Discussing the Food Systems Minor at UC Berkeley

We are excited to share with SAEA members a new report called “Discussing the Food Systems Minor at UC Berkeley.” It shares perspectives on the Food Systems Minor from Dani Solis and Mackenzie Feldman (2 former student representatives for the Minor), as well as that of UCB lecturer and research associate Paul Rogé. Paul has been instrumental in developing experiential education initiatives on campus that put agroecology, food justice, and community-engaged food systems at the center. The team of coauthors hopes this report will be useful to curricular development at other institutions in CA and beyond.

“Thanks again to you and all the students that have passionately engaged in this innovative minor.” – Miguel A. Altieri, Professor Emeritus of Agroecology, UC Berkeley

Please check out the online version, as well as the PDF version (linked below), and feel free to share with your colleagues and friends.

Download PDF here.

SAEA develops new “Equity Statement”

Inspired by educators nationwide and internationally who are confronting race, class, gender, ethnic, and other social inequalities every day in their work, the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association has developed a new “Equity Statement.” In many ways long overdue, it reflects the principles and practices that we as an organization support, and the ways we will support our members in equity-enhancing work.

We would like to clarify that we consider this a living document. While this version has undergone peer review from Indigenous communities and educators inside and outside SAEA, we welcome any feedback you may have to strengthen the statement.

Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA) Equity Statement

The Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA) affirms, above all, that food systems sustainability requires the realization of equity and justice. It works to support the principles of equality, dignity, and fairness rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. We share these values with the Inter-Institutional Network for Food, Agriculture, and Sustainability (INFAS) network, whose Statement on Equity in the Food System many of our members helped compose. The INFAS statement recognizes the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability. It places an explicit focus on dismantling structural racism in food systems, and on challenging the multiple forms of oppression — class, race, gender, nationality, among others — that serve as interrelated barriers to equity.

As an organization whose mission is grounded in higher education, SAEA acknowledges and endorses teaching and learning as a vital means to overcoming systems of oppression. Principles and practices that SAEA promotes include:

Actively confronting racism and patriarchy in teaching, research, and the design of educational programs and institutions. We believe there is no such thing as passive anti-racism. Educators must be proactive in dismantling racism and patriarchy and its consequences for our agricultural and food systems. We also believe that educators must work to acknowledge the ever-present legacy of colonization, assimilation, and genocide of Indigenous nations; African-American slavery in building agrarian economies; and the exploitation of women (particularly, women of color) in growing food, feeding families, and sustaining labor across food systems.

Impressing that “sustainability” is not new, as Indigenous peoples have long described and practiced sustainable ways of living and being with the Earth, with one another, and across cultural, spiritual, and biological realms. SAEA affirms such traditions both for their intrinsic value and for what they can teach industrialized society about reviving non-individualistic norms, communal customs, and sharing of land, water, and seeds. As an organization, we stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, and promote critical pedagogy to expand understanding of the social, agro-ecological, and political-economic challenges Indigenous communities face. We also recognize, prima facie, the sovereignty of Indigenous and First Nation peoples over their lands and food systems.

De-centering western science and whiteness in the teaching, learning, and practice of sustainable agriculture and food systems education. Without diminishing the empirical and analytic traditions of western science, we de-center its primacy in order to make space for other perspectives and ways of knowing. This includes (but is not limited to) advancing pedagogical practices that explore the history and traditions of Indigenous peoples, creating courses and curricula that integrate de-colonizing food systems theory and practice, and developing conferences that intentionally bring together scientists/academics, farmers, farm- and food workers, and Indigenous peoples from the host location.

Encouraging dialogue and co-learning about values, ethics, and worldviews. Recognizing that human and non-human values are implicit in all conceptions of alternative food and agricultural systems, the SAEA endorses both formal and informal study of ethics and philosophy. These may run the gamut from studies of Western moral philosophy to traditional ecological knowledge, from engagements with the values of neoliberalism to those of heterodox economic thought. SAEA encourages the creation of courses and program curricula that spark students’ imaginations, engage them in systematic – and systemic – examination of values and decision-making related to food, agriculture, the environment, human rights, and the status of non-human life. We encourage faculty and university programs to train students to analyze and deliberate upon the relevance and applicability of a range of ethical positions to contemporary issues in food, agriculture and the environment.

