Green Revolution

Academic programs in sustainable agriculture are proliferating.
April 23, 2009
Photo: University of Florida Horticultural Sciences Department

Growth in sustainable agriculture education is akin to growth in the organic food market, says Damian Parr, a doctoral candidate in agricultural and environmental education at the University of California at Davis. In other words, organic’s been growing at about 20 percent a year, but still makes up only 2.8 percent of total sales (according to the Organic Trade Association).

Likewise, “It is rapid growth,” Parr says of academic programs in sustainable agriculture. “Is it taking over land-grants? Definitely not yet.”

In recent years, a number of majors, minors and concentrations with names like sustainable food systems, organic agriculture, and agroecology have cropped up in colleges of agriculture nationwide. Not simply synonymous with "organic," but incorporating that aspect under its umbrella, sustainable agriculture programs are often interdisciplinary in nature.

Developed to varying degrees in response to rising student interest in all things green, a changing food industry (see growth in organics, above), and diminishing enrollments in more traditional agricultural programs, “these programs are one of the latter indicators of things changing because they require acceptance by faculty and administrators,” says Parr.

“Formal programs take years to get through logistically. And they’re long-term commitments.” Parr has worked with faculty at his own institution, UC Davis, for five years in developing an undergraduate major, pending final approval, in sustainable agriculture and food systems.

“I think there are a couple of things happening very quickly,” says Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, assistant professor and coordinator of North Carolina State University’s agroecology program, offered as a minor since 2005. “One, quite frankly, is the decreasing numbers of students in traditional agronomy programs. Nationwide, this is a huge problem. These programs are being cut. These are land-grant institutions where agriculture has been our base.”

“Of any agricultural science, I think sustainable agriculture, agroecology are growing in ways that traditional programs haven’t. We have for example, a lot more, I guess you could say, untraditional people coming back to agriculture via sustainable agriculture and agroecology. I have more women in our minor compared to our traditional agriculture courses. I have on average 50 percent women in my courses, I have more underrepresented minorities, people that perhaps didn’t grow up in agriculture and come from non-agricultural backgrounds. Myself included.” (Schroeder-Moreno’s Ph.D. is in ecology and evolutionary biology, not agriculture. She jokes: “I was unsure when I came to interview in a crop science department, I have to say.")

Schroeder-Moreno has been among those active in the development of a new association, the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association, which is gearing up for its third national conference this July, at Iowa State University. “We need a formal organization to be able to share curricula, to be able to be visible, to share with students or potential students what are the programs that exist and who directs them," Schroeder-Moreno says.

Profiles of Programs

So what programs do exist?

The University of Maine, it's fair to say, was way ahead of the pack; the university launched a bachelor of science degree in sustainable agriculture in 1988. There, too, sustainable agriculture was seen as an antidote for declining enrollments.

“Sustainable ag was [seen as] something new that would draw students from outside the state. That’s exactly what it did, in the early years. The majority of students were from out-of-state, mostly from New England, but we had students from the West Coast even coming occasionally,” says Marianne Sarrantonio, the program coordinator and associate professor of sustainable agriculture. Maine's sustainable agriculture program is oriented toward the hard agricultural sciences, with the core curriculum including courses in the plant and soil sciences, cropping systems, insect/pest ecology, entomology, and weed ecology and management.

“Now more of the other land-grants have gone in that direction, if not offering a degree in sustainable ag, at least offering a concentration or a minor in it," Sarrantonio says.

Among the land-grants that have more recently gone in that direction, the University of Missouri at Columbia's sustainable agriculture major has two tracks – one in animal and plant production systems and one in community and food systems. The latter is "more social science-oriented,” explains Sandy Rikoon, a professor of rural sociology who was involved with development of the major. “It’s for people who are going to get involved in sustainable agriculture on the international level, in terms of development projects. It’s for people who are working on food security issues here in the U.S.”

Rikoon is also director of Missouri’s Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program – an outreach and extension program that, in this chicken and egg equation, came first. “When it got going, for its first 15 years, there was no academic program in sustainable agriculture; it was truly an outreach and extension program. About five years ago, some of the so-called stakeholder groups -- farmers’ groups, consumer groups, religious groups -- basically went to the College of Agriculture here at the university and said you guys have no academic program," Rikoon recalls. The college put together a committee, which he chaired, and the rest is history.

That story -- of an extension program dedicated to sustainable agriculture coming first -- seems to be a common one.

Photo: Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Program, MSU

Montana State students working in the university's Towne's Harvest Garden.

