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'Fields of Learning'

August 2, 2011

David Schaad knows a lot about farming.

He knows it’s important to start work at 8 a.m., so he can harvest the leafy green vegetables like lettuce and kale before it gets too hot, and he knows to bring his harvesting knife for root vegetables like carrots, scallions and green onions.

Schaad knows that the tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouses and hoop houses (he knows the difference between the two: the latter’s temperature doesn't have to be regulated) need a constant water supply, but he also knows it’s easy to over-water them because, with up to 100 cells of dirt in each of those honeycomb containers, some cells are drier than others. He knows that drip irrigation automatically waters the zucchini and pumpkins in the orchard, but he also knows someone needs to oversee that process and move the 30-foot irrigation lines (and soaker hoses, and aluminum pipes) from time to time.

David Schaad doesn’t know where he’ll go after graduating from the University of Montana. But he knows one thing: it will involve growing food -- and not just because his food is delicious. He wants to support a growing alternative to the massive companies that -- in his view, at the expense of the environment, the land and the small family farms that used to do this job -- have taken over agriculture.

“I feel like, in a lot of ways, because there’s such an increase in demand among the public in general for organic food, and increasingly as well for local in-season produce, that the agribusiness model is not as powerful as it used to be,” Schaad says. “Maybe it’s just the optimist in me, but I see a lot of cause for hope.”

Schaad’s knowledge, passion and idealism are common among students in fields from agroecology to anthropology -- a body of student farmers more academically diverse than ever before. The more than 80 student farms on or near campuses in the United States and Canada are similarly diverse, with different acreages, institutional settings and crop and livestock varieties tailored to meet the needs of the college. They were established as many as 140 years ago (Berea College in Kentucky, the first student farm) and as few as three years ago (the University of Nevada, Texas A&M University at Kingsville, and the University of Guelph, in Ontario). For a complete directory, click here. Notably, many of the farms and students interested in farming aren't at land-grant institutions. For instance, while Schaad works at the University of Montana, it's Montana State University that is home to the state's agriculture college.

Over the course of more than a century, the quantity, philosophy and purpose of student farms have all changed dramatically. But one thing has stayed the same: they’re still changing students’ lives.

For their new book Fields of Learning: The Student Farm Movement in North America (University Press of Kentucky), Laura Sayre and Sean Clark compiled essays from staff on 15 farms to illustrate the trials, tribulations and sheer joys of establishing and maintaining such enterprises.

In the book’s introduction, Frederick L. Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, suggests that student farms are neither romantic nor irrelevant, but essential to the nation and planet. “The era of cheap energy is over, we are drawing down our freshwater resources all across the planet at an unsustainable rate, and all indicators suggest that we will experience more unstable climates (more droughts, floods, and severe weather events) in the decades ahead,” he writes. “We will have to begin imagining new farming systems. To maintain productivity, farming systems in the 21st century and beyond will have to use ecological principles rather than industrial principles, making our farms more resilient, self-regulating, and self-renewing.”

Those aren’t the only problems on agriculture’s hands. According to 2007 U.S. Census data noted in the book, 75 percent of total gross U.S. farm income is produced by a mere 192,442 farms, and while 30 percent of farmers are over the age of 65, only 5 percent are under 35. Student farms play a critical role in training the next generation of farmers, Frederick argues.

The good news is, the food revolution is already under way – and nowhere is that more evident than on student farms. “They have people who are in a position to make something like this happen, who would take that energy and interest and ideas that are circulating in the culture at large, and try to do something in the realm of the college campus,” says Sayre, a postdoctoral researcher with the French National Institute for Agronomic Research. “There’s a real attraction to growing food that people, once they sort of get a taste for the work and the food and being outside and enjoying the outdoors and enjoying physical work – that becomes the driving force. And that in turn leads to a whole set of intellectual and academic questions that then become compelling as well.”

Farming and the Liberal Arts

Chief among those questions: Why in the world would any non-land-grant institution or non-work college go out of its way to support a student farm?

One of the most common obstacles to these farms, at all types of institutions, arises from a tension between students and faculty, who tend to believe strongly in the educational purpose of the farm, and administrators, who are more likely to question the allocation of land and resources.

