Sustainable Agriculture in California

In the tradition of Gaudino’s Williams at Home program, a Winter Study course gives students hands-on experience of life on the farms of the San Luis Obispo, Salinas Valley, and Santa Cruz regions

Joe Standard ’73, Jim Samenfeld-Specht ’74, Joe Hiersteiner ’74 and Jon Kravetz ’74 (l-r) sitting on a moldboard plow while chatting with a local farmer.

Professor Gaudino’s second experiential education program at Williams, the Williams-at-Home Program, sent 17 sophomores and juniors to live in four diverse home stays in the United States during the second semester of the 1971–1972 school year. Each student typically spent 4-6 weeks living with a family in a small town in the deep South, in a mountain hollow or mountain top area of Appalachia in Kentucky or Tennessee, on a family farm in Iowa, and with a family in Detroit while working in an auto factory. The family farm home stays took place mid-way through the experience, during March and April. While students spent most of their home stays living and working “solo” with their families, there were a few occasions when several of them got together to reflect on their experiences, and also to describe the WAH program to members of their communities. The Iowa farm families, in particular, were eager to meet with these young college students from a small New England college, hear the students’ impressions about life on family farms, and learn about the two earlier home stays the students had experienced in the deep South and Appalachia.

Students assist California farmers with planting. Photo: Hank Art

In a 2016 Winter Study course led by Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology Henry Art and supported by the Class of 1963 Sustainability Fund and the Gaudino Fund, six students followed in the Gaudino tradition by spending a month working and living on farms in California, gaining hands-on experience with the diversity of agricultural practices—from vineyards in San Luis Obispo County in the south to the winter vegetable, livestock, and diversified farms in the Salinas Valley and Santa Cruz region in the north.

They examined agriculture on different scales, from small single-person farms to large operations operated by corporations, and experienced diverse approaches within various crops, contrasting and comparing biodynamic and organic approaches with other forms of conservation agriculture and conventional petrochemical-intensive methods of producing food. The course included participating in the Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove, California.

The field course was structured to give students as much hands-on experience as possible by engaging them in work experiences in exchange for interviewing the farm operators and touring the facilities. For the most part they were lodged in yurts, bunk-houses, and similar accommodations, and worked under whatever weather conditions they encountered.

Photo: Hank Art