NORTH CENTRAL REGION
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|University of Minnesota students make a nearby farm their classroom, part of a new program to teach sustainable agriculture through practical experience. |
Photo by Craig Sheaffer.
When a couple raising organic produce in Minnesota's Twin Cities area wanted to try a new weed-control strategy, they turned to an unusual source: a University of Minnesota (UMN) graduate program offering agricultural students practical, on-farm experiences. A student spent a semester gathering information for the farmers on flame weeders, discerning what was available and evaluating optimum burn intensities for efficient weed control.
The project became an ideal partnership for the farmers, who were seeking low-cost support for a relatively new organic technology, and a student desiring a sustainable agriculture curriculum that went beyond traditional class-room fare.
With an eye on UMN's innovative graduate-level offerings in sustainable agriculture, a group of SARE- funded professors and education advocates in three states are trying to create a similar educational experience for undergraduates. While on-farm internships for college students are becoming fairly common across the nation, the group wants to expand beyond traditional field labor work.
A plan to create an undergraduate minor in sustainable ag that's heavy on the practical could become a unique offering in American universities. While UMN already offers an undergraduate sustainable ag minor, it centers on a mix of existing agricultural course work. Craig Sheaffer, a UMN agronomy professor who is leading the project, hopes to take it to a higher level, emulating the successful graduate-level curriculum that he and other educators say has lured students eager to get into the field and tackle real-life farming challenges.
"We want to put students in situations where they can learn from a whole new set of mentors," says Sheaffer, who is working with primary collaborators from Iowa State University, the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. "They'll have a diverse set of learning experiences where they may pick vegetables, they may milk cows or they may bale hay, but they would also interact with their hosts to learn about farm life or how a sustainable agriculture association works."
Sheaffer credits the project with allowing his group to redevelop and refine the sustainable agriculture programs in Minnesota, as well as across the region and even the nation.
"The sustainable ag minor at the graduate level certainly serves as an attractant -- it made us come out of the woodwork," says Steve Simmons, a UMN professor of agronomy and plant genetics and director of agronomy graduate studies. Simmons asserts that most, if not all, of his graduate agronomy students in the last two to three years have come because they want a good graduate minor in sustainable ag.
"It's probably the most important feature of our curriculum," he says. "It attracts students to a traditional discipline like agronomy, as well as students from liberal arts and other backgrounds who are not normally interested in agriculture."
The curriculum will be piloted at UMN, Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska. Fifteen students will undertake the course work, including six weeks of farm visits. If it is as successful as the project organizers hope, a full-fledged curriculum could be launched at the universities in 1998 or 1999.
The "experiential" learning concept expands on traditional university curricula that focuses on classroom research. Sending students into the field to work out problems in actual situations will give them a better flavor of the challenges involved in sustainable agriculture.
The Twin Cities-area produce farmers, for example, wanted to learn about flaming because they needed an organic weed-control practice. Traditional agriculture curricula advise students to apply synthetic herbicides to control weeds.
Before an experience on a farm or at an advocacy organization, student advisers would organize meetings between the student and potential host to set parameters for the work. The meetings would define in advance what the student and host could expect to gain.
Beyond the farm experience, the curriculum would include a seminar course that helps students reflect about and process their field work back in the classroom.
Project organizers polled producers and representatives from sustainable agriculture nonprofit organizations across the North Central Region to ascertain who might host students. They then held workshops across the region that focused on experiential learning and instructional approaches for both educators as well as potential hosts.
Sheaffer hopes the momentum will infuse college-level educators across the country with an enthusiasm for experiential learning. "Too often, students learn how to conduct research at a university, but when they go to apply it, it doesn't fit all the time," Sheaffer says. "By having a minor in sustainable ag, we're trying to enhance existing programs and broaden a student's perspective on agriculture -- and life." -- Valerie Berton
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|A publicity campaign to boost sales of local apples includes a 30-second TV spot. |
Photo courtesy of Mothers & Others For A Livable Planet.
Eight generations after the first Lyman began growing apples in 1741, the family has carved a small niche in the central Connecticut apple market.
That market share is tenuous, however, as orchard grower John Lyman faces competition his grandfather -- or even father -- never dreamed of. In prime New England apple season, local stores offer fruit shipped from New Zealand. Washington apples are trucked across the continent and marketed aggressively in stores, magazines and even the New York City subway.
While the Northeast region produces the nation's second largest apple crop, most stores stock out-of-state varieties. Few fruit-buyers think about the origin of the apples they buy, although they may later lament the disappearance of a farm down the road.