Advancing equity in the structure, composition, and decision-making power of SAEA. We recognize that de-centering western science and whiteness/light-skinned privilege will require regular reassessment of our organization’s membership and leadership (that is, the steering committee). Specifically, we look to include educators representing people of color, youth, women, and economically disadvantaged communities in our membership and governance committees. We also strive for diversity in age, gender and sexuality (including LGBTQ), level of education, and geographical and cultural backgrounds. As representation is not just about demographics but about whose voice is heard, whose face is seen, and whose ideas are deemed legitimate. We strive for radical equity amongst those empowered to take action and make change within and through the SAEA organization.

Educating for radical equity. Recognizing different ways of being (ontology) as valid, and positioning diverse ways of knowing (epistemology) as legitimate requires patience, humility, and iteration over time. The process will not always be smooth and there are certain to be conflicts and contradictions, even among like-minded groups. We believe this learning process to be fundamental to SAEA’s mission, and are prepared to support this equity work in our own organization and at the member level through a wide variety of SAEA activities. These include (but are not limited to) our biannual conferences, our curriculum library, and our professional development workshops and webinars.

Finally, we recognize that equity work is itself a learning process, and we welcome ongoing feedback about where, how, and for whom we can support equity in food systems education.

Field Lesson:

Selena Ahmed, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems,
The Food and Health Lab, Montana State University

Integrating Research, Learning, and Community Engagement on Student Farms to Address Locally-Relevant Food System Challenges and Build Student Capacity 

As the need to reform the current dominant food system becomes more pressing, it becomes increasingly clear that we must train students with the capacity to lead societal transitions towards a more sustainable food system. Thinking about how we can best equip students to initiate and lead sustainability transitions in the food system points to the need to integrate research, learning, and community engagement. While faculty research has long contributed to advancing existing knowledge, theory, and practice, there is often a disconnect between faculty research and student learning. At the same time, there is often a disconnect between classroom learning and our surroundings including challenges in our communities.

Bridging education and research through farm-based authentic research modules in sustainability sciences (FARMS). Farm-based Authentic Research Modules in Sustainability Sciences (FARMS) present opportunities to bridge faculty research focused on identifying sustainability solutions with undergraduate learning through course-based primary research implemented at student university-based farms. Ultimately, this bridge seeks to build student capacity to lead sustainability transitions using an evidence-based approach. Note: This image was created using an open source stock image from Fotosearch. Source: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.239.f1

Farm-based Authentic Research Modules in Sustainability Sciences (FARMS) is an integrative experiential learning and primary research model for undergraduate sustainable agriculture and food systems education (SAFSE) that seeks to address the aforementioned disconnects while building student capacity to lead sustainability transitions. The FARMS model grew out of the Authentic Research Modules in Sciences (ARMS) model that I was trained on as a NSF Graduate Teaching Fellow in K-12 Education Program (NSF GK-12) at the City University of New York over a decade ago.

The ARMS pedagogical strategy was originally designed to facilitate graduate students to develop skills as educators while bringing primary research into the high school classroom and enhancing research resources for New York City public schools. The ARMS model attempted to overcome the cognitive and experiential gap between classroom learning content and students’ daily lives through place-based research projects in students’ neighborhoods on locally relevant topics to which students can more easily connect.

The FARMS model builds on the integrated experiential learning and primary research model of ARMS by offering hands-on, place-based, investigative opportunities on locally relevant food system topics designed to enable students to think and work like scientists. At the heart of the FARMS model are the following overall objectives: (1) to provide opportunities to apply SAFSE concepts in an agricultural setting, (2) to facilitate educators, students, and agricultural stakeholders to co-construct knowledge through identifying evidence-based sustainability solutions for food system challenges and, (3) to develop students’ research skills, critical thinking, collaborative ability, and motivation in leading sustainability transitions.

FARMS-based courses focus on locally-relevant agricultural research needs through stakeholder engagement. Specifically, community needs assessments are carried out during focus group workshops with local and regional agricultural producers to identify and prioritize food system challenges and opportunities to be addressed through research projects. FARMS are implemented at student university-based farms and serve to enhance the links between these learning spaces with academic departments through research and educational programming. The adoption of FARMS at student farms can help rationalize and improve support of these spaces.

