Sustainable farm unsustainable for college budget

In today’s unstable economy, it’s difficult to imagine anyone turning down a donation.

However, Goshen College recently turned down a nine-acre farm with a house and barn that would have been donated from Heifer International, an organization that works toward building sustainable communities.

“We were approached by Heifer International … to see if we would consider the possibilities of accepting a gift of land and a building just south of town … Heifer’s interests, I think, were to provide a gift to the local community, to an organization whose values matched up with theirs,” said Will Jones, vice president of for institutional advancement.

According to Ryan Sensenig, assistant professor of science, who worked with the committee of faculty to review the proposal, “A Heifer-type farm can model a variety of sustainable practices, including local and organic vegetable production, perma-culture and multi-species grazing on native tallgrass prairie systems,” Sensenig said.

“The excitement about a farm with a house raised the possibility of having students research and design key strategies to retrofit an existing house to make it less energy intensive and/or implement energy producing technologies that are more sustainable.”

The idea was presented during the summer at faculty retreat by Frank Johnson, Goshen College special assistant to the President. Then two committees – one of students and the other of faculty from different disciplines – came together to decide if the land would be beneficial to the college.

After months of research and discussion, the committees concluded that the farm would benefit the college. Both committees suggested that the college pursue the gift. “The committee was also enthusiastically supportive of a residential option for students that connects them to the land and the intentional care for the land,” Sensenig said.

The President’s Council made the final decision to pass on the gift. The President’s Council includes President Jim Brenneman; Bill Born, vice president for student affairs; Jim Histand, vice president for finance; Lynn Jackson, vice president for enrollment management; Will Jones, vice president for institutional advancement; and Anita Stalter, vice president for academic affairs.

“We went through a thought process here, really an intellectual exercise to see what the possibilities would be for us to use the facility,” Jones said. “It was a great interdisciplinary exercise for the college.”

Jones said that financial concerns played a large role in the decision not to make the proposal a reality. Jones noted “what’s happening globally in terms of the global recession and then also what the college budget situation is in terms of what the main [goals] are here.”

“We’re investing in our mission, investing in our teaching and learning opportunities for students,” said Jones. “That’s our primary concern, and it felt like this was something that wasn’t fully mature yet in terms of the idea.”

Jones said that even though the land was a gift, there would be substantial costs involved. “Sometimes there are gifts that keep on taking … and there would have been costs associated with the proposals. The costs of the modest project plus the maintenance and upkeep was more than the college was willing to bear given other strategic priorities.”

According to Histand, the financial cost would be too much in the current economy. “Potential gifts like that have some risk to the institution,” he said. “For example, the potential to draw off resources from other core institutional activities. And now is not the time to take those kinds of risks without some certainty as to economic viability.”

In addition, Jones said, “We could have gotten the land, but it would have been with strings attached. For certain kinds of projects and for the college there would have been costs associated with those projects. The cost to conduct them was more than the college was willing to invest given what the strategic priorities are of the institution.”

According to Jones, Heifer International was unwilling to give up the land unconditionally. “There were some strings as far as what some of the projects might be, and when we tried to come up with some of those projects on our end, nothing seemed to crystallize,” Jones said.

Despite the project not going through, Sensenig is hopeful about the future of sustainability at Goshen College. “While I am disappointed it did not work for GC to accept the Heifer farm. I am very optimistic about the ongoing conversation that has been generated about the importance of generating a program related to farming and sustainability,” Sensenig said.

“The energy, innovation and commitment among the committee members from multiple departments suggests the time is coming for an interdisciplinary approach to farming and sustainability,” Sensenig said. “I’d like to continue to find ways to mobilize this interest and work together to craft a farming program for GC, perhaps even on our own strawberry field [behind the Recreation-Fitness Center].”

Tyler Falk
Written by Tyler Falk

is a senior English major from Champaign, Ill.

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    February 05, 2009

    While I understand the necessity to exercise caution in difficult economic times, I am somewhat disturbed to read this story in light of some of the other articles that have come across this news page the past few weeks. Professionally-produced Super Bowl ads? Railroad underpasses? Certainly exposure, growth, and convenience must be valued and pursued for an institution to be viable, but aren’t education and sustainability much higher on the list of Mennonite values? Perhaps a little additional perspective on relative costs may somewhat assuage this argument, and I would welcome any responses to that nature, but until then I think we must all hold this action by the President’s Council under a microscope and ask if they really made the best decision for Goshen College.

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