This article was originally featured in the Valley News.
While more than 170 students in health care-related fields were receiving diplomas from Vermont Technical College on Saturday afternoon, Lance Butler was monitoring the machinery and processing the organic waste that fuels the campus’ power-generating anaerobic digester.
Back on campus Sunday morning, Butler lined up with 300 more VTC students and collected his own bachelor of science degree in diversified agriculture — one of three that the school conferred this year — and to wonder where the time went since he graduated from nearby Randolph Union High School in 2006, with designs on working as an illustrator.
“The idea was to go to art school,” Butler recalled between hugs with his family and classmates and faculty members. “But five years ago, I was in Boston, and I was mostly skateboarding, actually. I was going in circles — paying rent, doing dead-end jobs.
“I wanted to do something meaningful. ”
While working some of those jobs, Butler noticed how much uneaten food restaurants, stores and other businesses were throwing straight into the trash. And after returning to the Upper Valley to pursue an associate degree in agri-business at VTC, he started seeing ways to help the planet and find his calling.
Initially seeking his bachelor’s in dairy-farm management, Butler followed longtime VTC instructor Chris Dutton’s suggestion to go into diversified agriculture. And when the digester went online about a year and a half ago, Butler decided to simultaneously work toward a digester operations master certificate.
“It was the sustainable nature of it that appealed to me,” Butler said. “Making something out of what people were treating as nothing.”
In the process of getting in on the ground floor of the digester operation, with the aim of keeping the waste out of landfills and water systems, Butler came up with a business plan to grow mushrooms at the new Upper Pass Beer Companoperation in Tunbridge, using the waste from the brewery’s beer- and coffee-making process as compost for his operation.
And while juggling those projects, Butler’s regular school work and a part-time job at Worthy Burger in South Royalton kept him working “straight out,” it also yielded results: He’ll spend most of the coming summer running Casella Organic’s digester in western Massachusetts — “They were visiting here and they walked right up and said, ‘Hey, you want to work for us?’ ” he recalled — before embarking on a yearlong internship on a mushroom farm in Maine. After that, he hopes to return to Vermont as a niche farmer.
“Lance’s story is exciting,” said Dutton, who also directs VTC’s Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems, which runs the dairy at Norwich Farms. “He had the basic science, understood about issues of photosynthesis, water quality and the chance to generate electricity. … He gets it. The atom carbon is essentially money. … Our guys, and women, are really doing it. They’re back home, making things out of other things.”
That’s just the kind of innovation that the student-body speaker and the guest speaker at Sunday morning’s ceremony lauded VTC and its students for cultivating.
“We knew exactly what we wanted to do,” Courtney Banach of South Burlington, president of VTC’s Dairy Club, said before collecting her associate’s degree in dairy-farm management technology. “We wanted hands-on learning.”
And while college students elsewhere might do just enough work in school to pass their courses, Banach added, “we took advantage of every opportunity presented to us.”
After receiving an honorary doctorate, Vermont-born radio-station owner and former NASCAR broadcaster Ken Squier said that Vermont, the United States and the world need more students like the ones who graduated from VTC this weekend to craft solutions to famine, environmental degradation and other challenges while also making a living.
“This nation moved forward on the strength of our farmers and our mechanics,” Squier said. “They lifted this country up time after time.
“They kept this nation cooking.”