Land-grant colleges aren't necessarily a haven for student farms. People don’t realize that almost all of that land is used for research and while that has changed the way we grow food, it’s also a way to make considerable revenue, Clark says. “When you set aside part of that for students to know how to farm, it’s not likely to generate the same revenue, if any. Instead it’s likely to cost money,” says Clark, who also chairs the department of agriculture and natural resources at Berea, a work college where students who work on the farm have their tuition covered. “A student farm at one time, years ago, was either a way for students to generate income for an institution or a source of employment…. it’s now becoming more of an educational laboratory where students learn where their food is coming from.”

Tim Crews, who insisted on having a student farm when he was hired to develop an agroecology curriculum at Prescott College in Arizona, didn’t get any grief from his unique institution. Prescott is a liberal arts college known for experiential pedagogies and a focus on the environment and social justice, as articulated in its mission statement. But Crews is baffled that anyone could fail to see the importance of this experiential learning tool.

“Most liberal arts schools that have student farms have no problem requiring labs in chemistry, and the rationale for why we do that goes unquestioned,” Crews says. “To not have a lab, so to speak, in a course on agriculture – to me, if I had to have a lab in any one course, this is one that cuts across chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, you name it. And it brings together a great deal of understanding on many levels, with the students that participate intensively like they do here.”

During Prescott's summer semester, students work on the 20-acre Jenner Farm (where they also raise poultry) Monday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. Established in 1996, the farm also has certified organic acreage and grows both horticultural and field crops. Students spend about a week every month visiting farms, agriculture organizations and businesses in the Southwest.

In his Fields of Learning chapter, Crews explains the importance of the program. “There are numerous reasons why a liberal arts education is enhanced with experience on a student farm, but possibly none is more important at Prescott College than the development of critical thinking around farming and food issues,” he writes. “I am convinced that, when examined from the classroom alone, some of the cardinal agricultural issues of our day are more easily viewed as black and white, issues like whether there is any place in sustainable agriculture for genetically modified organisms, or agrochemicals, or immigrant labor…. By learning to test claims, such as whether microbial inoculants accelerate or improve compost in any way compared to controls, students develop confidence in their own abilities to judge the sustainability of practices and products.”

Cultural Context

To some extent, Crews and others have people like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters to thank for students' interest in their farms. Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Waters, a leader in the Slow Food movement, have, as educators and activists, helped bring the push for sustainable food to the attention of the general public in new and unprecedented ways. Pollan, in particular, has inspired college students to think about where their food comes from and how it was produced -- and, if they don’t like what they find, to do something about it.

“In 1997, the word ‘locavore’ didn’t exist,” says Josh Slotnick, director of the University of Montana’s PEAS Farm (part of the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society). “We really benefited from that big wave in national culture.”

Robin Kohanowich, coordinator of the sustainable farming program at Central Carolina Community College, says that culture shift is a big part of why the number of students in sustainable agriculture – the same students who work on the five-acre farm at the college's Chatham campus – has doubled, to about 65 a semester, since 2007. “More and more people are just – it’s on their radar,” Kohanowich says, adding that through the 1970s and ’80s, agriculture programs were disappearing from community colleges as technology and computer science became more popular career paths. Then in the 1990s, sustainable agriculture started garnering attention. Central Carolina’s program started then in response to community demand, she says. “People wanted to learn this alternative style of agriculture, and there wasn’t anywhere around here where they could.”

Now they are raising poultry and growing horticulture crops, which they sell through farmer’s markets and CSAs, community-supported agriculture programs. A common feature among student farms, CSAs involve people paying for a share of vegetables or other farm products in advance of harvesting season; when the food is ready, it’s delivered to the consumer.

Montana also has a CSA. Schaad says that it sounds clichéd to say he and his peers are the future – but he also believes that, as long as they share their knowledge and teach each other, they really will be. “College is an opportunity for interaction and information-sharing," he says. "If you have a student population or a portion of the student population that’s really receptive to these ideas and this movement, that’s going to attract some attention. Having these opportunities for student farming really helps to kind of engender that passion and motivate people and just get people involved, so they can become their own experts at finding and investing in food that’s good for them, and good for their bodies, and good for their environment at the same time.”

