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Oxen-Driving 101: Final exam

POULTNEY - 16 Green Mountain College students had an oral final exam last week, but their vocabulary was limited to the words "gee," "haw," "whoa," and "back."

The students took Dr. Kenneth Mulder's History and Application of Oxen in Agriculture course, which includes learning how to drive draft animals. At GMC, that would mean issuing commands to Lou and Bill, the college's oxen team.

"Driving oxen is more of an art than a science," said Mulder, GMC's farm manager. "The relationship developed between the student and the animals is key to directing a good working team."

Mulder's course combines classroom lecture and on-farm experience to teach students how to train, care for, and drive oxen, and how to accomplish specific farm tasks using oxen. In spring, summer and fall, Bill and Lou perform all the plowing, mowing, and haying activities commonly performed with tractors and combines. In the winter, the oxen are harnessed up for various heavy lifting jobs around the farm. The class also looks at the economics of draft animals and identify under what conditions draft animals are economically efficient.

Mulder, who completed his dissertation at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, tells students that modern agriculture is extremely inefficient.

"With over 20 calories required to produce and deliver one food calorie to a consumer's plate, capacity to maintain current food production levels while reducing fossil inputs simply doesn't exist," he said.

His students at Green Mountain College have launched an experiment aimed at running a farm on a scale at which a family farmer could make a livable wage, without sacrificing sustainability. An associated goal is to run Green Mountain College's Cerridwen Farm with as few fossil-derived resources as possible with the ultimate target of using no fossil fuels at all. One component is using draft animals.

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