Land grant colleges sow organic seeds
Educators roll out red carpet for students interested in organic, conventional methods
By STEVE BROWN
Organic studies haven't traditionally been offered at land-grant universities, but these aren't conventional ag students.
Aspiring farmers arriving on campus these days may come from big cities in addition to rural areas, and some are as interested in organic and small-scale agriculture as production farming.
"These kids come from the whole range," said John Reganold of Washington State University. "Some have farmed for generations and want to learn organic, maybe shift part of the family operation to organic."
Reganold, WSU regents professor of soil science and agroecology, advises students who major in organic agriculture.
"There's a lot of city kids with no farm experience. I attribute that interest to the food movement," he said. "It's new ground and they're real excited. I would bet half of them are nonfarm kids, and that's great."
WSU offers the only organic agriculture major in the U.S., he said. The program started in 2006 and this year has 25 or 26 students majoring in organic agriculture. That's about 7 percent of all students who have declared ag majors.
Organic agriculture is a science-based curriculum and includes a year each of chemistry, biology, math and statistics.
The draw of agriculture reaches to all corners of the student population.
Kristin Dexter grew up in California's Bay Area, but she caught the agriculture "bug" during a farm visit when she was 5.
"I remember walking through the rows of food and thinking it was magic, coaxing the food from the ground," said Dexter, now an agriculture student at Oregon State University.
Oregon State doesn't offer an organic major, but its organic-oriented courses have proven popular, even among students who aren't agriculture majors.
"I have diverse students in my soils science classes, including arts students," said James Cassidy, research assistant and faculty adviser of the OSU Organic Growers Club.
In recent years, he said, more of the students in his crop and soils science classes have come from urban areas, "but they're pretty in touch with rural issues. They've got cultural competency as regards rural life."
Cassidy credited that largely to social media, including Facebook and YouTube.
"Everybody of a certain age knows what's going on in popular culture," he said. "Populations are less isolated."
The line between urban and rural is getting blurry, Cassidy said. He sees students from both backgrounds come into his classes out of curiosity and then change their majors, some going into research, some planning their own farms.
"They're an ambitious, young, creative group," he said. "They don't have enough experience to be jaded about agriculture.
"Urban kids are searching for authenticity, for something honest, and they want to identify with it. ... Soil and ag is the ultimate in authentic experience. It's always going to be the linchpin of our culture."
Reganold sees hope for the future of agriculture in his WSU students.
"We are losing people in (production) agriculture, and we need to bring people back in," he said. "Organic agriculture is a way to get students back in ag."
The University of Idaho has less of a mix.
"We're not getting quite as much interest as they're seeing at WSU," said John Foltz, associate dean. "Our bread-and-butter tends to be kids from rural areas."
UI is seeing "so-so" growth in its certificate program in sustainable small-acreage farming and ranching, he said. Six or seven students are pursuing the certificate, a number that hasn't changed much recently. A sustainability minor is in the works.
"We'll have to adapt to the changing face of agriculture, with larger farms on one end and niche interests on the other end," he said.
Beyond the classrooms, students take to field work enthusiastically, educators said.
At California State University-Chico, dairy is a major focus.
"We have one of only two organic dairies on U.S. university campuses, to my knowledge," said Jennifer Ryder Fox, dean of the College of Agriculture.
Instruction focuses on making organic dairies profitable, she said. Now in its fourth season and milking 80 cows, the program draws rural and urban students from both organic and conventional backgrounds.
About 500 students are in the ag college, which has seen double-digit annual growth in recent years.
Fox called the college's 800-acre farm a "living laboratory," complete with vegetable farm, orchard, livestock, dairy and greenhouse operations. "It's an integral part of what we do."
There's no specific organic track for students at Chico State, but all learn sustainable practices.
At Oregon State University, the Organic Growers Club is in its 11th season, Cassidy said.
"I started when I was a student, and we have 600 students on the listserv now," he said. The Internet listserv automatically sends e-mail messages to students who sign up to receive them. "We have 15 to 30 students show up every Thursday at the farm and we'll probably have that many continue on through the summer."
Students learn market gardening at the 1.5-acre student farm on the east side of the Willamette River. They grow about 70 different fruits and vegetables to sell on campus, in turn financing three to five summer internships. Interns are paid hourly wages for 10 hours a week for 10 weeks.
Support for interns also comes from the Corvallis Organic Gardening Club and from OSU's Student Sustainability Initiative, a student-fee-supported program for internships throughout the university.
Students also sell food to the campus commissary and at a booth on Fridays during the growing season.
"There are set prices, and we rely on an honor system," Cassidy said.
WSU has a 4-acre organic farm on campus, which features a community-supported agriculture program with 110 shares, Reganold said. Other marketing efforts include the Pullman Farmers' Market and university chefs.
In the planning stage is an organic "Smartfarm," Reganold said. It will encompass 17.4 acres closer to the center of campus.
"We will be seeking donations to cover the $15 million cost from the corporate world, including food businesses, grocers, et cetera," he said. "It will have energy-efficient buildings for students to live on the farm, as well as classroom and greenhouse areas. It won't just provide for the CSA, but also for research and extension work."
The energy-independent Smartfarm will go through the three-year organic certification process, so students will learn how that works, too, Reganold said.
The Soil Standards Club at the University of Idaho operates a 3-acre organic farm, overseen by faculty members, with a popular community-supported agriculture program. The Sustainability Center on the campus gathers waste from food service and the dairy, creating compost for the organic farm and for cropland.
Only eight or 10 students have graduated from WSU's organic program since it started, Reganold said. Some are looking to buy a couple of acres to start their own CSA, but farming isn't the only destination.
"Others work for ag companies, and there's one who's now a chef," he said. "They could work as certifiers. They're getting jobs across the board. Marketing will be a big area."
The organic program, which can be tailored to such interests as dairy, economics, food science and soil management, will likely grow, he said. One new course is entomology, pest management in organic production systems.
"We're not limiting it. Jobs are growing," he said. "With a science-based major, they can be soil scientists or go into horticulture."
Chico State teaches "not just cows and plows" but a full range of agriculture skills, Fox said. About 80 students a year graduate from the college, which sees double-digit growth every year.
"A high percentage of them go into the ag industry in some capacity," she said. "Companies that come to our annual ag career fair are impressed with how well prepared the students are."