Majoring in farming, with a concentration in cheese and pastures…
Posted Jun 02 2009 4:38pm
By Kate Turcotte
This blog post has caught me in the middle of final exams, papers, moving into a new apartment, and planting season, but to be honest, it couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s senior year of college, that lovely reflective time when you ask yourself “what HAVE I learned the past four years?” It’s also the time when everyone is asking you what is happening next, and I seriously mean everyone. Some of us have plans and others have made them up. To cut my graduating class some slack, we were not expecting a recession and pandemic flu outbreak to occur on our arrival into the real world. Either way, the time has come for us to be useful to society, so what am I bringing to the table?
Interning at Shelburne Farms on how to make cheddar cheese.
During the last four years, I have been an agriculture student at the University of Vermont. Soon I’ll be a product of the land grant institution, a vision of Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill way back in late 1800’s. During this time, yields were at an all time low due to soil degradation, with some estimates show half the yields from the previous decade. Congressman Morrill believed that the main problem was the need for knowledge and skills to be available to farmers, and that America needed education that provided “the greatest good to the greatest number.” The “College Land Bill” was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862 and the title of the bill reads “An Act donating public lands to the several states and territories which may provide colleges for the benefits of agriculture and the mechanistic arts.” This marked an important period in time for education and agriculture, because it symbolized that farming was worth being taught in universities and it made receiving a college education feasible for almost all Americans.
Throughout the history of the land grant University there has been great debates on how to teach agriculture to students. Morrill wanted the education to be “practical” and “liberal”, which is easier said than done. Agriculture is complex and professors can barely scratch the surface in a four-year degree. There have been many questions, such as should these institutions teach practical agriculture or experimental agriculture? Should they create generalists or specialists? Is agriculture based on science or experience? From the beginning people were skeptical that the purpose of these universities was to teach science rather than farming. The president of the Michigan Agricultural College in 1863 said, “if any gentleman[woman] will point out to me a single move or principle in agriculture that is founded on or is derived from scientific experience, I will own that I am mistaken. I do not know of one. Agriculture is an art. It is has with practice. Now, I claim, that if we place science first, and practice afterwards, we cannot make progress.” During the same time, the president of the Iowa State College said, “No doubt agriculture is an art that is largely based upon experiment… and a man is a better observer who is a thorough scientific man.” In the end, science won and now we have the industrial food system.
Local foods potluck an contra dance during the Vermont Food Summit.
This quick history lesson is to raise this question: what is the role of higher education in creating a sustainable food system? All over the country students are becoming more active with what ends up on their plate. It started as a student movement and is becoming recognized by the opening of Slow Food on Campus chapters and the participating in the Real Food Challenge. Students are growing gardens, taking food system courses, and demanding better food in their dining halls. There is definitely an increasing interest in food and agriculture, but how many young people want to be farmers? If this small scale agriculture is what we want for the future we are going to need a lot more people on the land. What is the best way of learning about diversified agriculture and how to make a living off of it? These aspiring farmers are quirky, creative, and unconventional individuals, so how can we meet their needs why providing enough information about soil ecology, market behavior, weed management, agriculture policy, and so on? There is a lot happening on our college campuses, but not as much on how to become a farmer.
My agriculture education has been based in ecological principles, but still very dependent on the scientific method. I lost many of my friends and classmates in classes like organic chemistry and plant physiology because of their three hour labs in dark dusty rooms. While they found it interesting, it seemed more practical to intern on a farm, gain the hands on experience, and avoid going deeper into college debt. At an all day series of workshops for young and aspiring farmers at the Vermont Food Summit, many students expressed their concern about the education they were receiving. They believed their programs lacked basic skills and knowledge on how to get started as a farmer. The barriers such as access to land, start up capital, and technical assistance are numerous, and a college education should assist in making these barriers smaller.
Last years farm crew at UVM's student run farm
In the past, education at land grant institutes has been driven by the food industries needs and consumer demand. I think that we need to have more programs and colleges dedicated to what the next generation of farmers need to be able to grow good food. Ecological agriculture is an interdisciplinary study with a major emphasis on hands on learning. Students who want to be farmers need a strong background in applied science, basic accounting, problem solving skills, and systems thinking. They should leave college with a complete business plan of their future farm and several years of experience working on different farms in the area or abroad. Every college and university has majors in English, psychology, and chemistry, and there should be as many programs and colleges offering agriculture as a major as there are different farming models in this country. The average age of a farmer in the United States is 55.7 years old, and that number continues to rise during each Census of Agriculture. This seems like a great opportunity for our generation to step in and grow food in the way that we believe is best on the environment, economy, and people. I really do believe that there is a place for alternative farming education in the university system, especially in small liberal arts colleges who are champions of the “practical” and “liberal” education.
If this is something you’d like to learn more about, check out the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association, and consider going to their conference in Iowa this coming July. The website has a list of all of the ecological agriculture programs in the country as well as many other resources. And you all know this, but follow the upcoming documentary The Greenhorns and especially check out their blog that has daily updates on what’s happening in the young farming community. Last of all, I would encourage everyone to read and own a copy of Wendell Berry’s The
Plant view of ag students weeding the onions.
Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, and especially read the chapter about farming and the university system.
To steal from the Greenhorn’s website, I think this is the best quote by Thomas Jefferson to conclude this post with. He said, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” Think about what our generation can do to be useful, how we can serve the people in our community, and what our role is in changing the food system in America. Good luck to all of the interns, apprentices, students, and young farmers during this upcoming growing season.