Rise in popularity of sustainable ag has opened new markets, student says
By TIM HEARDEN
A sea change in agricultural operations may be ushered in by today's college generation, as students' interest in promoting sustainability is pushing a growth in instruction in organic farming.
At Butte College near Chico, an 80-acre farm includes organic produce, a half-acre organic orchard with peaches, apples and other fruit, and the newest addition -- a 6-acre organic vineyard.
While a portion of the community college's farm has been certified organic since 1990, instructors say they're seeing a heightened interest in organic agriculture among students, and that the practice is introducing a wider variety of young people to agriculture.
"Even the students in our ag business classes used to kind of laugh when you mentioned organics," said Deborah Conway, the college's farm technician. "Now, in a lot of the business plans they're doing, they want to grow organic."
Student farm director Luke Milliron, 19, of Chico, said he wouldn't have been interested in agriculture if he hadn't been exposed to the organic farm. He said students in the program get the feeling that they're doing something positive.
"I think the industry is open for change," Milliron said. He added that although some farmers are resistant to change, the rise in the popularity of sustainable agriculture has opened new markets.
The Millennial generation's concern for the environment is driving an increased focus on sustainability at colleges and universities across the country, and that includes a push by some agriculture programs toward organics.
A recent survey by the Princeton Review found that two-thirds of students across all majors said a college's "environmental commitment" would be a factor in where they applied, the USA Today reported.
The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that more than 80 schools now have hands-on and classroom-based farm programs, many of which are organic vegetable farms, the Associated Press reported.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an online database of dozens of U.S. colleges and universities that offer educational and training opportunities in sustainable agriculture.
The 26 California colleges and universities on the list include Butte and nearby California State University-Chico, whose organic dairy was the first university dairy west of the Mississippi. CSU campuses in Fresno and Turlock also made the list, as did the California Polytechnic universities in Pomona and San Luis Obispo and the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Davis.
The efforts at Butte College have gained the support of the local business community. The Worm Farm in nearby Durham, which offers composting and other soil enhancement measures, recently donated 18 yards of compost with worm castings to the college farm, a donation valued at $1,100.
"This is tomorrow," co-owner Melisa Lasell said of Butte's organic farming project. "These are the people that will find the solutions for better food and higher economic return."
Lyman Hagen, Butte's agriculture department chairman and an animal science instructor, said some students have been spurred toward organic farming by seeing today's producers make the switch. In recent years, Llano Seco Ranch, a large livestock operation near Durham, began producing organic cattle and swine.
While economic opportunities from organic farming are increasing, the reason for doing it is more than economic, said Michael Spinola, a 34-year-old student from Redwood City.
"It's not just about money when you go into organics," he said. "It's a holistic approach."
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: email@example.com.
For the U.S. Department of Agriculture's list of colleges and universities that offer instruction in sustainable agriculture, visit http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/edtr/EDTRCollegesA.shtml#tocA