The Vermont’s Table Speaker Series was launched in 2013 to bring contemporary perspectives and visionary speakers on local and global food systems to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The College has brought to the campus luminaries such as Alice Waters, Gary Nabhan, Sandor Katz, Marion Nestle, and, most recently, Fred Kirschenmann.
The series was launched in April of 2013 with Sandor Katz. Over one hundred people crowded into Simpson Hall, Classroom 3, to hear the fermentation revivalist and New York Times best-selling author. Laura Lea Berry ’10 said, “I’ve never seen it so full in my time here. Never.”
Berry hadn’t seen anything yet. In 2014, both James Beard Award-winning author and NYU Paulette Goddard Professor Marion Nestle and MacArthur Genius and noted author Gary Paul Nabhan spoke on campus to standing-room only audiences.
Nestle gave a rousing talk on food politics that touched on the proposed Vermont soda tax, the Farm Bill, and the food industry. She exhorted the audience to “vote with your fork, but more importantly, vote with your vote!” Nabhan talked about growing food sustainably in the face of climate uncertainty. He spoke about examples from traditional farmers and the importance of seed conservation and crop diversity, and had a lively, extended Q&A session with the audience.
Sustainable farming for climate resilience was also the theme for Fred Kirschenmann’s recent talk, held on Earth Day 2015. Kirschenmann, an award-winning author, farmer, and philosopher, is the President of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York as well as a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He talked about soil health, restorative agriculture, and switching over to perennial crops. “Annuals are nature’s emergency crops,” he noted.
Simpson Hall was abandoned for the crowds who came to campus for Alice Waters. For her talk in April 2014, conducted interview-style with noted food writer and consultant Clark Wolf, Dunbar Dining Hall was emptied to make way for the audience of over two hundred Sterling community members, locals, and visitors from across New England. Waters, dubbed “the mother of American food” by Gourmet magazine and others, spoke about the importance of living wages for farmers, her history with Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard project, and the importance of slow food.
The Vermont’s Table Speaker Series wouldn’t be possible without the tireless work by Board of Trustees member Marian Burros. Burros has been writing about the politics of food, food safety, health and agriculture for more than 40 years. She spent 27 years at the New York Times, retiring a few years ago, and continues to write for the Times and other publications. Burros has been tireless in her promotion of Sterling College and using her connections to bring speakers to the campus.
The talk that each speaker gives is actually the capstone of their time at the College. Each visitor comes and spends time in the local community, from Sterling College classrooms to local farms. Kirschenmann went with students to tour Butterworks Farm, an organic dairy and grain farm in the Northeast Kingdom. Both Nabhan and Nestle visited classes, toured the campus, and ate meals in Dunbar with students and faculty. Waters not only toured the campus and the farms, exclaiming over newly-born goats, but she also toured the food and farm entrepreneurs of the Northeast Kingdom, including the Cellars at Jasper Hill, Hillstead Farms, Pete’s Greens, and High Mowing Organic Seeds.
Nabhan said of his visit, “Sterling College is a place which ramps up student’s deep commitment to the earth and to healthy food systems through tangible actions and effective mentoring. From the president, through the faculty and staff, to the oldest and youngest of students, I feel a sense of dedication and thoughtfulness that most other colleges wish they could exude. It is an antidote to despair, for it cultivates hope in the most innovative ways.”
Waters also spoke from the heart, albeit more briefly. After her visit to Sterling College, she emailed Burros, saying simply, “I am over the moon. I LOVED Sterling. I will be back there sometime soon.”