By Doug Ottinger, Minnesota – Academia, I learned, is not all about laptops and college football games these days. In a few corners around the country, some of the best agriculture schools are training their students in the science of getting their hands dirty and making food.
Beyond the traditional college pillars and wood-paneled libraries, there are students who work every day under greenhouse skies along a path into agriculture. They are, like hundreds of their peers around the country, learning to build bridges between the science of agriculture and the ethics of natural resource management. And some are going a step further and focusing on food deserts, and how agriculture practices can help solve world hunger.
We have selected 10 schools that offer something traditional agriculture courses, while also sewing in curriculums related to sustainability and responsibility. In our list, we have included both public and private colleges, and of the 10 best agriculture schools selected, all were unique. So, to be clear, this is not a ranking. Just a list of best agriculture schools around the country.
All of the schools had to meet very high standards and actually deliver on their educational promises. All had gone above and beyond when it came to teaching methods of sustainable farming and stewardship of our fragile ecosystems. All had to be making positive contributions to real needs in our world. Some are members and grant recipients of the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education program (SARE), an act passed by Congress in 1988 to further sustainability in American agriculture, and others are not.
Here are the 10 best agriculture schools… all are outstanding.
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California State University at Chico (CSUC)
Visit www.csuchico.edu/ag, or mail 400 W. 1ST Ave., Chico, CA 95929. Call (530) 898-4636.
It was Sunday morning, June 19. The research had been done. With Chico State (CSUC) being one of the best agriculture schools, we knew that they had two programs we wanted to include in this article. However, Chico State is one of those larger schools, and faculty at larger schools can be managing hundreds of students, and often be difficult to contact.
Knowing this, I sent emails to two of the professors: Dr. Lee Altier, of the organic vegetable production unit, and Dr. Cynthia Daley, of Chico State’s certified organic dairy. I figured they might pick them up the next morning, possibly respond, and eventually we would make contact. Then I went outside to work on other projects.
When I came back inside the house, my wife told me that somebody from Chico State had called. She didn’t get to the phone in time. The call was very broken-up. I tried to listen to the voice mail, but it was not very clear.
Not expecting much, I checked my incoming emails. To my surprise, I had emails from not only one, but both of these faculty members! I was also surprised to learn that Dr. Altier had responded from Nepal, and was very interested in sharing information with us.
When Dr. Daley answered the phone, I could hear the sounds of dairy equipment humming in the background. She had just finished milking and changing the water at her own dairy.
The University Dairy, meanwhile, was being taken care of by Darby Heffner, the manager of the organic dairy unit. Chico State has a certified organic dairy consisting of 85 milking head of Jersey-cross cows and produces its own feed and fodder. Being at a research university, the dairy experiments with both open and closed fodder systems. The dairy also raises its own replacement heifers.
Those involved with the dairy realize that if it is to be an actual model for the rest of California agriculture, it has to be self-supporting and financially viable.
As Dr. Daley said, “We’ve been in ivory-towered academia for too long. If these programs are going to go mainstream, they have to be financially feasible. Otherwise, what is the point in doing them?”
Another of CSUC’s viable operations is an organic vegetable production unit, headed by Dr. Lee Altier. Again, the program has been designed to be financially sustainable, and usable as a model for other growers in the state. What really amazed me was the close working relationship that the organic dairy and the organic vegetable unit have with each other. Both of these instructors seem to realize the importance of the symbiotic relationships necessary, not only in the biological world, but in the business and interpersonal world as well.
One of the big pushes that CSUC is making is working on building soil health through organic and microbial means, instead of using synthetic chemicals. Faculty members at Chico State are realizing that something has to change in our current system. A number of them are working intensely in “carbon sequestering,” as well as developing agricultural methods that leave little, to nothing, in the way of carbon footprints. The university is already hosting seminars and workshops for growers in the state.
As Dr. Daley also pointed out, “Where we are with climate change, means we have to do something. These programs have to be real and be economically viable for the growers using them.”