I pilot-tested the FARMS model as part of an Ecological Agriculture course at Dartmouth College. My reflection of this experience demonstrated that this integrated teaching, research, and community engagement model fits the learning outcomes of a SAFSE Signature Pedagogy. It was an honor working with a group of students from this course to evaluate the implementation of FARMS and to disseminate this model for other educators to adapt through a publication in the New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems Forum in the journal Elementa.
Read the full article on FARMS titled “Building student capacity to lead sustainability transitions in the food system through farm-based authentic research modules in sustainability sciences (FARMS)

I am currently collaborating with faculty of the Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Program at Montana State University and the Open & Local Coalition of agricultural stakeholders to implement the FARMS model in southwest Montana. I look forward to sharing a field lesson or two from this experience!

Website: http://www.montana.edu/food-health-lab/

Instagram: @msufoodandhealthlab

Funding: Funding for the work was provided by: NSF RII Track-2 FEC OIA 1632810; NSF CNH BCS-1313775; Montana State University College of Education, Health and Human Development Seed Fund


  1. Ahmed, S.; Sclafani, A.; Aquino, E.; Kala, S.; Barias, L.; Eeg, J. 2017. Building Student Capacity to Lead Sustainability Transitions in the Food System through Farm-based Authentic Research Modules in Sustainability Sciences (FARMS). Elementa Science of the Anthropocene 5: 46 (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.239)
  2. Valley, W.; Wittman, H.; Jordan, N.; Ahmed, S.; Galt, R. 2017. An Emerging Signature Pedagogy for Sustainable Food Systems Education. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 1-14 (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742170517000199)
Dartmouth Organic Student Farm. The FARMS model was implemented at the Dartmouth Organic Farm of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The study site is located in USDA plant hardiness zone 5A. The production field is located on a flood plain adjacent to the Connecticut River with open grass fields in the immediate surroundings and nestled within a diverse temperate forest. The primary agroecological management practice of the organic-certified production field is annual crop rotation comprising of five botanical families. SOURCE: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.239.f2



SAEA Student Committee

SAEA Student Committee’s Recent Survey and
New Student-led Webinar Series

Lorien E. MacAuley
Doctoral Candidate; Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education; Virginia Tech

In late June, the Sustainable Agricultural Education Association Student Committee held a meeting with SAEA’s student membership, which pulled together a cadre of students to brainstorm pressing issues in sustainable agricultural education, our recent survey results, how SAEA might represent student interests, and generally “where our passions lie.” As one might imagine, interests of students are as broad as the topic of sustainable agriculture itself. However, we identified a few significant threads through which we might weave together several great opportunities for the students of SAEA.

Our recent survey of the SAEA student membership survey suggested some interesting tidbits about the students and their interests. Students in SAEA have a wide array of interests; the top five were: experiential/on-farm learning, career pathways, organic or sustainable production issues, social justice in the food system, and research methodologies (e.g., decolonizing methodologies). According to respondents, the most important things SAEA could do would be to share information/opportunities to members, promote development of innovative teaching and learning strategies, promote academic learning opportunities for members, and organize networking opportunities.

We found out that the majority of our student membership in SAEA consists of grad students, but that undergrads still represent a strong showing. Academic programs we represent are a diverse set, ranging from environmental studies, to agricultural education, to social sciences related to food systems, to community viability, to agronomy, and to biophysical sciences such as horticulture and entomology. White women represent a large proportion of our students. Income levels were mainly consistent with a grad student stipend (less than $25,000). Our findings have focused new energy around outreach to diverse audiences.

After thinking over our survey results and skill sets, the SAEA Student Committee made plans for a student-led webinar series to begin in the fall. We are in the midst of crafting a schedule that will involve topics on citizen science, small farm viability, on-farm apprenticeships, identity politics of alternative agrifood movements, structural racism in the food system, collaborative research, and others. In addition to being a learning and networking opportunity for SAEA members, the webinar series will give students a chance to share their area(s) of expertise, and receive feedback from others. All are welcome to join us for the below webinars:

  • October 31, 2017, 12pm EST: Devin Foote will speak on his Masters Thesis, completed in 2016 at Michigan State University, on assessing small farm viability and net farm income.
  • November 2017 [exact date/time TBA]: Lorien MacAuley will speak on her dissertation at recently defended at Virginia Tech, on on-farm apprenticeships, social justice and legal implications.

Stay tuned for more details on the SAEA Student Webinar Series! For more information on the SAEA Student Committee, please contact Lorien MacAuley at lorien@vt.edu.