A SARE-funded educational project in New York and New England addresses that lack of understanding in the marketplace. Led by the New York City-based Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, the project encourages consumers to buy local apples produced in an environmentally sound manner. The project offers a new type of apple cleverly dubbed "Core Values-Northeast" -- fruit produced exclusively in the region using integrated pest management (IPM) strategies.
The Core Values campaign connects a pilot group of orchard growers with participating stores and offers information at the point of sale about IPM and the importance of buying locally. IPM features a variety of insect and disease control methods, such as encouraging the presence of beneficial insects or bacteria that prey on unwanted pests or scouting before spraying. Conventional growers often apply pesticides or spray according to a calendar, regardless of an actual pest outbreak. IPM also weighs the value of using a pesticide against potential crop loss.
Participating in the Core Values campaign "is our way of putting value onto our fresh product," says Lyman, one of the project's group of pilot growers. "If my family operation survives to a ninth generation and beyond, we have to find a way to sell more apples at a greater value. We have to capture the consumers who want to support growers who integrate their practices into the environment."
Mothers & Others, a national consumer education and advocacy organization, launched Core Values to stem the tide of disappearing farms in the Northeast. In 1994, New York and New England produced close to 32 million bushels of apples, second only to Washington. Project organizers want to strengthen the viability of the region's apple industry.
The New York metropolitan area obtains about three-quarters of its apples from outside the region. The intercontinental and transcontinental journeys of apples shipped from Washington or New Zealand require enormous amounts of fuel and contribute to poor air quality.
Project organizers want consumers to recognize local growers who voluntarily have reduced pesticides. IPM offers a middle ground between growing organically without synthetic pesticides and growing conventionally. The project involves a three-fold accreditation system to ensure growers raise fruit according to best management standards. Growers must submit a detailed farm plan and undergo an on-farm inspection. A five-member committee comprised of growers, IPM and apple experts, and a Mothers & Others consumer representative reviews each plan and inspection reports, then votes on whether to accredit the farm.
Project organizers hope the educational campaign will result in a dedicated group of buyers who might be willing to spend a little extra on Core Values apples to compensate farmers for that risk.
"What sets Core Values growers apart is gaining recognition from consumers that they use ecologically safe methods," says Francine Stephens, a Mothers & Others program associate. "By going into the stores with educational materials about IPM, the grower will ultimately benefit."
New Haven, VT., grower Jim Gallot tries to grow apples "with as little impact on the environment as possible." That's despite investing up to 18 months in each apple crop, a period when a single insect pest or disease could ruin an entire crop. Wholesale spraying of a pesticide could possibly eradicate the problem.
"Why, with all that risk would a sane person want to push the envelop of pest control?" Gallot asks. "Because it's the right thing to do."
Gallot likes the way Core Values does not prescribe a single set of IPM practices.
"The emphasis is on how you come to your decision," he says. The initiative "lets people know these apples are grown by someone with the same values."
In 1997, 21 growers completed a whole-farm plan to be on the list to supply Core Values apples. The plans specify how each grower will supply nutrients and combat pests using methods that minimize application of agri-chemicals. Close to 100 growers indicated interest in joining the project after the pilot portion concludes.
The year also saw the launching of a Mothers & Others educational campaign to introduce the idea of Core Values apples in the marketplace. In what Stephens describes as a "barnstorming tour," the organization sponsored a media blitz that featured visits to farms, restaurants and supermarkets from Vermont to New York. The tour garnered publicity in The New York Times and Vegetarian Times magazine, among other publications.
"Our ultimate goal is for consumers to recognize the logo and eventually ask for the Core Values apple," Stephens says. "New England farms are slowly disappearing, and we hope to build market support for local growers using IPM practices."
Project leaders will focus on schools in 1998, and hope to have public schools in several states buy Core Values apples and supply them to students.
Lyman, who describes himself as "very judicious" in how he uses chemicals, finds potential market expansion the most exciting thing to hit the industry since the negative publicity surrounding the Alar controversy in the late 1980s. Claims about the toxicity of the Alar pesticide prompted mothers across the country to stop buying apples.
"After being embroiled in food scares, anything we can do to address consumer concerns proactively is great," Lyman says. "We all work hard to produce a competitive grade. We also work hard to reduce pesticides, and we should get paid for that." -- Valerie Berton
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|Mary Peet's book on sustainable techniques to grow vegetables fills a niche in the South. |
Photo courtesy of NCSU.
Farmers in the South face challenges unique to growing in a climate that remains hot and moist most -- if not all -- of the year.