If these programs can be used successfully in a large, commercial, high-cost and heavily regulated agricultural state like California, the reality is that they can probably be made to work, any other place in the world.
Visit www.sterlingcollege.edu, or write to them at Sterling College, PO Box 72, Craftsbury Common, VT 05827. Call (800) 648-3591.
Located in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, Sterling College is dedicated entirely to environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture. The school offers five majors, plus an option for a self-directed interdisciplinary major. These include Ecology, Environmental Humanities, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems and Outdoor Education.
As one of eight federally recognized work colleges in the United States, and the only one in the Northeast, all students at Sterling, regardless of financial aid or privilege, must work at least seven hours per week in some sort of campus industry. With a student-faculty ratio of 7:1, Sterling has one of the lowest and best ratios in the nation. The school is known for close faculty-student interaction and guidance which is why they are one of the best agriculture schools included in this list.
The learning curriculum is designed for maximum hands-on experience in the real world, as well as classroom knowledge and theory. Many of the cognate and general education classes give much more than basic knowledge; writing and speech classes teach students how to be persuasive and influential in presentations in real-life situations. When a student leaves Sterling, he or she not only has a sound education in environmental and sustainable agricultural issues, but is also prepared to be a leader.
Sean Poynter, class of 2016, had this to say about his experience at the school: “Sustainable agriculture is integrated into so much of what we do. Whether or not you study agriculture, or work on the farm, every student at least does farm chores, gets to know the animals, and sees how the farm functions. Everyone here has a hand in growing the food that we eat.”
Another student, Amyah Cazares said, “To me, sustainable agriculture means intentionally working hard for a world where animals, vegetables, and the soil are treated with dignity and respect. At Sterling, this plays out in soil tests, spending quality time with our animals, and continual planning made to improve our school farm.”
According to Christian Feuerstein, Director of Communications at the school, a full 20 percent of food served on campus comes from their own fields, and the school is working to significantly increase that amount. Seventy-five percent also comes from sustainable, humane and environmentally responsible sources.
This best agriculture school teaches students to work with, and care for draft animals, in the daily agricultural and environmental tasks. In fact, the school offers a minor in draft horse management. I made the remark to Ms. Feuerstein that it certainly appeared that the rubber really meets the road in the curriculum, to which she replied, “Or in our case, the hooves meet the turf!”
University of Hawaii—Hilo
Visit https://hilo.hawaii.edu/academics, or write to them at 200 W. Kawili St., Hilo, HI 96720-4091. Call (808) 932-7038.
Students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM), learn about tropical horticulture, with a heavy emphasis in organic and sustainable methods of production. Not only is it one of the best agriculture schools, it is also one of the most affordable sustainable agriculture schools.
At slightly more than $10,000 per academic year, it ranks as one of the best-priced schools in the nation. A low student-faculty ratio of 13:1 also means that students have the opportunity to connect more closely with the faculty during the education process.
And there, food is truly a local issue. According to Dr. Norman Arancon, associate professor at the Hilo Campus, 87 percent of all food and fuel consumed in Hawaii is imported. Not only is the lack of current local production in basic food supplies of grave concern to the state, but waste management on the islands is also of very real concern.
Because of these concerns, the University of Hawaii campus, at Hilo, is involved in intense, hands-on research in sustainable and organic food production methods. Dr. Arancon’s area of specialty is the handling and disposal of agricultural waste. An expert in vermiculture (earthworms), Dr. Arancon is a leading researcher in ways to convert waste into nutrient-rich compost that can be put directly back into the soils for crop production in the island chain.
