyed freshmen: “Have you had your life-changing moment yet, in John’s class?”

The savoir-farm Nell exuded had struck them speechless. “You will,” she said, “It happens to everyone.”

Nell was referring to John Gerber, the professor of this class and mentor to all four guests. Gerber had invited these recent graduates of the university’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture to talk to his first-year students in the Sustainable Food and Farming course about life after college—or more specifically, about how they managed to carry their agricultural degrees, skills, and knowledge into the real world of farming careers.

UMass Amherst, considered the flagship campus of the UMass system, grew in the Pioneer Valley soil in 1863 as Massachusetts Agricultural College, dubbed “Mass Aggie” back then. In recent decades, however, a focus on basic research has pulled the university away from its original roots, leaving only a tenuous connection to agriculture through an associate’s degree program and an ever-shrinking agricultural extension service, both on the brink of extinction. Until recently, that is.

On a tide of renewed interest in local, sustainable farming methods and food security, last summer the university reorganized its disjointed agriculture-related programs into the overarching Stockbridge School of Agriculture. It houses both 2-year and 4-year programs for students who want to apply their learning to the real world of farms–orchards, livestock, food production and marketing—as well as turf grass and sustainable landscaping.

Over coffee at the Blue Wall Café in the student union, Wes Autio, the Stockbridge School’s Director and a driving force behind its reconstitution, referred to Gerber as “Dr. John,” as he described a new breed of students in the program. “Dr. John’s Sustainable Food and Farming [course]…was the evolution of a curriculum that took us from a very few students interested in farming, to 80-90 students. …It piques students’ interests from all sorts of different lanes, from helping the world survive to normal agricultural production in its traditional sense.”

For Gerber, the hands-on nature of the program is its draw. Over a vegan lunch in the student-run Earthfoods Café, he said, “The University doesn’t really encourage practical experience. We have to create mechanisms for that to happen, so students can study and be credentialed at the same time. That’s what we try to do in the Stockbridge program—give them what they actually need, both science and experience.”

Gerber depicted his teaching mission as “building lifeboats to the future,” an image he credits to John Todd, another sustainable agriculture proponent. “These are actually lifeboats that I can help build. That’s my part. I can work with these students and contribute.”

Gerber’s students spoke candidly about how the Sustainable Food and Farming major, which he coordinates, had changed their lives. Several seniors described having meandered their way there through a series of what they earlier characterized as “failures,” which they now recognized as growing pains. One explained, “Everyone’s failed here—but we just fail, then fail better. This major is really what I would call an actual learning experience—it’s not just read, consume, and regurgitate.”

Max, another senior, described his transition from the 2-year program to the 4-year bachelor’s program: “What I learned my first two years got lost in translation my third year, because I was taking gen-eds that had no relation to agriculture, sustainability, food and farming, or vegetable production. It was discouraging, like being in purgatory for a whole year, constantly being bludgeoned” by irrelevant requirements, before he landed in Gerber’s program.

You can tell from their stories that John Gerber is the man-behind-the-curtain of these transformed lives. Taking no credit, Gerber merely said, “We have 75 in the Sustainable Food and Farming major that think they’re going to change the world one farm at a time. … That’s not me. That’s the world changing. I’m just riding the wave.”

Back in the classroom, the visiting graduates told the freshmen of the need for persistence at knocking on farmhouse doors to break into the profession. Gerber’s closing advice: “The answer to almost any question in life is going to be ‘no’ the first time. When somebody says ‘no,” you try again. That’s how it works.”

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