Field Lessons from: Will Valley, SAEA Vice Chair

Embracing Uncertainty in Sustainable Agriculture
and Food Systems Education

We are becoming increasingly aware that contemporary sustainability issues are characterized by complexity and accelerating change. Our students, future professionals within the food system, are inheriting this context of uncertainty, in which they will be expected to deal with challenges that are categorically different than those of previous generations. If we recognize that the nature of these issues has changed, then we must reconsider how we educate future professionals to be able to embrace uncertainty and effectively address complex sustainability issues.

I believe that courses and programs in sustainable agriculture and food systems education (SAFSE) are at the forefront of developing curricula and educational experiences that create conditions in which students can learn to embrace uncertainty. A group of instructors from four SAFSE programs (University of Minnesota, UC Davis, University of Montana, and the University of British Columbia) conducted an analysis of SAFSE literature and the learning outcomes of their programs to better articulate key themes across the curricula1. The themes were then further analyzed through a signature pedagogy learning theory framework. A signature pedagogy is a common form of instruction and learning through which students develop competencies related to professional performance in a particular field or domain. There are three levels within the signature pedagogy framework: surface, deep, and implicit. The surface level describes the contexts in which students learn and the activities they perform. The deep level identifies the knowledge and know-how of the field; and the implicit level categorizes professional values and dispositions. The figure below illustrates the key elements of an emerging SASFE signature pedagogy; elements that are common across the four programs as well as programs described in the literature. 

What I consider significant about SAFSE programs is the way in which their design incorporates high levels of complexity into the learning process as compared to a traditional “lecture hall and lab” educational design. Students are embedded in multiple learning environments and are required to work on collective action projects with diverse stakeholders. Systems thinking competencies are developed to deal with the inherent messiness involved with food-related issues, where balance must be maintained (or restored) amongst interdependent and often competing components. Further, through critical reflection, students develop the ability to recognize the taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs that shape their worldview and the worldview of others, as well as historical and contemporary systems of inequities that permeate current food systems.

In short, SAFSE programs are ambitious, and perhaps excessively so! Yet if we truly believe that better food systems are possible – systems that are ecologically regenerative, economically viable, and socially just – we need to embrace the challenge of inviting complexity into our educational programs. We need to continue to assess, refine, and innovate our curricula and learning approaches to ensure our graduates are capable of dealing with uncertainty and addressing complexity in the food system. From developments reported in the literature and from experiences reported by individuals involved in SAEA, I’m confident that we are making positive gains in our educational programs, which I believe will contribute to positive gains in our food systems.

Steering Council Highlight

Jennifer Blesh: Member Representative

A member of the SAEA since it was founded, Jennifer Blesh is thrilled to be back on the SAEA Steering Council. When she was a graduate student, Jennifer attended the first conference on Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture Education in 2006 in Pacific Grove, CA. Following that conference, she was on the organizing committee that planned the 2nd National Conference on Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture Education at Cornell University, where the SAEA was launched as a professional organization. She served on the SAEA Steering Council from August 2010 to January 2012.

Currently, Jennifer is an Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Michigan (UM), in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Her research integrates ecology and social science focusing on two main themes. The first investigates how to manage plant diversity and ecological interactions in agricultural systems to increase soil carbon storage, bolster internal nutrient cycling capacity, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture. Her complementary social science research seeks to identify processes that can leverage farm-level transitions to ecological nutrient management, and food systems transformations that conserve natural resources and enhance social equity. Her research takes place on working farms whenever possible—primarily in the U.S. Midwest and in Brazil. She is also collaborating with colleagues in UM’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative (SFSI) on projects exploring links between smallholder production systems, dietary diversity, and human health.

In part due to networking opportunities with the SAEA, Jennifer incorporates many active learning methods into her courses at UM including field trips, games, case studies, debates, and clickers for larger lecture courses. She has co-developed an interdisciplinary Foundations of Sustainable Food Systems course with colleagues in Urban and Regional Planning and the Department of Nutritional Sciences. The class integrates theory and practice through collaborative instruction, and experiential and dialogue-based learning. A new community-academic partnership course that Jennifer is co-facilitating this winter with a community leader from Detroit may be of interest to SAEA members. Called “Food Literacy for All,” the course is structured as a seminar series highlighting high-profile practitioners from across the food system. Together with collaborators, she has developed innovative partnerships to engage community members from Detroit and Ann Arbor in the series, and is using livestreaming and videotaping to extend participation and the reach of the course. The schedule can be found online[1], and video recordings of each talk will be posted by the UM SFSI on YouTube.

