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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

ENVS Professor aqquires local farm

Published: January 27, 2012
Section: Features

Brian Donahue, associate professor of American environmental studies, recently bought a 170-acre farm in Gill, Massachusetts. After three decades working on a community farm in Weston and teaching students about landscape and conservation, his long-term goal has finally been realized.

Presently on sabbatical, Donahue is currently completing a study of Eastern woodlands, in addition to building a house on the property and collaborating on a vision for sustainable food production in New England.

His vision, titled “New England Good Food Vision 2060,” claims that New England could supply most of its own vegetables and beef, in addition to a substantial amount of its fruit and dairy products. This result would be contingent on conservation of 50 percent of southern New England in sustainable harvested “working” forest.

“It’s a balancing act,” Donahue told NECN. “I combine my teaching, my research and the farming I do as much as I can. It sort of lends something extra to each of them.”

Currently, an estimated two million acres are devoted to cultivation, whereas 80 percent of New England’s acreage is forested. If the overwhelming majority was decreased to 70 percent, “that would still allow farmland to re-expand to 6 million acres,” Donahue said, which would “provide an attractive set of interwoven social and ecological benefits.”

With the proposed threefold increase in land dedicated to agriculture, a rise in the growth of local food would follow, however, more importantly “we need to pay the full environmental and social costs of producing them sustainably and bringing them here,” Donahue said in a phone interview. “We do not need to completely abandon foods from around the world.”

While Donahue is currently working on establishing his farm, he hopes to further integrate his fieldwork into his courses taught at Brandeis. “We will certainly spend a night or two [at the farm] as part of the field semester,” Donahue added, “to talk about things that are a bit different since it is much further away from the suburbs.”

Donahue’s teachings not only reflect his personal experience outside the classroom, but also incorporate his desire “to give students a real sense of what makes the place they live in tick so that they can carry that with them in the future.”

Donahue also helps to bring public policy to a grassroots level.

“We need agricultural and environmental policies at local and national levels,” Donahue said, “to take into account of all the values that can be embodied in food production.”

Increased local food production, part of Donahue’s vision of the future, “along with the satisfaction of farming itself is what attracts [my] students to local agriculture,” Donahue said, but for those studying outside this realm of academia, “it is still important that students learn something about where their food and resources come from to take that attitude wherever they live, whether or no their career is necessarily relevant.”