Education for sustainable agriculture: A story


In my last post, I shared a vision of education for a more sustainable agriculture that helps to inform the continued development and growth of the new University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming undergraduate program.  In this post, I will present an example of one class that is representative of that vision.  But first, I\’d like to thank those of you who commented on last blog and share a few of their thoughts:

  • Trying to bring sustainable ag education to undergrads and grads within a holistic integral methodology is challenging…
  • The ONE SHARED qualification for every sustainable ag related job I\’ve pursued since college has been \”experience\”….

In addition to the testimony of teachers and thoughtful learners, there is solid pedagogical evidence which supports the idea that college students benefit from well-managed experiential classes.   But rather than citing the extensive academic literature on experiential learning, I want to share a story of an experiential education program at the University of Massachusetts.  Here is a video introduction to the Student Farming Enterprise class….


In the fall of 2007, three members of the Plant, Soils and Insect Sciences Department at the University of Massachusetts started a pilot student farming project at the UMass Crops Research and Education Center in South Deerfield, MA.  Two students planted, managed, harvested and sold organic kale and broccoli to the student-run natural foods restaurant on campus, Earthfoods Cafe.  They earned $850, which covered their costs that fall.

While the project was small, it was so well-received that interest grew immediately and the following spring 6 students enrolled in the 3-credit practicum class.  According to project director, Ruth Hazzard, the educational goals for the class and project are:

  1. To develop skills in the techniques, tools and equipment used to grow, manage, and sell vegetable and other crops.
  2. To develop understanding of soil fertility, water, pest management using IPM and organic methods.
  3. To learn how to develop, use and evaluate crop plans and budgets for production and marketing.

I\”ve had the privilege to observe this project as faculty adviser for many of these students.   I know the students gained valuable practical and technical  knowledge and MUCH MUCH more.  They grew as confident young entrepreneurs both individually and as a team.  To watch this group make decisions together, solve problems, and share the work with enthusiasm and commitment is inspiring.


Students typically speak glowingly about the opportunity this project has offered them to complement their classroom learning with real-world experience.  Here is a short video featuring some of the students from the 2009 class talking about their experience…..


The project quickly developed into a year-round class, including a paid summer internship which requires that the students plan the farming enterprise during the spring semester, grow the crops in the summer, and harvest, sell and evaluate their business in the fall.  The UMass Dining Services has become a major supporter and a regular buyer of the organic produce grown by the students.  In 2010, a 25-member CSA was added to the project which will be expanded next year.  Sales in 2010 exceeded $12,000, which is used to cover costs and pay student stipends during the summer months.


Plans for 2011 include expanding both production and markets to allow 12 students to gain practical experience and learn the value of working together in community toward a common goal.



This is more than a class!


This is an enterprise guided by faculty but powered and managed by students.  I\’d like to end with some words from the students…..

Emily Errico, one of the students in the 2010 class reported \”…the Student Farming Enterprise has been the culminating experience of my time at UMASS.  No other class has exposed me to every aspect of farming, from planning in the winter, to planting in the summer, to harvest and sales in the fall.  This class is so special because you actually run the farm and are responsible for it\’s success, while working in an environment  that is still safe for learning.\”


Malaika Spencer, a Hampshire College student who took  advantage of the Consortium which allows students to take classes at any of the Five Colleges in the area claimed that \”…the UMass Student Farm Enterprise course has been the only course that has allowed me to explore farming as a business while still in the academic environment. We have been given the chance to create a farm operation that is rooted in academic process but manifested in real experience.\”

According to Emily French, one of the students in the first class \”…the SFE prepared me for my current work with the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, where I facilitate sustainable purchasing relationships between farms and schools statewide.  The agricultural and marketing experience I gained during my time with the Student Farming Enterprise class provided me with skills I use in my work every day.\”

For more information, see UMass Student Enterprise Farm.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.