Teaching the future ag professional

A unique undergraduate program at the University of Massachusetts is teaching students agribusiness and marketing while they get the hands-on, practical experience of growing organically certified vegetables consumed on the campus. UMass Extension educator, Ruth Hazzard, says the program grew out of a combination of the need to fill gaps in the curriculum so students could get experience in farming and the students’ desire to educate their peers about locally grown, sustainable agriculture, as well as a serendipitous marketing opportunity right on the campus.

Hazzard, team leader for the vegetable extension program, set about establishing a place where organic research and teaching could take place at the university’s Research Farm located near Deerfield, Mass. In 2003, she began transitioning about 6 acres of the farm to organic management. In 2007, after certification by Baystate Organic Certifiers, she started a pilot program with two students doing an independent study on raising kale.

UMass is not the first campus in New England to establish a produce farm, explains Hazzard. The universities in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine each have student-run farms. The program at UMass is unique in that it’s set up as part of an undergraduate curriculum with a six-credit practicum that counts toward the sustainable agriculture major in the plant soil and insect sciences department. During the spring semester, a three-credit course is taught in which the students establish a crop plan for each of the crops, establish a budget, purchase seeds, and prepare the fertility and soil needs for each crop. In a second three-credit course during the fall, students harvest and sell the crops, and analyze the outcomes of their project. Students are expected to sign up for both courses. Then, during the summer, some of the students work part-time at the farm, giving them some extra income to put towards college.

“The students involved with the project are really passionate about organic and sustainable agriculture,” Hazzard said.

Starting up a program like this is different from what the Research Farm has been traditionally used for—which is “research” on research plots. Hazzard says that if the College of Natural Resources and the Environment values the research farm as a teaching location and the students are actively involved, it increases the value of the farm for research, and extension as well. She adds that this is an evolving program and hopes it will eventually generate enough income to support itself.

Student helpers washing some of the freshly picked veggies.

The project started when UMass students Emily French and Adam Dole decided to take advantage of the land offered to them by Hazzard. Earth Foods, a student-run food cooperative and vegetarian cafe on the UMass campus, was looking for a local, organically grown source of kale for its menu—some of the kale was coming from as far away as Georgia. So, French and Dole began raising kale.

French, who’s majoring in holistic medicine and sustainable agriculture, explained that the kale project took off that first year; now, with the help of more students from a variety of majors, they expanded in 2008 to 1 acre growing carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, two types of cabbage, broccoli and beets.

“Next year we plan on planting even more,” she said. “In fact, we have excess produce this fall and have started selling at the dining service’s farmers’ market on campus, and we’re also working with a couple of local growers to take our overflow, so our extra produce is going to them. We weren’t expecting that.” The students also donated carrots and potatoes to the Amherst Survival Center.

People tend to debate the distinctions between organic and sustainable agricultural practices. The challenge is to keep people from creating dividing lines between the designations, because in Hazzard’s view, they overlap. Not all organic practices may meet the standards of sustainability, and vice versa. She’s glad she made the decision for this project to get the organic certification because it provides added credibility in some markets, among the public and among organic farmers. It also enables students to understand what organic means, as well as teaching them what is involved in gaining the organic certification and the advantages it has in their markets.

She adds that they see a real potential to sell on campus and are really targeting the campus markets. There are a lot of small farms in the vicinity around the university and the students don’t want to compete with their markets. The campus dining service is now buying about 20 percent local. An additional goal of the program is to have the farm and Earth Foods work together in planning menus and deciding which vegetables to grow.

“The neat thing about this project,” said French, “is that it’s a closed loop. We’re 8 miles from campus, the food is grown by the students, it’s delivered to campus, and it’s prepared and eaten by students, staff and faculty. And, we’re in the process right now of working to make compost from the vegetable scraps there to grow more food.”

The students make some of the decisions as to which types of organic practices are incorporated in raising the vegetables.

Student Emily French planting garlic for next year.

“This group of students,” said Hazzard, “chose not to use soil amendments that were derived from livestock practices that they felt would not be supported by their market, namely the students who run the vegetarian cafe. We talked about using blood meal as a soil amendment, but blood meal comes out of the industrial livestock system so we don’t want to use that.”

Instead, the farm uses soybean meal as a source of fertilizer. Legume cover crops are also used as a source of nitrogen.

“The acreage that we use had three years of red clover growing on it,” Hazzard said. “And when we turned that under there was so much biomass from that legume crop. We’re having fun and learning a lot.”

Students are learning about what makes soil productive and how minerals are broken down; how important it is to overwinter the land with cover crops such as vetch, rye and oats to not only add nitrogen to the soil, but also preserve those nutrients and build organic matter.

The student farm at UMass provides an excellent hands-on teaching opportunity to those who value organically sustainable agriculture.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Farmer’s Cooperative in Manchester, Conn.