Stagnant budgets demand creativity in ag education
Creators want sustainability programs to 'outlast the grants'
By PATTY MAMULA
For the Capital Press
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- The No. 1 challenge for sustainable agriculture education is how to sustain it.
At a recent conference, educators, from small colleges to large land-grant universities, from Hawaii to Virginia, said they all face tighter budgets.
One session focused on growing the next generation of farmers.
"How do we create sustainable programs for beginning farmers that outlast the grants?" asked Garry Stephenson, small farms specialist with the Oregon State University Extension.
The OSU small farms team developed an eight-week course called Growing Farms using a USDA grant. It covers strategic planning, logistics, production, marketing, finances and record-keeping and risk management.
As the grant ends, educators are looking for ways to maintain the program.
One possible solution is to put the information online.
"Beginning farmers are technologically savvy," Stephenson said. "Age is not an issue. There's no significant drop in Internet use until after age 70."
The transition to an online presentation is not simply a matter of taking the course material and putting it on a website, he said.
Stephenson said they are working with a curriculum specialist to develop an online class with specially written scripts, videos, and graphically rich and engaging material. Each module of Growing Farms will be a self-contained unit that can be used independently as a self-paced course.
In addition, they developed a partnership with Oregon Tilth, an organic certifier, that focuses on education and research.
Virginia Tech's agriculture extension department also developed a program for beginning farmers and ranchers with a grant from the same USDA initiative, said Kim Nielwony, assistant professor. From the beginning, they tried to make it self-sustaining. They started with a coalition of 26 groups -- government organizations, nonprofits, higher education, individual groups like farmers' markets and local economic development programs.
Next, they conducted surveys to establish community needs and found that financial record-keeping, business planning and soil management were the top three priorities.
The curriculum, similar to OSU's Growing Farms, is delivered through the partners around the state in one-day workshops, online programs, mentoring, field trips and farm tours.
The online component is a supplement to the course and includes case studies and videos, interviews with working farmers and situations unique to Virginia.
The formal mentoring component matches beginning and experienced farmers. They in turn are matched with a resource person and a peer mentor farmer. The program includes a curriculum for the mentor along with a one-year honorarium that ranges from $500 to $1,000.
"By focusing on a diversity of stakeholders the process was complicated," Nielwony said. "But it had to be a grassroots effort from the ground up to be lasting."