Farm Fresh Perspectives: Options for students of sustainability

In spite of the risks, the financial obstacles and the discouraging words about which I have written in previous weeks, there are still a growing number of people who have dreams of moving out to the country and having a second career or a second life on the farm. However, these folks come with a wide variety of motivations and an even wider array of skills and competencies. Some come armed with a business plan, others with farm experience or advanced degrees in related fields, and still others have nothing more than a vague idea tied to an idealized aesthetic of rural life.

Fortunately, we also have a growing number of dedicated educational programs, like Illinois Farm Beginnings, that intend to help these dreamers become competent agricultural planners and, with any luck, successful growers and managers.

Yet, more and more folks are beginning to grapple with the dream of alternative, entrepreneurial farming even earlier in life, many while still in high school or college. Teachers, professors and administrators are wakening to the idea that traditional courses of study in conventional agribusiness and production agriculture may not be sufficient to meet the needs of these unconventional students. So, many institutions, especially colleges and universities, are endeavoring to meet this demand for programs and coursework that focus on agricultural entrepreneurship and sustainability.

I believe that the first “sustainable agriculture” major in the U.S. was established at the University of Maine in 1988. Today, actual sustainable agriculture majors are available in Maine, Pennsylvania, Vermont, North Carolina, Iowa, California and Washington. In fact, just this summer, Washington State University announced it would launch the first degree program in the country specifically in certified organic agriculture.

Related classes, concentrations, minors and degree programs have been established at scores of other schools. If you or someone you know is looking for established academic programs in alternative agriculture, I recommend you look two places.

First is the “Farming for Credit” section on the Rodale Institute’s Web site: There, you can find a regional listing of secondary schools in the U.S. and Canada that offer programs in sustainable, regenerative, organic and other types of progressive agriculture. It also provides a description of any farm associated with the program, including its size, the year it was established and the primary market outlet for crops produced there.

Second place to look is the Educational and Training Opportunities directory on the National Ag Library’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC), which can be found at: This listing is even more comprehensive in that it includes listings for institutions worldwide, contact information for point people within the program, and even goes far enough to include schools with sustainable agriculture content but less formalized programs.

Even if the local college or university does not offer a course of study that specifically calls itself a sustainable agriculture program, do not despair. My degree in natural resources and environmental sciences did not have a formalized sustainable agriculture component, but I was able to have a sustainability “specialization” and take a number of classes related to crops, fertility, agroecology and land ethics. I managed a large, student-run garden according to organic regulations, and taught about vegetable production. I did my best to shape the existing program to my interests.

Keep in mind that, more often than not, the knowledge and skills one could take away from a more traditional agriculture curriculum are directly applicable and extremely transferable to any alternative agriculture venture a person may seek to undertake. As a matter of fact, I would assume the vast majority of folks with alternative farms operating today did not go through any type of formalized “sustainable agriculture” curriculum. They were more likely to be trained in conventional animal sciences, agronomy, ag economics, horticulture or, perhaps, a separate field such as marketing, accounting or sociology.

So, it seems folks who would like to be students of alternative agriculture have more and more opportunities manifesting all the time at colleges and universities all over the country and the world, but just because one of those institutions does not happen to be in your back yard, do not fool yourself into believing there is no way you can get an education that is extremely relevant to whatever interest you may have in agricultural entrepreneurship and sustainability. And, when it comes right down to it, hands-on experience is likely to be just as valuable, if not more so, in agricultural professions than most of what you could take away from a classroom setting.

If you would be better suited to an internship or apprenticeship on an organic/regenerative/sustainable farm than an academic program, check out the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s directory of opportunities at

With all of the educational opportunities out there in sustainable agriculture, there is no excuse for anyone to jump into a new farm venture without first doing his or her homework.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the July 12-18, 2006, issue

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