Put simply, Jennifer is strongly committed to improving sustainable agriculture and food systems pedagogy. The SAEA has been a tremendous resource for her professional development, and she is eager to contribute to advancing the important goals of this organization.

[1] https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/sustainablefoodsystems/foodliteracyforall/


Follow up from Joanna Ory’s presentation at the 2016 SAEA Conference

During the 2016 Sustainable Agriculture Education Association Conference, I presented preliminary findings from the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) report, 2016 National Organic Research Agenda (available on our website at ofrf.org).  As a researcher at OFRF and an educator at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I was thrilled to share our findings about the research organic farmers need to maintain or start environmentally and economically sustainable operations.

The full report was published last week, and presents recommendations for future organic agricultural research. These recommendations are based on our 2015 survey of organic farmers, nationwide listening sessions with organic farmers, and a review of key documents and recommendations from other organizations. Through our survey and listening sessions, we received input from well over 1,000 organic farmers and ranchers. Our effort to have their needs paramount in the future of research led us to identify the following top priorities for intensified research and education:

  • Soil health and fertility management
  • Weed management
  • Nutritional benefits of organic food
  • Insect management
  • Disease management

The priority areas listed above are areas that require greater attention nationwide. In addition to these top priorities, OFRF recommends research on agricultural biodiversity, GMO impacts and avoidance, livestock health, climate change adaptation, organic breeding of plants and animals, and social science on marketing and policy regarding organic production and transition. The report also identified region specific priorities for research and outreach based on top challenges. For example, the issue of water use and irrigation efficiency is a top priority in the Western region, whereas GMO impacts and avoidance is a major priority in the North Central region.

This report highlights the need for educators and researchers to work together with farmers to find solutions to the most challenging agricultural problems. I hope the report will be of value to members of the SAEA network. Please contact me with any questions or to discuss the report at joanna@ofrf.org. If you would like a printed version of this report for teaching and research activities, please send me an email.

Joanna Ory, PhD
Organic Farming Research Foundation


Field Lessons from: Leelanau Conservancy

Our agricultural landscape is in a time of transition. The average age of established farmers in the United States is 58, and in the next 20 years, 70 percent of privately held agricultural land is going to change hands. The vast majority of farmers, though, don’t have an exit strategy or knowledge of how to develop one as they work towards transitioning out of ownership of their farm property and business. What’s more, land is vulnerable when it changes hands. Property absent an estate or succession plan is liable to be subdivided and developed or sold to a non-farmer. An estate plan determines what will happen to property following a landowner’s death, while a succession plan determines the fate of property during the lifetime of a landowner as they transition out of ownership. We’re left to ask, then, given this impending transition and dearth of long term plans, ‘What’ll happen to all of this land?’

I work as the Farm Programs Manager for the Leelanau Conservancy in Leland, Michigan. The Leelanau Conservancy is a land trust that serves Leelanau County, a small peninsula in the northwestern quarter of Michigan’s lower peninsula. We’re a county of kettle holes and drumlins towards the tip of Michigan’s fruit belt. Cherries are the predominant fruit cultivated here alongside applies, grapes, and a variety of other stone fruits. The county is also a prime example of a landscape in transition, and as someone who interacts with farmers across the county on a regular basis, I’ve found that generational land transfer is a topic at the forefront of the minds of many farmers in our service area.

The focus of my work at the Conservancy is to permanently protect the county’s agricultural land with conservation easements. We’ve come to recognize, though, that conservation easements are not the only tool that we can, or should, rely on to protect our county’s working lands during this time of transition. It’s for this reason that we’re exploring what we can do to encourage and support farmers as they look to prepare succession and estate plans. Educating myself was the first step. I knew next to nothing about long term planning several months ago, but I’m making progress, though still in the nascent stages of my own learning. I’ve spoken with farmers across the county, Michigan State University Extension Agents, and professionals including attorneys, Certified Public Accountants, and financial planners. I’ve read countless articles, brochures, and conference pamphlets about succession and estate planning. What I’ve learned is that these plans take myriad shapes, are unique to each family, and certainly don’t adhere to a timeline. Plans are expensive to make – due to the high cost of services – and many families are hesitant to even start planning because “What’s gonna happen to the farm?” is a fraught question. Moreover, once a family starts the planning process, it is not uncommon for things to move forward in fits and starts, and take many years to complete. Finally, I found that many families simply don’t even know where to begin.

