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
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."
"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."
"Ours is a future of full-cost accounting, where the requirement
that product price reflect all costs of production shifts the balance
in favor of local production and consumption, reacquaints producer
and consumer, and so breaks the power monopoly of specialization,
consolidation, and globalization which otherwise awaits organic
as well as conventional farmers."
|| 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
- Has learned the lessons of the past, and further,
- Has designed both to avoid these problems and to achieve the
intentions we discuss below.
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
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
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
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.
II. SURVEY RESULTS
How else will institutions have to
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
- 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....
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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 setting.
- 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
- 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.
We have chosen to speak not simply of education, but education
within a context -- a future vision. Ours is a future of full-cost
accounting, where the requirement that product price reflect all
costs of production shifts the balance in favor of local production
and consumption, reacquaints producer and consumer, and so breaks
the power monopoly of specialization, consolidation, and globalization
which otherwise awaits organic as well as conventional farmers.
This is not as improbable as it may sound. Society is already moving
in that direction (Pretty et al., 2000; Pimentel et al., 1992).
Education is more than the transmission of information. Curriculum
and teaching methods need to help students critically engage with
the material. Unlike the current approach, which assumes that those
seeking education in farming are the children of farmers, survey
evidence strongly suggests the opposite. 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. Education will need to encompass a wider range of information
than was sufficient in the past.
Experiential education is now an integral complement to academic
learning in medical school, starting even in Year 1. Medical school
may be a suitable model for new agriculture.
What is Delivered?
The occupational demands of new farming - as medicine - will require
an educational process delivering:
- Substantive information, as in ecological design and management
- Critical personal skills, as in observation, innovation, and
problem avoidance by design.
- Experiential opportunities, as in learning from established
farmers, including absorbing the site-specific information critical
to sound farm management.
How is it Delivered?
Evidence from experiential programs as well as some academic programs
suggests the population of student “new farmers” will
include mature, post-graduate explorers and mid-career switchers,
who will bring land, capital, and life experience. Dual-career families
and transitioning conventional farmers will further enrich the mix.
The heterogeneity of the student body implies the need for multiple
entry points. Thus, education for “new agriculture”
will necessarily be an open, inclusive, and on-going process rather
than being limited to students at a particular stage of life.
While necessary and beneficial, a wider base of student experience,
age, and maturity will pose challenges to pedagogical method. Designing
curricula to accommodate the life commitments and abilities of mature
learners, active farmers, non-farmers, and beginners will require
a more diverse array of offerings and strategies. Examples may include
increased availability of intensive short courses and modular courses;
structured field days and workshops; interactive videoconference
lectures/seminars and demonstrations; web-based learning; and hands-on
training opportunities, whether in institutional or mentor-based
Who Does the Teaching?
Because farming in the absence of substantive energy subsidies
is necessarily more site-specific, education will necessarily extend
beyond institutional learning. Educating for new agriculture will
be a partnership between the academic and organic farming communities,
affording a logical succession from conceptual learning to applied
To conclude, the demands of farming in the future will differ qualitatively
and quantitatively from those acting on farmers today. The focus
will be more on learning and less on teaching, explicitly integrating
the expertise of the farm community into the educational process
to encourage a successful transition to commercial practice. Education
will be broader and more encompassing than today, emphasizing lifelong
and experiential learning. Judgment and critical personal skills
born of guided experience, mentoring, and ultimately co-farming,
will be increasingly fundamental to successful farm practice as
the price of food comes to reflect its true costs of production.
Presented at the 14th IFOAM Organic World Congress, Cultivating
Communities, Victoria, B.C. CANADA