In 1998 some 350 students at Ontario's University of Guelph took a novel approach to signing up for a class: They circulated a petition demanding its creation.
Their effort was a success, and Introduction to Organic Agriculture was added to the curriculum. But the grassroots push for organic agriculture education at Guelph didn't stop there. Thanks to the persistent efforts of agriculture professor E. Ann Clark-the David to a well-heeled Goliath on a campus where biotech agribusiness money flows into research-April 2006 saw students complete the first of four years in a bachelor of science program with a major in organic agriculture.
Given the mainstreaming of certified organic products and the rapid growth in their popularity, it may come as a surprise to some that no other school in North America offered an organic major until Guelph came along.
It was even a surprise to Clark, until she and a graduate student started investigating how organic agriculture was being addressed in North American education. The two surveyed 25 programs (15 in Canada and 10 in the United States), as well as 10 experiential programs that they thought were likely to have at least some organic focus. In 2002 they presented their results to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements conference in Victoria, British Columbia. There were courses in organics, and in sustainable or ecological agriculture. There were even some specializations in organics at a diploma level, some liberal arts degrees focusing on organics, and some majors in things like human ecology where organics is a central topic.
But at the time, no other school had a major in organic agriculture. (In the fall of 2006, Washington State University enrolled students in its newly launched major degree program, Organic Agriculture Systems.)
'Other places just have some wing nut faculty member like me who is willing to buck the trend and offer organics against all odds,' Clark says. 'But it's always on the periphery, it is always tangential, it has never been done intentionally from the inside. So that's what distinguishes this degree of ours.'
In addition to the introductory course, students who sign up for the major will take five classes designed for the program: Organic Marketing, Design of Organic Production Systems, Social Issues in Organic Agriculture, and two tutorials. They also will have to go out and get practical, hands-on experience in the organic industry.
While Clark's focus is in the classroom, she says that experiential learning in organics is essential. Because organic agriculture is not about manipulating genes or spraying chemicals, success can be very site-specific. Plus, many of those who go into organic agriculture don't have a traditional farming or gardening background.
This new breed of would-be organic farmers poses a practical challenge for agriculture professors, who now find themselves having to teach the ABCs of the field. 'The way agriculture has traditionally been, you didn't worry [about teaching] how to lube a tractor or birth a calf because the students already knew it,' Clark says. 'Now they don't.'
So the program is tapping commercial organic farmers to help students get the experience they need through the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) program. This group of farms, though not officially connected to the university, have pooled their collective knowledge to give interns a more diverse experience: different farms, different farmers, different techniques.
With a tray of Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage transplants in one arm, Kaitlin Kazmierowski walks down the tilled rows at Ignatius Farm in Guelph, placing the seedlings one by one, evenly spacing them on the ground. Other organic farming interns follow behind and plant each seedling with care. The work is slow and steady, but for those who spend their summers living and working on organic farms in southern Ontario as part of CRAFT, it is also educational and fulfilling.
Kazmierowski, who grew up in Toronto, never imagined a life of toil and soil, farms and fields, planting and harvesting. 'Personally, I wasn't interested in agriculture until I took that course, and now I'm here,' says Kazmierowski, referring to the Guelph program's introductory course. Organic agriculture seems to hold an interest for youths like Kazmierowski that conventional farming can't claim. Whereas young people have been leaving farms for the cities for decades, organic farming is not only keeping some of them on the farm, it's also bringing aboard people who have no background in agriculture.
The students entering organic agriculture at Guelph may not come from traditional agriculture backgrounds, but Clark sees that as a positive trend, in spite of the challenges.
'These students tend to have a social as well as a biophysical interest in farming, so they see farming in a broader societal context,' she says. 'It tends to be the more activist-type students who are willing to make such a profound change. Because it is a big change, from being a nonfarmer to becoming a farmer.'
Paul Henderson (www.pauljhenderson.com) is a reporter for the Chilliwack Times in Chilliwack, British Columbia, and a freelance writer and photographer. Reprinted from Alternatives Journal (Vol. 32 #2), the official publication of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada. Subscriptions: Canadian $45/yr. (6 issues) from 200 University Ave. W, Waterloo, ON N2L3G1, Canada; www.alternativesjournal.ca.