The Conservancy wants to encourage farmers in our service area to take steps towards making long term plans. As a conservation organization, we see a need to not only protect the land, but to also protect the viability of our agricultural community. In the immediate future, I’ll continue to educate myself while working to create opportunities for members of my community to educate themselves on the planning process. In the coming year at the Conservancy, we hope to introduce a pilot program that will provide conditional cost-sharing to cover fees incurred during the planning process to participating farmers with the hopes that a financial subsidy will catalyze some families to take action on their succession and estate plans. We want to do our part to help keep working farmers and their families on the land. As the lionized American Farmland Trust bumper sticker reads, “It’s not farmland without farmers.”

Sam Plotkin- Farm Programs Manager, SAEA Student Representative on Steering Council

Field Lessons from: Keep Growing Detroit

Across the nation and around the world farming and gardening is growing to be a part of the landscape in many urban centers. In Detroit alone there is a community of more than 1,400 gardens and farms that grow food for sustenance, community and generating income.

As Urban Agriculture Education Coordinator at the non-profit Keep Growing Detroit my job is to support growers in deepening their skills. Beginners to become novices, novices to become experienced and experienced to become advanced. As part of this trajectory we create programming to support the needs of urban farmers. In order to compete in the market and have a successful enterprise urban farmers must engage in intensive methods of growing. This necessitates tools such as hoophouses to expand opportunities to cultivate throughout the season. Using season extension tools and techniques requires a paradigm shift for those accustomed to the ‘standard’ growing season. What crops to grow when, what structure makes sense for the project, how to build and maintain hoophouses all are challenges growers face.

In response to this need in collaboration with Ten Hens Farm and the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council, Keep Growing Detroit has facilitated a Seasonal Hightunnel Education Initiative for the past 2 seasons. This series of 7 sessions: drop-in classes, workdays and tours is designed to provide resources for growers looking to extend their growing season. Sessions are drop in and scheduled monthly at one of the 20+ sites that have thriving hoophouse projects in the city. This year topics included:

  • Season Extension Intensive Crop Planning: A discussion of year round growing potential, examples of a variety of options of what is in the tunnel throughout the year and a crop planning activity to stimulate students to engage with the this ‘different’ way of thinking about crop planning.
  • Anatomy of a Hoophouse: There are many hoophouse suppliers and season extension structures (i.e. quickhoops, catapillar tunnels) out there and all having some standard features and each having some unique ones. This session was designed to give the rundown of costs, features, shapes and sizes of all types of season extension structures to assist growers in making educated decisions of what type of structures make sense for their site.
  • Marketing, Pricing, Choosing Crops that are Winners-From last years program we received feedback that hearing from experienced hoophouse growers was very helpful. We invited a handful of panelists from the region and a chef that focuses on local produce to answer questions about their projects.
  • Managing a Fruitful Hoophouse: The focus of this session was to discuss the day to day and on going maintenance for season extension structures. Participants toured a hoophouse and learned methods of hooking up drip irrigation systems, and trellising crops in a hoophouse.
  • Season Extension Fundamentals:This session was designed as an introduction for gardeners and farmers who are unfamiliar with season extension. We reviewed the limiting factors of plant development in ‘off’ growing seasons (light and heat) and methods to use protective structures and crop selection to be able to harvest crops year round.
  • Hoophouse Farm Tour- At farm tours we visited sites that have been growing in season extension structures for a number of seasons. Similar to the panel discussion, tours serve as inspiration to growers just getting started and a chance for experienced growers to talk with peers.
  • 2 Hands-on Educational Hoophouse Builds:Educational builds were designed to give participants hands-on experience with every step in the process. Often instruction manuals that come with these structures are incomplete and difficult to understand. Though each vendors structures are unique there are standard features and building protocal for many steps of the process. Building a structure also is a great ‘barn raising’ community building project.

Classes were structured to address different learning styles with a variety of ways of engaging with the information including: lecture, discussion, question and answer, reading materials, demonstration, hands-on and practical examples. From feedback from last years sessions we learned that participants really appreciated learning from other experienced growers, that hosting at successful sites encourages participants to try new practices and having resources such as crop variety and example planting schedules were useful. Participants also expressed appreciation for the class space to be an environment for them to connect with peers. We see this as a great set of classes that compliments Keep Growing Detroit’s other offerings for beginning farmers.

