Natural Foods Merchandiser

Universities grow fresh crop of farmers

With the organic food and beverage industry predicted to continue its rapid growth, the number of jobs in the field is expected to explode relative to the number of people with the official know-how to do them, says John Reganold, a regents professor of soil science at Washington State University. To keep up with consumer trends, land-grant universities and colleges—both large and small—across the country are racing to offer more organic-specific courses.

The University of Florida offers an organic agriculture program, as do Iowa State University and the University of California-Santa Cruz. Smaller places like Evergreen State College in Washington, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and Cornell and Rutgers universities are also on board.

Students at Washington State University sell organic vegetables to more than 100 families for about 26 weeks each year while getting credit toward an organic-agriculture major, a four-year degree program in the Agricultural and Food Systems department.

At Colorado State University, students can also work on an organic farm to get credits toward a four-year interdisciplinary degree in organic agriculture. Michigan State University students can earn a certificate in organic farming through a 12-month course that includes working on the school's farm and selling crops to about 60 families. Any leftover produce gets sold to friends from a student-run farm stand on campus. The program, offered through MSU's Institute of Agricultural Technology, may expand soon to a four-year degree, says Jeremy Moghtader, the farm manager and organic farming principles and practices instructor.

"It's a real mix of people across age groups and interests," Moghtader says of the certificate program, which now has about 20 students after its official start last year. "Some of them have advanced degrees and are switching gears, or they own land and want to farm."

The rise in the number of organics-related courses and students has not yet been officially recorded. The U.S. Depart?ment of Agriculture and research and economic groups made about $12 million in grants available for organic research last year, though the USDA does not keep specific statistics about education.

"When I was looking in 2000 for this type of program, there weren't any, so it's something that's still in its infancy," Moghtader says.

However, more than 20 years of research on organics-related issues is available through other agriculture programs, Reganold says. "We've been ahead of the curve. We?re one of the leading universities doing research in organic agriculture that goes back to the late '70s."

The WSU program has about 10 students, but Reganold says he gets about five new queries per week from potential students. Reganold says companies frequently call him looking for graduates—but they don't exist yet. Just one student has earned the new degree by taking recommended courses before the major was approved and made into an official degree in June 2006.

"The universities are trying to catch up. Part of it is that when [the organics industry] got to 2.5 percent [of the total grocery business], these companies producing this organic food, whether they're growing or packaging or freezing it, they're now saying, ?Why aren't you universities giving us students who know about this?' " Reganold says.

At MSU, that means even the university is scrambling to find qualified candidates to staff the new certificate program. For example, program leaders want to hire an organic pest-management specialist, "and there just aren't that many faculty positions around the country tagged with the word ?organic' right now," Moghtader says. Most candidates have reams of sustainable-agriculture experience, however, "so that's great for us," he says.

That also means the sky might be the limit for universities with strong organic reputations that want to attract students, Reganold says. WSU did extensive research before creating the major, for example. "We have the research; let's have a teaching program and do the whole thing," he says. "It's fitting for us to have that."

Beth Potter is a writer in the Czech Republic.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 51

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