Organic and sustainable production is a very large part of the campus’ horticulture and agriculture programs. Because of the climatic nature of tropical production, battling insect pests and plant disease without the use of sprays and toxic chemicals can be a very big challenge. Faculty at the school, including Dr. Arancon, realize that a long-term, sustainable, organic approach has many benefits over the short-term use of sprays and chemicals. Some of the methods currently in use include enclosed systems of production, as in greenhouses and screen houses. According to Dr. Arancon, one of the biggest secrets to successful organic production, however, is to develop stronger plants with better immune systems. Plants with healthier immune systems have an innate ability to resist disease and insect attacks much better. This is being done largely by the use of the organic fertilizers and composts that are produced from the organic breakdown of the waste products.
The Big Island, where the campus is located, has 10 distinct climatic zones, so the entire island is used as a laboratory for learning. Not only can students become knowledgeable and proficient in the basics of tropical production, they can become knowledgeable in farming and horticultural production in other climates.
University of Vermont
Visit asci.uvm.edu/cream, or write them at University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405. Call (802) 5656-3131.
Long known for being at the forefront of environmental stewardship, the state university is also a leader in areas of ecological farming and sustainable natural resource management. The Department of Plant and Soil Sciences has offered an undergraduate degree in Ecological Agriculture for well over 10 years, and the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences offers an outstanding number of courses and degrees.
One of the flagship offerings is the CREAM program: Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management. This is an eight-unit, hands-on agricultural curriculum in which small teams of students actively manage a dairy herd, and are responsible for all decisions and results, good or bad.
Amber Davis, a junior, who is majoring in animal science and pre-veterinary studies, is a participant. “I think it is the most valuable, hands-on program available,” Davis said. “It gives students an opportunity to be in charge and make actual decisions, that most students only get to learn about in the classroom.”
Amber, who grew up around animals on her grandfather’s New Hampshire farm, knew she wanted to spend a career working with animals. When she got ready to go to college, she and her mother looked at several programs, including another CREAM program in another state. After a thorough review, she chose Vermont’s program because of its unique opportunities and the school’s ties with graduate schools.
She told me, “Being in charge allows you to learn in a way that no other program would. We actually make the breeding decisions and have to decide what traits we want to enhance. For example, it may be udder conformation or hoof health. We also get to work directly with a veterinarian. We actually get to administer IVs, something many students don’t do until they get into a veterinary program.” Students also do all of the milking and day-to-day operations. They may be there any hour of the day or night for calving or veterinary emergencies.
Not all students who apply are accepted. Grades are only one of the selection criteria. There are four basic skills tests, and a skills test may require a student to show up at 3 a.m., ready, to do the milking, help with calving or finish other chores. The student does not need to know how to milk, for example, but they must show up prepared and be ready and willing to learn. The skills testing portrays real-life issues, that those in animal care may deal with, every day of the year. Being prepared, and showing initiative, is one of the biggest things that helps get students into the program.
The program currently has 15 students, but usually runs about 18. Another reason why they made our list of best agriculture schools is that all University of Vermont Veterinary School applicants who completed the CREAM program were accepted into the University’s Veterinary Science Program, a notoriously hard program in which to gain admittance.
University of Maine
Visit https://go.umaine.edu, or mail University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469. Call (207) 581-1865.
Having the longest-running accredited forestry program qualifies the University of Maine as a standout school. The University’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture, has a very impressive education program in sustainable agriculture and environmental horticulture. Both of these programs rely heavily on organics and natural soil building. The college donates an impressive amount of produce to local food banks, every year.
However, one thing that impressed us was the programs they offer in sustainable forest management. The school currently manages more than 13,00 acres of mixed North American forests, with some 6,200 acres being close-by University-owned land. Students in the forestry programs get weekly, year-round experience in all aspects of forest management. When students leave the school, they are well-qualified to enter into a fairly large number of environmental careers, including forestry.
University of Missouri
Visit https://cafnr.missouri.edu/academics/ or https://online.missouri.edu/degreeprograms/agroforestry/, or mail University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211. Call (573) 882-2121.