Kido Pielack- Education Coordinator, Keep Growing Detroit

Teaching Tips and Highlights

Teaching Tips from: Julie Cotton- Michigan State’s SAFS Program

Sustainable agriculture and food systems programs throughout the nation tend to share the pedagogy of experiential learning. The unique approaches that each program takes often reflect the activities of the burgeoning sustainable agriculture movement in their region, or the expertise at their institution.

Here at Michigan State University, we built our Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems undergraduate program to create active learners across many disciplines that contribute to the food system. We recognize that building a sustainable food system is going to take more than just growing food more sustainably – a diverse network of professionals that can reflect sustainability principles thought the value chain and shared goal of a healthy food system for all. At any time, we have up to 17 majors in the undergraduate program, which is both challenging and stimulating.

As a primary instructor for the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems minor, I have the challenging but exciting task of building projects that engage students in meaningful work that can also contribute to their chosen career path. To this end, we have built a capstone course that provides diverse small groups of students a meaningful project opportunity to complete with a community partner.

We identify community partners that have the capacity to host groups and can define a project that engages students in meaningful learning experiences. The process allows us to create generative projects that both provide meaningful professional experience for our students and a useful end product for our partners. Beyond the “hard skills” that the students learn to complete their work, they also learn a multitude of “soft skills” that are so important in post-graduate success. Our partners come from both in and outside the university, and the process of engagement respects the time and needs of both students and partners.

Our four field projects this year help demonstrate how we design and structure these opportunities – and I’ve provided some of the insights they provided to our students (and instructors).

1) The Allen Market Place (AMP), a newly founded food hub project in the sister city of Lansing, serves a neighborhood that has been under-served in healthy food availability. AMP wanted to identify additional retail opportunities in the area. These students mapped potential small private food retail operations, and visited with several store owners to gauge interests and constraints in purchasing local produce.

These students learned about the retail and post-harvest distribution systems, as well as the retail possibilities in urban settings – like ethnic stores looking for specialty items – that can help inform growers. They were also challenged to “cold call”, interview and scout with a particular business end in mind. I watched as students were empowered by knowing that they can be seen as professionals, and learn how to prepare the “elevator pitch” that can help any professional share their story.


2) The Food Day group worked on-campus to through a Food Day event in coordination with the Real Food Challenge. Last year, the project group surveyed at cafeterias and found that MSU students wanted to see more local Michigan food on campus. With a growing fresh apple market, new distributor opportunities, and a commitment to buy more Michigan apples, the MSU campus was a great target for a small change that could make a big difference – getting local apples year-round in all retail and cafeteria spaces on campus.

These students followed their event that showcased Michigan apples with information gathering on production, distribution, constraints and barriers to purchases of Michigan Apples. They talked to producer groups, individual farmers and local food procurement to encourage the campus to take the next step and get local apples year-round by trying new varieties and taking advantage of emerging regional distributors.


3) With new federal food safety guidelines in the works, many farmers are apprehensive and concerned about the impact that these new laws will have on their farms. Luckily, we have savvy and pro-active Conservation District outreach specialists in Michigan that help farmers meet a key factor – water quality standards – through the free and confidential Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).

This group worked with the outreach specialist Jen Silveri to design new marketing materials that would inform farmers of the services available, and encourage them to take advantage of the free services in preparation for the upcoming new regulations. From simplifying policy messages, to finding appropriate media modes to reach farmers, these students gained insight and respect for the complexities of farming and those that serve farmers.


4) Our forth project took created a visual tool to help farmers look at the optimal nitrogen application rates for their fields, as well as the environmental consequences of nitrogen application at different rates. They had the expertise of a postdoc at MSU Kellogg Biological Station, where our Long Term Ecological Research site on agriculture is housed, to help inform their efforts.

Several years of data collection and other studies have suggested optimal nitrogen application rates for particular areas of the state, and other research has provided some evidence of the atmospheric and water impacts of different types of nitrogen application. These students compiled evidence and build a simple model that allows farmers to see the outcomes of nitrogen application at various rates in a simplified chart form, which can help them optimize their choice of inputs and yield, while balancing their environmental impacts.

Obviously, this class doesn’t aim to have all students graduate with the same skill set, but to provide tangible experience which empowers students to trust their own ability to affect change by applying their expertise, and to be able to dialogue and incorporate knowledge from other areas of expertise. From utilizing social media to building social networks, from solving difficult equations to overcoming distribution chain issues, these students show that they all have what it takes to make our food system more sustainable.