Majoring in Organics

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.

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