"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
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
- 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....
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- Private internship and farmer-driven collectives (CRAFT,
- Nonprofit organizations (FFCF, OFMP, LC, NOVA, Intervale,
- 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....
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.