Rik Smith, assistant professor of agroecology at the University of Wyoming, with two students on the university’s student farm (Photograph courtesy The Sustainable Table)
My usual news searches for Buildings & Grounds in the past week turned up two related items about agriculture — one unsettling, the other hopeful.
First, in the frightening-and-depressing category, The New York Times carried an article about the underground seed vault established in the arctic by Norway, Great Britain, Australia, Germany, and the United States. The vault, which is built to withstand earthquakes and bomb blasts, is meant to preserve seeds of all kinds, from all over the world, so that agriculture — the foundation of civilization — may have a second chance in the event of worldwide catastrophe.
The second item was a short essay by Joe Holmes, a student at George Mason University. Mr. Holmes has gotten himself worked up about the environmental state of the world, and rightfully so.
“I was totally freaking out, worried about global warming and peak oil and overpopulation and species extinction and the coming water shortages and plagues and genetically modified organisms — you get the idea,” he writes. He plans to deal with his anxiety by starting a backyard garden, as a lesson in the basics of agriculture. “I’m treating it like my practice run — I want to learn the ways of the soil now, while it is not yet necessary for my survival to do so.”
The juxtaposition of the two items presents a question: Even if seeds survive climate change and mass extinction in a bomb-proof vault, will anyone remember how to cultivate them? It’s a safe bet that many Americans have never set foot on a working farm and have no clue how farmers coax the most common vegetables out of the ground. (I’m both amused and unnerved when my neighbors visit my garden, point to plain lettuce, and say, “What’s that?”)
Prior to World War II, there were almost 7 million farms in the United States. Today, according to government statistics, about 1.2 million people claim farming as their principal occupation, and the average age of those farmers is 55. About 73,000 farms, or 3 percent of the farms in the U.S., accounted for more than 60 perent of the market value of agricultural products sold. Varieties of food have been lost for the sake of efficiency: Everyone has had a Red Delicious or a Granny Smith apple, but who has tried a Mitsu, a Sierra Beauty, a Kidd’s Orange Red, a Calville Blanc D’Hiver, or a King of Tompkins?
With the attention that colleges are paying to local foods and to sustainability, perhaps more institutions should offer basic lessons in agricultural skills — as a way to make students familiar with an important American industry, if not to make farmers out of them. And amid recent worries that young people are disconnected from nature, why not let students carve out a corner of the campus to start a community garden or small farm?
In fact, a number of colleges have already tried this, and have established a marketable niche in the process. Warren Wilson College is particularly well known for its student-farm work. Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center — which, incidentally, recently earned a LEED platinum rating for its Rieth Village — runs an agroecology program meant to teach “the cultural and practical knowledge needed for a successful, post-fossil-fuel world.”
Indeed, teaching agriculture can mean teaching about the world. Modern agriculture touches on nearly all of the pressing environmental and social issues facing America today — in water, energy, immigration, biodiversity, public health, rural poverty, urban sprawl, climate change, and even religion and ethics. Does a biology student better understand how to clean up the nutrient-choked Chesapeake Bay if that student understands how farmers use, recycle, and discard nutrients on farms? Can an engineering student better comprehend the challenges of ethanol production if that student has seen how much nitrogen corn needs to grow? Does a history student make a small, sensual connection with the past if that student bites into an Esopus Spitzenberg, the now-rare, tough-skinned apple favored by the founding farmer Thomas Jefferson?
At the request of students, Richard D. (Rik) Smith, an assistant professor of agroecology at the University of Wyoming, helped establish a farm tended by young men and women in disciplines as diverse as agroecology, English, business, education, anthropology, zoology, and entomology. He says Wyoming is a challenging place to learn the rural arts, with a 90-day growing season, 11 inches of rain a year, and constant winds that blow away unprotected topsoil.
Nevertheless, last year the students sold just shy of $1,000 worth of produce at the Laramie Farmers Market and the local food co-op. Now they are planning to set up a greenhouse and a composting program that will recycle waste from the university’s food services.
Mr. Smith recently listed for The Chronicle the many things the students have learned in the process, like how to work within a university bureaucracy, write grant proposals, work in groups, plan a business, and market a product. “And, oh yeah, how to grow vegetables and all that entails, from soil fertility to pest management to planting and harvesting methods,” he said.
As a society, we seem to cycle back to agricultural roots when anxieties about modern living bubble up. The last time environmental issues and oil prices became major public concerns, society saw a back-to-the-land movement — in which many people moved out to the country and fell flat on their faces, in part because they had forgotten (or, rather, never learned) the basic skills of agricultural living.
Colleges deliver basic skills of all kinds. If higher education is really in the business of preserving and passing down knowledge, should agricultural knowledge be part of the mix? —Scott Carlson