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Friday, Dec 8, 2023

Midd missed the mark: Calling for a humane sustainability

Imagine this: a local farm uses food waste and manure from 900 cows to produce renewable natural gas. This gas is funneled through a 5.6 mile-long pipeline from the farm to Middlebury College. The school then uses the gas to produce 500kW of renewable electricity that powers 50% of the campus. College community members turn on their lights and feel content believing the energy powering them is not draining resources from the aching earth, but is instead sustainable, ethical.

This vision is part of Middlebury’s Energy2028 plan, which involves a transition to 100% renewable energy, 25% consumption reduction, fossil fuel divestment and engagement in education and research. The project depends on a partnership between Middlebury and Goodrich Family Farm to construct an anaerobic digester on the farm. Vanguard Renewables owns and will operate the plant. Vermont Gas is connecting the system to its pipeline, from which Middlebury pledged to purchase gas. In return, Goodrich will receive free heat, byproduct bedding and fertilizer, as well as annual lease payments.

This partnership has been described as an “innovative approach to the climate crisis.” However, this plan is neither sustainable nor ethical. 

Several weeks ago, the Goodrich family allegedly denied José Ramos, a migrant farmworker, his paycheck and physically assaulted him when he asked for his earned wages. A few days later, a Migrant Justice organizer accompanied José back to the farm to ask for his wages. Yet again, they were met with physical and verbal violence at the hands of his boss and supervisor. 

On Feb. 29, Migrant Justice organizers and community members rallied in front of Goodrich Farm. Over 60 protesters (including 20 Middlebury students) stood in solidarity with José, demanding justice. Protestors said the farm owners met them with aggression: charging at the marchers, pushing people and yelling obscenities.

José is not the only worker at Goodrich Farm to have experienced abuse. Following the rally, several farm workers previously employed on the farm came forward to speak about similar violence they endured during their time at Goodrich.

The partnership between Middlebury College and Goodrich Farm has been framed as mutually beneficial, helping the college achieve its energy goals and the Goodriches to diversify income. However, this mutual beneficiality is only surface level. As it stands now, the partnership perpetuates deep harm. If Middlebury proceeds with this partnership without demanding the Goodriches afford their farmworkers dignified working and living conditions, we will be directly implicated in violence towards our neighbors. 

We must face the reality that 100% renewable does not equate 100% sustainable. “Sustainability,” narrowly conceived, aims to reduce carbon consumption and prevent depletion of natural resources. However, this understanding separates humans from the environment by framing them exclusively as consumers rather than inextricable parts of the environment. These ideas of sustainability perpetuate transactional systems devoid of justice. People and energy sources are not separate. Generating renewable energy must be grounded in reciprocal care. Reimagined, sustainability can support ecosystems and promote equitable social systems.

Middlebury must hold the Goodriches accountable for their actions if this partnership is to be sustainable. José’s case and similar cases show the irrefutable need for the expansion of Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program.

The Milk with Dignity Standards Council enforces legally binding standards of living and working conditions. If farmworkers at Goodrich were protected under Milk with Dignity, the violence José experienced would not be tolerated. The farm would benefit as well, receiving a premium for their milk as well as other supports. 

Middlebury has the leverage and power to demand that Goodrich Farm pay José Ramos his wages and apologize. We must also support the Milk with Dignity Campaign, currently targeting the Hannaford supermarket chain. 

If Middlebury wishes to be a national leader in sustainability, we cannot pursue our energy goals through unjust means. Middlebury faces two choices: use our position of power to be an instrument for change, or continue to remain tolerant of deeply troubling labor practices. 

At the end of the day, the energy produced by this project is not just coming from food and agricultural waste. It is also coming from human beings who expend their own energy laboring in extremely difficult conditions to care for the animals producing the waste that is turned into power. If farmworkers’ energy is not valued, the very root of Energy2028 will be corrupt. 

We are calling on the Middlebury community and the Energy2028 team to entertain a broader definition of sustainability, one that does not continue to perpetuate violence and dehumanization. Sustainability cannot be surface level. Instead, it must be deeply rooted in respect, justice and humanity. 

Signed by Alex Cobb ’20, Hannah Ennis ’22.5, Olivia Pintair ’22.5, Jaden Hill ’22 and Connor Wertz ’22


Olivia Pintair '22.5 is an online editor for The Campus. 

She studies Environmental Religion and Education at Middlebury and is a contributing writer at Tricycle Magazine.