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Now-Scrapped Vermont Tech Closure Could Have Upended Dairy Ed Program

A person standing next to cows.
Elodie Reed
Ryan Montgomery is a first-year student in the Vermont Technical College Dairy Management Program in Randolph. He said he and other students have worried about losing their program, and the cows, amid the various announcements from Vermont State Colleges.

The plan to close Vermont Technical College in Randolph would likely have ended the school’s dairy program, at a time when that iconic industry is struggling to survive.

It also would have concentrated all of the state’s college-level technical education in Chittenden County.While the Vermont State Colleges chancellor and board have tabled that proposal, officials have made clear that big changes are coming to the state college system.

Ryan Montgomery is a first-year student in the Vermont Tech dairy management program, and he said it’s been a hectic week.

“The first day, everybody was like, furious and outraged,” he said. “And since then it’s just been stressful being on edge, not knowing what’s going to happen, and if the cows are still going to be here in a week or two.”

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The Vermont Tech agriculture program is anchored in Randolph, at the school’s 200-head working dairy farm. And while the proposal to move all of the classes to the Williston campus might work for some areas of study like nursing and computer science, it would certainly mean the end of the dairy program.

If Vermont wants to save what’s left of the dairy industry — which lost more than 140 of its farms in the last two years according to the state agency of agriculture — Montgomery said students like him need the Randolph campus.

A red barn with blue silos.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Vermont Technical College dairy farm is more than 50 years old. The Randolph campus has more than $20 million in deferred maintenance.

“Nobody likes to think about losing the farm,” Montgomery said, choking back tears. “Like I said, you can work 16 to 18 hours every single day, and it’s still, it’s hard, and students really need, they need the educational foundation if they ever want to have a chance of making it in the dairy industry today.”

The barns here are more than 50 years old, and across the Randolph campus, there’s about $20 million worth of deferred maintenance.

It’s not just the dairy and agriculture programs that would be threatened if Randolph closed. The campus also has auto tech, construction and diesel mechanics, programs that might be hard to move to the more urban Williston campus.

Charlie Kimbell is a Democratic representative from nearby Woodstock, and a member of the Rural Economic Development Working Group. The group has been working on issues like rural broadband service and education funding, and Kimbell said the proposal to close the Randolph campus is now on their radar.

He added the high-tech training that happens in Williston is crucial to the growth in Chittenden County, which fuels the state’s overall economy. But that growth, he said, should not come at the expense of Vermont’s rural communities.

"I see the disparities between the resources between Chittenden County and the surrounding counties in the rest of Vermont. But I don't want to live in a country where rural America is not valued and can't work with the major metropolitan areas to be a successful society." — Steve Schubart, Grass Cattle Company

“We need to provide rural Vermont with the assets they need in order to grow the economy, which is going to look different,” Kimbell said. “It’s tied to the land more than it’s tied to something else. So, hate to put in the context of being rural Vermont versus Chittenden County, because they are both so important to the identity of the state and also the economic viability of the state.”

A few years ago Steve Schubart was taking economics courses at a college out in California and he had a part-time job at a ranch. Schubart realized that he liked cows, a lot more than he did economic theory.  So he returned to Vermont, where he grew up, to get an agricultural degree at VTC in Randolph.

A person in a green Vermont Tech sweatshirt in a cow field.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Steve Schubart is a Vermont Technical College graduate who now runs the Grass Cattle Company in Charlotte.

“Figuring out how to scale up small-scale agriculture systems to meet the demand of the masses, to me is a big goal in my career,” he said. “And I saw that I was going to get the skills, those skills, specifically, at Vermont Tech.”

And so the news that his school might be shut down was tough to accept. Schubart’s company, Grass Cattle Company, sends grass fed beef to cities around the Northeast, and he’s a member of a farmer co-op that markets its beef around the region.

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Schubert said he sees a lot of potential In Vermont’s ability to provide quality beef to a hungry market, and he’ll fight to keep the Vermont Tech campus open.

“I see the disparities between the resources between Chittenden County and the surrounding counties in the rest of Vermont,” he said. “But I don’t want to live in a country where rural America is not valued and can’t work with the major metropolitan areas to be a successful society. The idea of bringing all of the state college resources to Chittenden County to me, is bad.”

Vermont State College officials say that even with a massive bailout to help the campus open up in September, the present system is not sustainable. So the debate over just how much money Vermont is willing to invest in its rural economy will rage on.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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