Universities launching organic farming programs

Degree programs launched in response to consumer demand for organic

By Nancy Pfoutz
When consumer trends begin to shift, academicians perk up their ears. But when sales of organic food tally a 20% increase per year since 1990, growing from $1 billion that year to $13.8 billion in 2005, it's time to consider a full-fledged academic degree program.

Four universities—Michigan State University, University of Florida, Washington State University, and Colorado State University—are the first to offer either a major or a certificate program in organic agriculture. Courses of study will include classroom and hands-on experiential learning, as graduates look toward careers in organic farming, certification, marketing, manufacturing, urban and community food projects, or sustainable agriculture.

“The organic segment of the market is the fastest growing segment in the US,” said Jessica Davis, co-director of Colorado State's undergraduate organic agriculture program. “There is a growing demand from the industry for graduates ...trained in organic agriculture.”

The College of Agriculture at Purdue University is considering establishing a major in organic farming, anticipating that “in five to six years (organic crops) will be between 5 to 10 percent of the food production,” said Steve Weller, a professor of horticulture at Purdue. Local farmers in Indiana produce a small amount of organic beef and dairy; meat, poultry and fish are the fastest growing segments of organic production.

Davis noted three factors driving the organic program: industry need, student interest, and area farmers requesting more research on growing organic products.

As large retailers like Wal-Mart begin selling mass quantities of organic food, the need for more experts becomes clear. “Quite frankly, there just are not enough organic farmers out there that have the technical skills to meet the demand,” said Ryan Zinn, national campaign coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.

While the number of students signing up for the organic major is a drop in the bucket, administrators expect it to grow. Just as more consumers are willing to invest a few dollars more for food they feel is healthier and tastier, requests for more education in organic farming are on the rise.

“This (interest) is clearly a response to student demand,” said Mark Lipson, Policy Program Director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “Students are interested for the same reasons that the organic market is growing: environment, health, and economic motivation.”

The farm as classroom

The university offerings pull resources from several fields to provide a broad understanding of agricultural sciences, with specific skills in organic systems. Sample course topics include soil and crop science, horticulture, agriculture and resource economics, pest management, nutrition, environment, and agribusiness management.

Washington State University inaugurated the first official organic systems major in May 2006. Dr. Cathy Perillo, WSU specialist in soil systems, said “We’ve had courses in organic and sustainable ag for six to eight years, but now we’re adding a systems thinking approach, to look at the complexity of agriculture and food systems.”

WSU operates a certified organic teaching farm on campus and students run a 100-member Community Supported Agriculture program. A hands-on practicum and internship is required of each degree major.

Michigan State's 10-acre Student Organic Farm has been an educational resource for several years, managed by students. Heated and passive solar greenhouses provide a 12-month farming opportunity, and the year on campus is followed by a three- to four- month internship on a working farm or urban garden.

“We intend that students will learn not only how to grow a wide range of crops organically but also how to think critically and creatively about sustainability issues and how to foster community through food systems in general,” said instructor Corie Pierce.

At Colorado State, a fruitful collaboration has arisen between the university and Aurora Organic Dairy, a major organic producer based in Boulder. Aurora has announced that it will provide a $1,000 annual tuition scholarship to every student in the program. Students will develop programs in feed production and organic pasture management to assist the dairy, serve internships supervised by the dairy’s veterinarian, and do taste evaluations of Aurora’s milk and butter products.

Grant Family Farms, Colorado’s largest organic farm, serves as a laboratory for CSU research. The Western Slope in the state provides a site for organic fruit production research. With so much organic acreage, CSU intends to focus not only on organic farming, but also environmental sustainability and nutrition.

The need for organic education
With the rapid growth of the organic food industry, the future seems bright for these program graduates. However, Lipson said that there are limits to how long that rate of growth can continue, and therefore these educational programs are a very important development.

“The market demand (for organic) is outpacing the infrastructure and the education and research,” he explained. “Production and knowledge are lagging behind – we’re not creating new organic farms at the rate we need.”

These four universities may help to change that. Dan Cantliffe, chairman of University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department, is excited that UF is teaching a new generation how to farm with natural methods. The US may begin to see more farmers like Arturo Gonzalez, who is converting his 10 acres into an organic fruit, herb and vegetable farm, to reap the premium prices that organic brings.

“If I want to stay in this area as a (small) farmer, I've got to change,” he said.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report 2006. (November 2006).