The University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources offers undergraduate degrees in various agriculture fields, including ones that emphasize sustainable agriculture. The standout offering from this fully accredited school is a master’s degree in Natural Resources, with an emphasis in agroforestry, a farming system that incorporates crop and livestock production with native plant and forest stewardship. The entire post-graduate degree can be completed online. For those who already have a four-year degree, but would like to continue learning, this best agriculture school offers a very appealing option.
Visit www.andrews.edu/cas or contact Associate Professor, Garth Woodruff, at email@example.com. Mail 8975 US-31, Berrien Springs, MI 49401. Call (269) 47107771.
Students from conservative backgrounds who are interested in sustainable agriculture and helping others may find Andrews University, in Michigan, a fitting choice. Besides degrees in horticulture and animal sciences, Andrews offers a degree in International Agricultural Development. Well known for sustainable, international agriculture development, Andrews’ policy is to respect the local cultures and use systems already in place. Organics and sustainability are integral to Andrews’ focus.
The department is also active in helping develop clean, non-polluted sources of drinking water. One fairly recent project was a sustainable farming and clean water project, for an orphanage or “Welcome Center” in Swaziland (“Welcome Center” is used because the term “orphanage” has a bad connotation in Swazi culture).
Andrews has many opportunities for students to actively work abroad and be a part of making a difference. One current project is agricultural development in Jordan. Native food crops that use less water are being located and reintroduced. At current rates of usage, Jordan could run out of water within 30 years. Andrews is working to help the country avoid potential disaster.
University of Kentucky
Visit www.uky.edu/hort. Professor Krista Jacobsen invites prospective students to contact her personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mail University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506. Call (859) 257-9000.
The University of Kentucky, Department of Horticulture, offers an impressive curriculum in sustainable growing practices. The department has a recurring, study-abroad program in Indonesia, where students can learn how small farms in Indonesia make a living. Just a few areas of learning are traditional rice production in Java, management of tropical forests in Sumatra, where the forest is left intact and coffee is grown in the under-canopy (often by women’s agricultural coops), and tea production in Bali. Students can then take this knowledge and apply it to their own experience.
The university has a large, certified organic farm at its Lexington Campus. Seniors also have the opportunity to work closely with a faculty adviser in their senior year’s capstone course in an area of their choice.
Visit www.unity.edu, or mail 90 Quaker Hill Rd., Unity, ME 04988. Call (207) 509-7100.
Hailing itself as “America’s Environmental College,” Unity College, in Unity, Maine, quite literally followed the old saying, “Put your money where your mouth is.” By unanimous decision of the board of regents in 2008, the school made the decision to divest entirely out of fossil fuels.
The College offers 16 impressive environmental majors, including sustainable agriculture. Students at Unity gain hands-on experience at the College’s McKay Farm, as well as the Unity College Barn. Both are living, working laboratories. The Farm embraces horticulture and soil sciences, while the Barn embraces hands-on education in the animal sciences.
With a student-faculty ratio of 11:1, students at Unity have the chance to work closely with their instructors. The school has not only impressive training in sustainable agriculture but a strong emphasis in environmental biology as well, which is why it made the list of best agriculture schools.
Michigan State University
Visit www.msuorganicfarm.org, or mail 220 Trwobridge Rd., East Lansing, MI 48824. Call (517) 355-1855.
We chose to include this educational program after it was spoken very highly about by other faculty from other states. The Organic Farmer Training Program is a nine-month, intensive education program that teaches the hands-on, actual operations of running your own small, organic horticulture-based operation.
The program normally has only 16 to 18 students, is a not-for-credit program, and designed to help those who want to enter directly into organic farming but need more experience and education before taking the full financial plunge. The cost is comparable to a year’s tuition at many state colleges, but a number of educators, from other colleges, say that the program can easily pay for itself by helping new farmers avoid a number of common mistakes and pitfalls.
Do you know of others to add to our list of best agriculture schools?
Doug Ottinger lives in northwest Minnesota with his wife, Connie. They raise chickens, ducks, and geese on their small hobby farm. Doug’s educational background is in agriculture, with an emphasis in poultry and avian genetics.
Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.