Farms and Sustainability Programs

Despite the fact that a college producing its own local, organic food and composting waste to use on its farm would fit nicely into the many institutional goals of reducing carbon emissions, on the campuses where student farms do exist, they’re largely isolated from other sustainability efforts, Sayre says. “In a curious way, it seems like that’s been on a separate track from the student farm movement. That initiative gets started with one group of people and it’s housed in one place in the administrative landscape, and the student farm is started by another group of people.”

So while an office of sustainability would likely run the campus composting and recycling programs, a student farm tends to start up with departmental support. That creates not just practical but also conceptual issues when it comes to coordination.

“It’s not necessarily a direct conflict, but the student farm movement tends to be quite concrete and hands-on and small-scale,” Sayre says. “Some of these campus sustainability issues, to be addressed in a thorough way as they are at a lot of schools, it’s a much more macro-level analysis that may or may not involve students, but really it’s more about engaging staff and administrators and making purchasing decisions, which don’t necessarily have to do with students’ hands-on experience.”

That may explain the typical origin of student farms. “Usually when a student farm starts nowadays it’s because of a group of students and often supportive faculty and/or staff that make that happen,” Clark says. But, he adds, it’s a natural progression from a recycling program – which just a few decades ago was not that common – to producing food and then sustaining the land, because of their similar functions of reducing waste and improving efficiency.

It helps to be an old farm at a small school, Sayre found; those are the spots where things are integrated the most fully.

Student Farmers

The students who work on these farms come from all different backgrounds – and many are less interested in the actual act of farming than in the food system as a whole and what it’s doing to the environment.

Mary Plaisted, a rising senior at the University of Maine, at Orono, has worked on organic farms and eco-villages around the world. As manager of Maine’s Black Bear Food Guild, a division of the student farm that is now on hiatus because of financial and logistical issues (the students didn’t have buying power and had trouble functioning within an administrative bureaucracy, she says), Plaisted loved the contact with nature and learning on the land.

“The more classes I take through the sustainable agriculture program, the more I understand now that the use of pesticides and the conventional agriculture is just kind of going in the wrong direction for helping out nature,” she says. “Sustainability is just basically being able to not deplete the land and make it work for you as well. Just a healthy way of life ecologically and for people all around.”

Cristobal Valencia, a rising senior studying agroecology at Prescott, is interested in how sustainable agriculture can help meet the nutritional needs of people in countries where many go hungry. He mentions that the United Nations has said that the global food supply will have to double by the year 2050 if everyone is to be fed. “That’s an extreme challenge when there’s more and more people using more and more land, and there’s less land available that’s agriculturally viable,” he says. But there are strategies that can help, which he’s learning about at Prescott: mainly, developing agricultural strategies that are responsive to the environment, like using local resources and planting polycultures instead of monocultures to minimize pest devastation.

All of these problems, coupled with the emergence of the green movement, constitute a “mandate” to big colleges to have these experiential programs, Valencia says. “Your students are entering a world in which we’re not aware of how to handle climate change and water shortages.

"The field is not like a textbook, and nature is this dynamic thing.”

Valencia says working on the Prescott farm is an invaluable experience. “I feel like I’m getting more out of my education by being in the field. When I’m standing next to a farmer and she’s telling me about her means of wheat production for the next year, that information stays in my head and has much more of an emotional impact than just reading it."

The experience of Angela Romatzick is indicative of this movement’s draw. She got her bachelor’s degree in journalism and then spent 15 years working in project management and technology at a large corporation. Then she got laid off.

Romatzick always had a casual interest in sustainable agriculture – she read books, attended some conferences, and maintained her own garden – so, with some time on her hands at last, she enrolled in the program at Central Carolina. Now she’s teaching preschoolers how to grow vegetables in their own garden and passing on knowledge that she believes will benefit the planet in the long run.

“They’re definitely taking pride in it, and it's definitely becoming part of their life to harvest their own food, even if it’s just a cucumber to have for a snack,” Romatzick says. “If you’d asked me a year ago, I definitely wouldn’t have given you that answer of where I’d end up. It just all kind of came together. There was a need and I started trying to figure out a way to fill it…. I’m seeing a huge shift, just even with these kids. They get excited about it, and that will stay with them.”

 

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