This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference. We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.
If you want to get me excited about something, mention food, farming, or teaching. I am studying to be an agriculture professor and am currently a soil science master student at Washington State University, learning everything I can about growing vegetables, healthy soils and teaching. At the beginning of November I had the opportunity to attend the Washington Tilth Producers Conference in Vancouver, WA. One of the events I participated in was a workshop called “The Next Generation of Farmers and Eaters: Changing the Food System through Education.” It was presented by Stuart O’Neill, who organizes an on-farm internship program in Oregon called Rogue Farm Corps, and Elizabeth Wheat, who is a Whidbey Island farmer and lecturer at University of Washington in Seattle. Dr. Wheat talked about her experiences introducing agriculture to students at an urban university and their campus farm. I came away from the presentations and discussion inspired to re-image how agricultural education fits into higher education.
If you want to work in farming the best place to go to college is a land-grant agricultural university. So why teach agricultural topics to non-agriculture students at urban or liberal arts colleges and universities? First, I think agricultural education can inspire a whole new generation of farmers. One thing O’Neill talked about was that older farmers are retiring faster than new ones are replacing them. According to Dr. Wheat, schools like the University of Washington are not places to train farmers, but they can be places where students are inspired and encouraged to take jobs related to food and farming.
Second, all colleges and universities can be places to educate eaters and decision makers in our food system. Everyone who eats is involved in the food system, but most people don’t realize the influence they have with their purchasing decisions. For people who are used to thinking about tomatoes coming from grocery store shelves, buying food from farmers markets or directly from farms can be confusing. They don’t always understand why their tomatoes are not flawless or why strawberries are not always available. But after a student has spent the summer months pulling weeds and watering his own tomato plant he knows the funny shaped tomatoes really taste the best. And after watching and waiting for the first ripe strawberry of the spring, he can appreciate the abundance of seasonal fruits and vegetables. That same student also now understands all the labor that the farmer has put into growing lettuce and is willing to support him every week at the market.
We also need to educate our citizens and leaders about agriculture. In the past few years there have been some important pieces of legislation related to food and agriculture—the Farm Bill, Food Modernization Act and a Washington initiative to label GMO foods. Teaching college students about food and farming will help them make these important decisions. And you never know, it could be the start of something big. Dr. Wheat noted: “food is a good place to start thinking about making global changes toward sustainability.”
So how can universities help students learn more about their food system? Dr. Wheat had three simple things that “urban agrarians” can do and I have tried to give examples for each of them.
Touch the dirt everyday
This one is not exciting or special, but it probably has the most impact. Everyone, regardless of their age, enjoys being able to experience the sunlight, soil, plants and animals all around them.
Practice agriculture, no matter the scale, to better understand a farmer’s work
Practicing agriculture is hard for students who have never seen it, so on-campus student farms can provide a great learning opportunity. The UW has an active student farm that attracts students from all fields of study to work together and celebrate their food. Sarah Geurkink, the farm manager for University of Washington’s student farm (UW Farm), says the farm helps students gain self-confidence, communication and teamwork skills, and time management skills in addition to farming knowledge.
Work together because farmers + eaters = big changes
We don’t need everyone to be a farmer, but we do need more people involved and interested in farming. Universities can go a long way to helping this by including agriculture in their curriculum and collaborating with farmers in their area. The University of Washington is working on a Food Studies minor that will complement the student learning being done on the campus farm and expose more students to food related issues. I suggest taking it a step further: students could work with local farms to complete a project or internship, either in agriculture or another field. For example, an engineering student could work with a farmer to install solar panels on his farm or a business major could help a farmer develop a new marketing plan for his farm stand. Without even studying agriculture, these students could still experience farming. The important thing is that farmers, educators and students cannot do it all alone, we need to work together.
I went to this workshop expecting to hear O’Neill and Dr. Wheat singing the praises of our land-grant university system. Instead, I gained a whole new perspective on how to educate students about our food system. It made me think about what my career goal of teaching agriculture at a university could look like and the impact that it could have. And I am excited to be part of educating the next generation of farmers and eaters.