“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."













"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 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.


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.

III. Synthesis/Actions

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 principles.
  • 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 settings.

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 skills development.

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