Meanwhile, Montana State University's sustainable food and bioenergy systems undergraduate major is brand-new, having been approved by the Board of Regents in November. The B.S. degree is jointly run by the College of Agriculture and the College of Education, Health and Human Development, which houses nutrition, explains Mary Stein, the program coordinator. "I think this program does a nice job addressing not only the agricultural production aspect but also the implications for human health, for local economies, for farm viability, preservation of farmland. I think taking a systems approach to these problems is really a strength of this program."

In 2006, as part of a larger curricular effort to emphasize whole agricultural and food systems, Washington State University created a new major in organic agriculture systems. Undergraduate certificates are also available, and in 2008 the university launched a graduate certificate in sustainable agriculture, says Jessica Goldberger, an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Rural Sociology. In assessing the various programs, they’ve found that students “are very much enjoying the hands-on learning experiences," she says. "And I think you see that across the country, this demand for more out-of-the-classroom, practical learning experiences. Students are very much enjoying these kinds of classes, especially since a lot of the students that are attracted to sustainable and organic agricultural programs don’t necessarily have agricultural backgrounds.”

Sustainable agriculture programs often feature internships and opportunities for students to work on campus farms and sell produce locally through community-supported agriculture (in which community members purchase a share in a farm, and share the harvest). Montana State students, for instance, will intern with the university's Towne's Harvest Garden, a community-supported agriculture operation.

As one example of a hands-on opportunity at Washington State, Goldberger co-teaches a class called Field Analysis of Sustainable Food Systems, in which students travel over spring break “and intensively get to know a particular ag and food system in a particular region of the state. We spend a whole week visiting about 20 different sites, farms, processing plants, packing houses for say, tree fruits, grocery stores, farm stands, agritourism operations. We sometimes meet with chefs," Goldberger says.

Burgeoning student demand for these programs is a common theme. At the University of Florida, faculty developed a major in organic crop production in response to perceived interest on the part of students, says Rebecca Darnell, professor and associate chair of the horticultural sciences department, and the undergraduate coordinator.

That interest has in fact materialized. The major was approved for the 2006-7 academic year and, already, 27 of 48 majors in the horticultural sciences department are in the organic crop production track, Darnell says.

'Transforming' the Curriculum

For all the activity in sustainable agriculture education, it’s still happening in pockets, says Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, which, for instance, has a young graduate program in sustainable agriculture but no undergraduate program. “I think we’ve seen some movement towards sustainability from the research side, I think we’ve seen a movement toward sustainable-type activities through extension, and then of course the last is through teaching or through curriculum enhancement. They haven’t come equally," DeWitt says.

For all the new programs in recent years, “the curriculum revitalization has been so slow. I can’t put my finger as to why that is the case,” DeWitt says. “We have data, we have the obvious need for it, it’s not being prevented by industry. I think it comes down to the individual faculty member – is he or she aware of what’s going on in the world around them, the real market place and the need for balance in programs.

“One of my criticisms of the traditional universities and colleges, and maybe even especially the land-grants, is we have been slow to change and adapt programs that can allow us to better compete in this new environment," DeWitt says.

Photo: Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Program, MSU

Vegetables growing at Montana State's Towne's Harvest Garden.

A March report from the National Academies, "Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World," stresses the need for agriculture programs to be more agile. While not focusing solely on sustainability, the authors write: "Agriculture must adapt to a continually changing landscape of health and nutrition issues, consumer preferences, national security concerns, environmental impacts, and many other factors."

Asked about obstacles to change, as far as sustainable agriculture is concerned, some interviewed point to the influence of big agribusiness, which produces fertilizers and pesticides (an argument that's ultimately tied to discussions about just how much colleges of agriculture rely on industry support for research). But just as many professors seem to downplay the notion as to propagate it, suggesting -- as DeWitt does -- that industry is changing, too.

And, furthermore, that there's room for industrial and sustainable agriculture research and education in large land-grants, that it's not an either-or. "Most of our faculty do sustainable ag and something else," says Rikoon, of Missouri. "People live on external research funding and there's much more of that coming from the conventional companies and industrial ag side of things; that's what keeps their labs going. But our courses are taught by people who teach crop genomics Monday, Wednesday and Friday and on Tuesday, Thursday, they teach sustainable crop and livestock systems."

Some faculty successfully straddle both approaches to agriculture in their work. Still, in interviews, many cite a kind of cognitive dissonance factor as a primary obstacle to curricular change.

“Sometimes change can be internalized and thought of, if I’m really changing, making a dramatic change, is that a repudiation of what I’ve done in the past?" DeWitt says. "What I stand for, what I’ve done?”


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