Updated: Aug 23
The Founder and Executive Staff of Shelburne Farms speak on the past, present, and future of the renowned environmental education nonprofit
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY SHELBURNE FARMS
Standing on the windswept crest of Lone Tree Hill at Shelburne Farms, the views are absolutely astonishing. To the west, the tranquil waters of Lake Champlain beautifully frame the Adirondack peaks that stretch towards the horizon. Every corner of Shelburne Farms’ 1400-acre campus is home to breathtaking scenery and exquisite structures, most of which were originally commissioned by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb in the late-19th century.
Although the well-maintained, historic buildings and phenomenal Vermont landscapes are certainly eye-catching, it is the educational programming at Shelburne Farms that commands the most attention and respect. Make no mistake, Shelburne Farms is much more than a beautiful Vermont farm that welcomes scores of visitors at its popular Farm Store, picturesque Inn, and rental cottages—it is an open classroom without walls, which offers a wide range of sustainability education, environmental education, and food system education programs for teachers, students, and guests of all ages.
Shelburne Farms’ teacher education programs have made an impact on a local, statewide, national, and global scale, equipping educators around the world with pedagogical techniques that enable them to inspire future environmental changemakers. Their groundbreaking on-site educational programs for adults, families, and children similarly embrace the potential and intersectionality of agricultural science, environmental sustainability, and cultural awareness.
In the months leading up to the summer season at Shelburne Farms, we at VERMONT Magazine spoke with their President, Alec Webb, Vice President, Megan Camp, and Chief Advancement Officer, Robin Turnau. Our conversations highlighted the staggering scope of their education programs. They also provided fascinating insight into how Shelburne Farms’ original founders, the Webb siblings, created a powerful foundation for growth, success, and positive community impact. Thanks to the visionary work of the Webb family and the dedicated staff who oversee Shelburne Farms’ continually-evolving programs, the future of this influential Vermont nonprofit is looking brighter than the vibrant colors of a Lake Champlain sunrise.
A Living Classroom
To understand how Shelburne Farms seamlessly facilitates education for sustainability through experiential learning, one need only take an informed tour through its gorgeous grounds. “We believe that people learn best through hands-on, tactile, real-world experience,” says Shelburne Farms’ Vice President, Megan Camp. “Here at Shelburne Farms, we couldn’t have asked for a better classroom.”
The well-stocked Farm Store at the entrance of Shelburne Farms invites curious gastronomes to savor a taste of delicious Vermont produce and food-products, many of which are sustainably farmed and produced at Shelburne Farms’ 7-acre Market Garden and Dairy. The produce is also used at the on-site Shelburne Farms Inn, which is located in a gorgeous, historic mansion on the shores of Lake Champlain. “The produce that we use in our culinary program from Shelburne Farms and the other local Vermont farms that we work with is absolutely amazing,” says Shelburne Farms Inn’s Executive Chef, John Patterson. “On my days off, I walk through the Market Garden here and my mind begins racing with new ideas for dishes. As someone who is passionate about food education, I think it’s wonderful that the people who come to stay and dine here get to visit where the produce is grown and the dairy products are made.”
True to Patterson’s word, visitors can visit the gardens and meet sheep and cows at the Farm Barn. “We pride ourself on creating programming and experiences that bring our guests face-to-face with every aspect of the agricultural process and helps them understand where their food comes from,” says Shelburne Farms’ Chief Advancement Officer, Robin Turnau. To that end, Shelburne Farms’ “Sun to Cheese Tours” allow guests to witness each stage of the cheesemaking process, from the cows grazing on the grass, to the final product itself. “The Sun to Cheese Tours perfectly illustrate Shelburne Farms’ commitment to offering visitors learning experiences that increase awareness of the big ideas of sustainability,” notes Camp.
At the Market Garden, organic produce is grown in all seasons, which is sold at the farm store and served at the on-site restaurant at the Inn. “Our market garden is organic,” says Turnau. “We sell many different kinds of produce, including kale, onions, tomatoes, squash, and lettuce, and we also grow flowers.” Many of the seedlings are planted in Shelburne Farms’ greenhouses, and are then moved outdoors during peak season. Turnau adds: “We like to bring educators and students here so they can see the full growth cycle. Many children have no idea how vegetables are grown, so a trip to the market garden can change their whole perspective at an impressionable age.”
Shelburne Farms also affirms their commitment to agricultural education through longstanding partnerships with other like-minded organizations. Their collaborative initiative with Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), “Vermont FEED,” encourages the growth of farm-to-school food networks and educational resources. “We want to help cultivate viable farm-to-school systems that improve the health of children and communities,” says Camp.
Shelburne Farms’ teacher education and exchange programs have made a similarly profound impact on a global scale. “We partner with international programs, such as Ayiti Konse Vet in Haiti, to freely exchange information, educational resources, and agricultural practices,” shares Camp. “We are also recognized as a Regional Center for Expertise and Education for Sustainable Development by the United Nations as a result of our ongoing partnership with UVM. There are less than 200 UN-recognized regional centers around the world, and it feels great to be part of this collaborative network.”
Throughout Shelburne Farms, the landscape is dotted by stately and spacious buildings, which were designed by the famed 19th-century architect, Robert H. Robertson. While the structures possess undeniable aesthetic beauty, they also play crucial roles in facilitating many of Shelburne Farms’ educational programs and local business partnerships. The “Farm Barn” was originally completed in 1890. Initially, it was used as a farm machinery and crop storage warehouse. Over the past century-and-a-half, it has evolved into multipurpose structure that houses Shelburne Farms’ administrative offices, the cheesemaking operation, The McClure Center for School Programs, and the Children’s Farmyard. In addition, the Farm Barn houses two independent businesses: the Beeken/Parsons furniture shop and the “O-Bread” Bakery. Educational, immersive programs for children, adults and families are held at the Farm Barn and the surrounding outdoor areas throughout the year. Notable highlights include the “Vacation Days” program for Burlington-area schoolchildren in grades K-6, summer camps for children aged 4-17, and accessible, informative family programming, which offers parents a unique chance to bond with their children through shared experiences.
Based primarily out of the “Coach Barn,” the teacher education programs at Shelburne Farms make full use of the campus and all of its outdoor facilities. The Shelburne Farms Institute for Sustainable Schools provides a broad range of professional learning programs for formal and informal educators from grades K-12, including year-long Climate Resiliency Fellowships and Farm-Based Education workshops. “We want to change the world one teacher at a time,” says Camp. “If a teacher can experience something meaningful that makes a difference in their teaching, they will touch the lives of many students over the course of their careers.” Shelburne Farms also helps to connect teachers with helpful resources, as well as other teachers who have attended their programs. “The aim is to foster a supportive system of shared learning,” says Camp. “We believe our approach to educational networking is like the thriving underground mycelium networks that are present in natural ecosystems.”
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