Posted January 12, 2006: With the continued
growth of organics, it was only a matter of time before an
agricultural school in North America created an academic major
in organic agriculture. The surprise is that it happened in
a leading ag-biotech research school that had its share of
organic detractors and a small core of faculty familiar with
organic farming disciplines.
The Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph
(Ontario) has its first students in their first of four years
in pursuit of a bachelor of science (agriculture) major in
organic agriculture. A Canadian education site says Guelph
“is Canada’s innovative leader in plant and animal
life-sciences and a premier centre for agri-food, biotechnology
and environmental research, education and outreach.”
Within this environment, faculty members had tried and failed
in the past to institute a major embracing of organics. But
with the persistence of a well-known organic advocate as well
as the blessing in 2003 of a new dean, Guelph’s new
program developed from within the department. This is relatively
unusual, as most organic programs develop rather tangentially
to standard ag offerings.
“It has never been done intentionally from the inside,”
says E. Ann Clark, PhD, the professor who was the go-to person
for the dean, Craig Pearson. “That’s what distinguishes
this degree. It was done with the blessing of our dean, and
it’s fabricated from within by faculty.” The collaborative
process across a mix of agricultural perspectives makes the
new major academically rigorous, she says.
Clark specializes in pasture and grazing management, organic
farming and GMOs.
Major resistance overcome
While Clark and others point to how incredibly supportive
the administration has been about the major, this was not
the case as recently as 2001. The former dean was more sympathetic
to the concerns of traditional faculty members, many of whom
were at best cynical -- and at worst hostile -- to the work
of Clark and others on sustainable agriculture.
Clark is well-known in the U.S. and Canada for her outspoken
views on agricultural biotechnology and sustainability issues.
She’s ready to move on with creating a strong department
and feels the conflict over creating an organic major has
been pretty well worked through. While many conventional agriculture
professors were reluctant, some might have accepted the value
of an organic major as, if nothing else, a public relations
tool. Regardless of why, the support is now there.
That grassroots pressure to start the course came from the
true roots of any university: the students. Seven years ago,
350 undergrads signed a petition that spurred – against
some opposition – creation of “Crop 3400: Introduction
to Organic Agriculture.” Clark says her overview of
programs in the U.S. and Canada showed initiatives in sustainable
ag or agroecology typically come from either student or farmer
The roots of Clark’s role as the dynamic force that
pulled the major together go back to 2002. That autumn, she
gave a plenary talk with graduate student Jacinda Fairholm
at the 2002 IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Movements)
conference in Victoria, B.C. Looking for models in organic
education, they surveyed 25 programs -- 15 in Canada, and
10 in the U.S. -- as well as 10 experiential programs. Much
to their surprise, they learned that not a single one of these
schools had an actual academic major in organic agriculture.
Clark vowed at that time that organic agricultural education
had to have a strong link with organic farmers to be true
to the principles of knowing the land, biodiversity, passing
on agricultural wisdom and experiential learning.
Drawing new kinds of student
The program Clark designed from her research and student
contact is not aimed at your usual “aggie” profile
of being farm-raised. Most will come from other worlds. Clark
has found that there are more women involved with organic
agriculture. Many interested students are more culturally
and politically progressive and have more environmental concerns
than conventional farm students. Having many students with
no farm background whatsoever poses new challenges and opportunities.
“The way agriculture has traditionally been, you didn’t
worry how to lube a tractor or birth a calf or whatever because
the students already knew it, but now they don’t,”
Clark finds. Yet she is also going about giving the hands-on
experience in a different way than the typical school farm.
“I’m about convinced that organic systems are
‘interactions-based,’ in that the determinants
of how a given crop grows are a 500-way interaction among
all sorts of factors making the ‘whole’ a very
site-specific phenomenon,” Clark says. So anything learned
by a student body on a campus farm, while useful, may be of
little relevance to the farm they start up in a different
region with largely variant conditions. Until specialized
spaces suitable for organics come about, Guelph’s organic
program relies heavily upon the local organic farm community,
which, according to Clark, is “arguably a better and
more grounded way to learn.”
One option open to all Guelph students interested in organic
farm internships is Ontario’s CRAFT – the Collaborative
Regional Alliance for Farmer Training. It links interns on
organic farms for shared experiences on member operations.
Interns take monthly farm field trips with tours and workshops.
Students see different farms, different methods, and everyone
– including some of the farmers – learns more
than they would in internship isolation.
Farm experience critical
Heather Lekx is the CSA and internship coordinator at Ignatius
Farm, located minutes from campus on the edge of Guelph. Kaitlin
Kazmierowski and Amy Thorne attended Guelph, took Clark’s
“Introduction to Organic Agriculture” course,
and spent a summer working the fields at Ignatius Farm. Kazmierowski,
an environmental science major, grew up in Toronto. She had
no interest in agriculture whatsoever until taking Clark’s
course, but now she’s hooked. What is most compelling
is her sense that organic agriculture education has given
her a new perspective on the critical role of food in our
“I see cities and there is so much wasted space that
can be used to make the city beautiful,” Kazmierowski
said. “People are just getting more and more cut off.
If people could provide [food] for themselves, they would
find it is pretty empowering to grow something and to eat
it, and say, ‘I did this; I made this happen.’
I think everyone should have a hand in seeing how food is
produced, because people take it for granted.”
Amy Thorne is from a non-farm background in Ottawa. After
enjoying her first internship at Ignatius Farm, she plans
to do another internship this year. “If you are really
interested in the environment, [producing food] is one of
the first things you can do if you want to create healthy
Future looks brighter
Clark is optimistic about organic ag education’s potential
impact, despite structural barriers to its success. One hurdle
is that organic expertise is virtually all non-proprietary,
so there is very little business-driven money coming in to
fund the needed academic research positions to create more
organic curriculum. Two, the non-organic agricultural input
industry has a vested interest in making sure the public doesn’t
accept organics, which depend on knowledge of sustainable
systems more than products.
“That industry is basically addressing symptom-oriented
problems,” Clark says. “Roundup deals in symptoms.
If Roundup actually worked at the causal end it would put
Monsanto out of business within a year. All the solutions
that they are selling -- whether they are genetic or chemical
or managerial -- are all symptom-oriented solutions, and they
must be specifically so the cause will not be reduced.”
With elevated petroleum costs a factor, Clark calls for a
“new agriculture” template where the currently
externalized environmental and societal costs are added to
the budget sheet. When the bigger picture is in the economic
equation, organic agriculture offers a better paradigm. Organic
agricultural training will have to factor in these changes,
adapting to grapple with increasing consumer demand for healthy
food and a sound ecosystem.
Will organic educators and farmers be up to the challenge?
“Well, I think we are following, we are not leading
society,” says Clark. “And I think that’s
not a bad thing.”