“New farmers” need skills ag schools don’t offer – yet
Organic farmers will play a major role in mentoring a diverse mix of people entering agriculture in the future.

By Dr. E. Ann Clark and Jacinda Fairholm

Editor's NOTE

Dr. E. Ann Clark addressed the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) Congress 2002 in Victoria, B.C., on Aug. 24. She spoke with passion on the title “Transforming Institutional Capacity to Serve Organic Agriculture,” based on a paper reprinted here that she co-authored with Jacinda Fairholm.

Clark is an associate professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, Guelph, ON. She conducts farmer-oriented research into pasture and grazing management, organic farming and the use of genetically manipulated organisms in agriculture. She’s been an outspoken leader within North America academic circles in asking profound questions about the viability of conventional understandings of agricultural success. Her grazing and farming systems research have staked out the bold paths to the deeper issues of agricultural sustainability.












"Why do we reject the present as a template for the future? Because agriculture as we know it is self-destructing."














"New farmers will have to recapture their roots as self-directed, independent, and self-reliant information-seekers and decision-makers -- rather than being dependent upon paid consultants and distant experts."

















In the following article, Ann Clark and Jacinda Fairholm outline their vision of the future of farming, and consider how this vision necessarily redefines both the occupation of ‘farmer’ and the institutions which serve farmers. They share some of the highlights of a fascinating survey of 25 schools and 10 farm-based programs in North America, which aimed to learn both ‘who’ is seeking instruction in organics now, and ‘what’ is currently being done both institutionally and experientially (practically) to teach organics. They conclude with a synthesis of what will be needed to educate the farmer of the future, drawing inspiration from the medical model for educating physicians today.

I. So, What is Our Vision?

In their brilliant new book, “Cradle to Cradle,” William McDonough and Michael Braungart say that ‘design is the first sign of intention’. Although they are an architect and a chemist, talking about the design of buildings and cities, the analogy to farming is unmistakable. The design of a wel-managed organic farm clearly reveals the intentions of the farmer. So, taking our cue from this entirely sensible approach, we have chosen to envision or ‘design’ future agriculture not as a trajectory from the present, but rather, as we intend it to be -- as indeed, it must be.

Why do we reject the present as a template for the future? Because agriculture as we know it is self-destructing. Many indicators - whether the rapidly declining integrity of the farm community, or the mounting evidence of environmental degradation and adverse human health impacts - speak of outright and impending design failure. Rather than sticking stubbornly to a fundamentally flawed design, we will take it as a given that the agriculture of the future:

  • Has learned the lessons of the past, and further,
  • Has designed both to avoid these problems and to achieve the intentions we discuss below.

New agriculture

We will call our future vision ‘new agriculture,’ to distinguish it from the ‘organic agriculture’ of today. While sharing the same ecological foundation and production practices as organic agriculture, ‘new agriculture’ will avoid some of the structural problems which threaten organics today, namely:

  • The specialization and input dependence,
  • Consolidation and loss of local control,
  • Capitalization and large-scale dominance,
  • Long-distance transportation and other practices which can be economically justified only by
  • Externalizing costs of production, and
  • The dominance of export-oriented market thinking.

These forces have already decimated the conventional farm community, and indeed, are challenging the viability of contemporary organic farmers.

We choose instead to design new agriculture to foster site-specific design and self-reliance, local control, scale-appropriate technology, and systems which retain value on the farm -- all laudable goals, but increasingly out of reach of today’s organic farmers.

What brings about this profound transformation?

The pivotal difference which distinguishes contemporary farmers from those we propose to educate is that in the future, industry -- including farming and indeed the entire food system -- will be obliged to fully absorb their costs of production. In our future, food prices will reflect not simply those costs we consider today, but also those currently externalized involuntarily to society and the environment at large.

Society is already moving in that direction -- as in the retail chain which declines to sell flown-in products, or the imposition of manure management zones in Holland and nutrient management planning in Ontario. In effect, obliging the entire food industry -- including farming -- to reflect all costs of production in the price of foodstuffs reduces the apparent economic attraction of centralized, consolidated food production and processing -- for organic as well as conventional food -- and favors local production/consumption cycles.

Changing the structural features of the food system to comply with societal demands for safe, nutritious, and diverse food produced within a vibrant and self-regenerating environment in effect reframes the questions facing farmers - eliminating some, but raising others.

What is the ‘new farmer’?

Let us now consider what it will take to be a ‘new farmer’. The demands of farming in ‘new agriculture’ will fundamentally redefine what it means to be a ‘farmer’, and correspondingly, what it will take to educate the new farmer.

How will s/he be different? In addition to mastering the intricacies of organic farming, we suggest that the new farmer will need to develop a range of critical thinking skills, such as observation, experimentation, interpretation, and decision-making.

Why are these skills needed? The wide recommendation domains which predominate today remove or relax these responsibilities for farmers. Yet broad regional recommendations for management and breeding are founded upon the ready availability of exogenous energy subsidies to homogenize growing conditions, the better to support bulk production of undifferentiated commodities. This premise will become unworkable when farmers and consumers realize that the real cost of homogeneity exceeds the resultant benefits.

However, replacing these energy subsidies with a strategically designed enterprise mix and tailored management requires site-specific knowledge accessible only to individual farmers. Without large energy subsidies to suppress local environmental heterogeneity, what works on one farm may not work on another. Thus, new farmers will effectively need to become their own researchers -- even more so than today. They will have to be trained in critical thinking, in discerning and addressing problems, and in designing and managing complex systems. New farmers will have to recapture their roots as self-directed, independent, and self-reliant information-seekers and decision-makers -- rather than being dependent upon paid consultants and distant experts.

It is equally important to recognize the likelihood of differential access to land, labour, capital and training within the new farmer population. Age, socio-economic status, educational levels, exposure to organics, community support, access to information, mobility, career stage, transferable skills, family commitments and time availability are likely to be more variable in the New Farm® community than they are today (see below). Thus, approaches to educating the new farmer will require multiple mechanisms of entry, support and resources.

Redefining the institutions.

To support the skills and expectations of the new farmer, educational institutions will likewise need redesign. Research and teaching, particularly at agricultural schools, are currently driven by several implicit -- although unstated – assumptions that:

  • Capital- and resource-intensive agriculture is the only viable way to produce food commercially.
  • The best way to advance agriculture is through proprietary technologies.
  • What is good for industry is good for society.

Future institutions will view these assumptions as relics of an era where the emphasis on homogeneity and bulk commodity production allowed input suppliers and processors/retailers to extract most of the dollar value of food, to the detriment of farmers. As a result, the institutions supporting new agriculture will be reconfigured, and funded, to serve the broader needs of society and the environment, specifically emphasizing decentralized, local production and consumption.

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