Philip Ackerman-Leist has been busy. As a professor and the director of the Farm and Food Project at Green Mountain College in Vermont, he’s been at the center of a much-protested decision to slaughter a pair of oxen living on the school’s farm.
The controversy will likely make its way into Ackerman-Leist’s talk at York College on Nov. 13. But he’ll also focus on his memoir, “Up Tunket Road,” which shares his experiences in homesteading.
His talk, titled “Local Eyes: Visioning the Not So Distant Future of Food,” will be held 7 p.m. Tuesday in DeMeester Hall at York College. Ackerman-Leist will have copies of his book for sale and signing.
Read on for a Q&A about his writings and biggest challenges.
Book Buzz: Your book, “Up Tunket Road,” tells of your adventures in homesteading in Vermont. Is that something you’ve always been doing, or was it a new adventure for you and your wife?
Philip Ackerman-Leist: My wife and I moved to Vermont 17 years ago, and we had, in some ways, begun to build a homesteading life before we moved here. I had farmed and worked as a carpenter for much of the decade prior, and we both built a log cabin with hand tools in North Carolina before moving north to Vermont.
BB: What all does homesteading entail for you? (What crops, animals, etc.) What’s been your biggest challenge or surprise? The most rewarding part?
PAL: We have a homestead that has gradually burgeoned into a small farm operation. In addition to the requisite garden and poultry, we also have often have pigs and do maple sugaring for our family. The biggest part of our farm operation is a herd of rare breed cattle known as American Milking Devons. The Devons were the first cattle brought to the US in 1623, and they are particularly hardy and well-adapted to thriving solely on grass–no grain.
Like many homesteaders, our biggest challenge is balancing my job off the homestead with all of the demands on the homestead. However, homesteading and teaching sustainable agriculture at the college-level are rich in overlap, so one constantly informs and enriches the other.
BB: Tell us a bit about your decision to put your story on paper. What was your motivation? How long did it take to write?
PAL: Well, I had this thing called a sabbatical, and I needed something to do… OK, that’s not completely true. I did want to write about the experience, primarily because I felt it important to share some of the reflections discovered along the way, with many of those thoughts coming from errors or problematic assumptions on my part. I hoped that by sharing those “aha” moments from the homestead, I might be able to help inform others following a similar path with some useful ruminations that might enrich their experiences, or prevent them from making similar mistakes!
I worked on the book for about a year — I knew that most of the writing did need to happen during my sabbatical, or I would never have time to finish it once I went back to teaching. My wife Erin spent several months working on the drawings for the book, and it was a wonderful experience working on a project jointly like that. It did pose some interesting child-care discussions, as we traded back and forth!
BB: What do you hope your audience takes away from the book? Is the homesteading movement applicable for those in suburbs or cities, or just folks with many acres of land?
PAL: I hope that readers of this book will find a way to translate some of the key principles involved in homesteading into their own lives and settings. As I note in the book, homesteading is ultimately an effort to weave together values, skills, and technologies into a meaningful life that takes into account much more than “self.” Perhaps the most important aspect of the homesteading tradition is its focus on accounting and accountability — understanding one’s impact on the human and natural world and trying to ensure that that impact is more positive than negative. While it is inevitably an imperfect act, homesteading is at least an important and imaginative challenge moving in the right direction.
Setting is less important than intent, in my view. In fact, I think that the suburbs and urban environments are really the next frontiers for homesteading. While the rural version of homesteading is wonderful in its independence and close alliance with the natural world, it is critical to translate homesteading values and technologies into these more developed environments.
BB: You’re a professor at Green Mountain College. Have you seen growth among students who are interested in sustainability or environmental studies? What would be your advice for younger would-be homesteaders?
PAL: Much of “Up Tunket Road” is based upon how my students have challenged me in my own thinking about homesteading. I teach a course called “A Homesteader’s Ecology,” in which I take students to visit a number of homesteads in Vermont and New York, and we spend the semester thinking about our readings, field visits, and their future plans. The class always fills with a waiting list, simply because students are trying to craft their lives in ways often counter to the status quo. Guiding them in their journeys is a privilege — and not without certain risks. I mean, they challenge my own assumptions and ways of doing things, and they’re often “spot on” in their assessments! I’ve altered what I think and how I live thanks to their astute observations.
As for aspiring homesteaders, they need only seek out a variety of people doing it. Work with them, live with them, watch them, and then decide what aspects fit their own aspirations and follow the heart with the hands and the head. Wonderful things almost always happen thereafter!
Name: Philip Ackerman-Leist
Lives in: Pawlet, VT
Family: Wife, Erin, and children Asa, 10, Ethan, 7, and Addy, 3
Occupation: College professor, farmer, homesteader
Hobbies: Teaching, farming, and homesteading
Online: www.greenmtn.edu/ackermanleistp.aspx; purchase “Up Tunket Road” and pre-order his upcoming book “Rebuilding the Foodshed” at www.chelseagreen.com