“New farmers” need skills ag schools don’t offer – yet

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"Those seeking education in organics will not necessarily have a farm background -- just as those entering medical school will have had no previous training in medicine."


How else will institutions have to differ?

To answer this question, we conducted surveys of both traditional institutional education and programs offering practical (experiential) opportunities in organics. Both surveys were conducted in 2002, and we take pleasure in publicly thanking our many helpful respondents.

Individuals from a total of 25 schools were contacted, 15 in Canada and 10 in the U.S., to identify those offering courses in organic agriculture or horticulture. Respondents included 18 agricultural (UBC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Assiniboine, Guelph, Alfred, Kemptville, McGill, Victoriaville, NSAC, UCD, Cal Poly, WSU, Nebraska, ISU, Cornell, Maine) and 7 non-agricultural schools (UCFV, Waterloo, Laval, Dalhousie, Cal State Humboldt, Evergreen State, COA). We learned that:

  • Fifteen of the 25 schools offered at least one course in organics, and another five had been reconfigured to offer strength in agroecology or sustainable agriculture. The other five offered at least one closely related course.
  • Of the 15 schools offering organics, four were community or agricultural colleges, four were liberal arts schools, and seven were agricultural schools (McGill and Guelph in Canada, as well as UCD, Cal Poly, WSU, ISU, and Maine).
  • Of those not offering organics, one rationale that stuck out was the lack of research funding, without which, it was difficult to attract and keep talented faculty teaching in organics
  • Only four schools, of which three are community/ag colleges (Assiniboine, Alfred, and Victoriaville), offer some kind of specialization in organics. The one university is McGill. French-speaking peoples have exerted a disproportionate influence on the organic movement.
  • The motivation for offering courses in agroecology or sustainable agriculture was predominantly individual faculty initiative, particularly at liberal arts schools, or an intentional academic review at ag schools. Conversely, for organics, the primary motivation was either an overarching school policy - as at Evergreen or the College of the Atlantic - or student demand or individual faculty initiative - but never the result of intentional, academic consideration.
  • With one exception, offering organics and related courses was perceived to attract new students, rather than reshuffle existing students within the curriculum. This will be of interest to administrators as well as faculty.

Key institutional findings....

  1. Organic Education is an Open Niche. Organics is essentially an open niche at the academic level. Experience to date suggests that investing in courses, specializations, and majors in this field will build enrollment by attracting new, often environmentally oriented students, and in particular, students of high academic caliber and motivation -- although limited in farm background.
  2. Organic Research: Fundamental to Teaching. A key constraint is the absence of funding for organic research, without which, depth and expertise to offer a quality organic curriculum cannot be developed. Quality research is a necessary, if not sufficient, pre-condition for quality teaching.
  3. Whole Curriculum. Organics remains tangentialized at most schools, where it is offered as an add-on to serve an often-vocal niche demand or the insistence of a committed individual. Organics needs the rigor of a planned interdisciplinary curriculum, instead of remaining as a marginalized niche offering by isolated individuals.
  4. Novel Skills Development. The single most common identified job choice for students in organic courses is organic farming and gardening, followed by international development, agribusiness, graduate school, and social/environmental employment. To meet these aspirations, most schools offer opportunities for hands-on experience, whether with a student-run farm, or intern/apprenticeship opportunities, or independent research in organics. Student-run farms (2 to 20 ac) typically encompass skills ranging from planning to marketing, and often include societal objectives, and community networking and education.
  5. Dependence on the Organic Community. Most schools actively employ the organic community in instruction (speakers, tours, site-visits) as well as in offering intern, apprentice, and mentoring opportunities. Practicing farmers are often an integral facet of academic course offerings.

Experiential Programs in Organics.

Ten programs were contacted to gain an understanding of program mission, structure, participant demographics and motivations, training methods, and eventual skill application. The programs included:

  • Private internship and farmer-driven collectives (CRAFT, SOIL).
  • Nonprofit organizations (FFCF, OFMP, LC, NOVA, Intervale, and Linnaea).
  • Training programs linked to institutional facilities (UCSC and NESFP )

These programs share a common thrust in providing direct, hands-on experience in the development of skills, often relying heavily on the organic farm community to provide instructors and internship opportunities.

Key experiential findings....

  1. Non-Farm Background. Consistent with institutional experience, those interested in organics are typically not from a farm. All programs report that most participants have no farm background, yet demand for positions in the various programs is high - with from 2 to 10 applicants for each available place.
  2. Overwhelming Demand for On-Farm Training. Educational programs must provide for on-farm experience, for students to learn how to work, observe, solve problems, experiment, innovate, and manage complex systems. These are skills that would be difficult if not impossible to teach in an institutional setting.
  3. Learning from the Experts. The key to a successful training program is the willingness of farmers themselves to share information and resources. Farmers lead the field trips, tours, and workshops, and provide intern- and mentorships. Again, this is quite compatible with the institutional approach, which usually recognized its obligation to the unique contributions of practicing farmers.
  4. Networking and Mentoring. Linking new farmers with experienced farmers is a common goal of many programs. Established farmers are a valued source of information and expertise. Farmers also act as mentors, to give support and practical advice.
  5. Society in Mind. The surveyed programs typically focus not simply on food production but also on the role of their students as actors in social change. Environment, health, political and/or social change are commonly cited as motivations for seeking a career in organic farming.

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