Two southern schools are teaching organic agriculture from the ground up--literally.
Media Contact: Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188
By Jill Lee
October 8, 2008
Agriculture faculty at the University of Kentucky (UK) and the University of Georgia (UGA) envision tomorrow's agriculture as sustainable and organic. As beneficiaries of a USDA program, they are developing innovative programs that let students work on organic farms and market their produce to their communities.
The Higher Education Challenge Grants program, which is managed by USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, encourages innovative teaching enhancement projects with the potential for regional or national impact to serve as models for other institutions. While research and extension activities may be included in a funded project, the primary focus must be to improve teaching within a degree-granting program.
"The challenge grant was a great catalyst to getting our administration to support this new sustainable agriculture program," said Mark Williams, sustainable agriculture director at the UK. "It was the USDA review and approval of our project that made an impression with our administrators."
Challenge Grants are used to increase the number of graduates with advanced degrees in the food and agricultural sciences and to increase the quality of postsecondary instruction within these fields.
"The great thing about the challenge grant is it allowed us to leverage our resources," said Doug Bailey, director of organic certification and the horticulture department at the University of Georgia. "The grant funded curriculum development and a technician, and led to the university providing us two greenhouses so we could compare conventional and organic agriculture."
Sarah Buzogany, a senior at UK, said she really appreciated the on-farm experience the school provided.
"I'm from the suburbs of Chicago, so I had no practical agricultural experience when I came to school and knew very little about the issues in agriculture today," she said. "Working on the farm has been fantastic. You can only learn so much in the classroom, and working on the farm has helped validate and ingrain all the theory and practices I'd learned about, as well teach me a lot more."
Both Bailey and Williams will see their program's first graduates this year. Some of their students are taking their education even further into new directions. Kate Smith, who will soon be finishing a degree in horticulture at UGA, is a case in point.
"After taking the first organic agriculture [class], which is now part of the basis of the program's curriculum, I continued working on the farm, helping run a community supported agriculture (CSA) program," Smith said. "After two years of involvement with the farm and bringing our community closer to their food, I took time off school to open a restaurant with a group of friends and farmers."
Both Williams and Bailey work hard to teach their students that growing sustainable produce is the beginning, not the final result of successful agriculture. They have both student-run marketing efforts that generate a local market for the tomatoes, eggplants, garlic, carrots and cucumbers produced on school farms.
"CSA enterprises are growing in popularity as direct market models for organic farms," said Williams, whose student-run CSA clients include other students, professors and the campus food service. "In a typical CSA model, customers pay an amount of money to the farmer at the beginning of the growing season, which entitles them to receive produce on a regular basis through the summer."
In Georgia, Bailey and his students cooperate with the university restaurant, The Savannah Room, which has sustainability Fridays that feature food from the students' gardens. "They always sell out of everything we give them; we also donate to a food pantry and developed a student-run CSA," Bailey said.
In addition to food, farms can provide ornamentals. The organic flowers grown to beautify the Savannah Room's dinner tables also are part of integrated pest management, Bailey said.
"The flowers draw beneficial insects," he said. "These helpful bugs will eat pests that might destroy our produce. So our flowers are not only beautiful—they're functional, too."
Both the UK and UGA programs see educational value that extends past the university students and have invited young children to tour their farms.
"We believe that one critically important educational tool is for people to experience a farm," Willams said. "A key part of our planning was to allow non-agriculture students safe access to the university organic farm and to introduce non-agriculture students and faculty to the practice of organic agriculture."
"Never will I forget the sight of 13 and 14 year olds, who typically eat processed Lunchables and chicken nuggets, running at top speed to be the first to consume rainbow chard!" said Rebecca Self, a teacher at Montessori Middle School of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., who brought her class of 30 students to visit the farm. "I can honestly say that it was at that point that I really understood why it was so critical for adolescents to have every opportunity possible to be on the land, particularly when it involves work, responsibility and natural rewards."
For more information on the Higher Education Challenge Grant program, go to www.csrees.usda.gov/fo/educationchallengehigheredhep.cfm or contact Gregory Smith at (202) 720 -2067.