Category Archives: Sustainable Agriculture Education

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  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 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


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.

Meet our new Outreach Coordinator

Hello SAEA community!  I am excited to introduce an exciting new addition to the SAEA community, our new Outreach Coordinator, Sarah Lovett.  I have had the privilege of working with Sarah since 2010, in the planning of the 2011 SAEA National Conference here in Lexington, Kentucky, when we were fortunate enough to have Sarah serve as our Conference Coordinator.  Those of you who met Sarah at the Kentucky/Virginia Tech conference, or at subsequent national conferences, know that her organizational skills and “git ‘er dun” spirit will be a tremendous asset to our organization!

By way of brief introduction, Sarah has shared a bit of her background and bio:

“As a Paducah Kentucky native I grew up with a love for the outdoors and gardening. Those passions lead me to Lexington, Kentucky where I enrolled in the Sustainable Agriculture bachelor’s degree program at the University of Kentucky.  I was one of the 4 women who were the first graduates of the program in 2009. For the past five years I have been working full time as an extension associate for the UK College of Agriculture’s Department of Ag Economics. My focus is on Sustainable Agriculture through the State’s SARE program and KyFarmStart: Kentucky’s beginning farmer program funded through USDA BFRDP.

I worked with SAEA in 2010-2011 on the Kentucky/Virginia Tech co-hosted SAEA Conference. Since then I have worked with several of the members of the steering council on various other academic projects. I am so excited to be working with this organization again and help with the organizations outreach and membership efforts!”

As SAEA Outreach Coordinator, Sarah is tasked with helping our organization communicate with our membership.  We are at an exciting growth phase for the organization, finalizing a new organizational strategic plan, which includes developing a number of new ways to serve the teachers and students of sustainable agriculture.  We are very happy to have Sarah on board to steward these efforts, and on behalf of the Steering Council, wish to welcome her wholeheartedly to the SAEA!

Krista Jacobsen

Chair, SAEA Steering Council

University of Kentucky

Student Farms

P5090243Student Farms are found on an increasing number of college and university campuses in North America. At many schools the student farm is an essential component of students’ sustainable agriculture (SA) learning experience. At the Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture conferences at California in 2006 and New York in 2007, there was a great deal of interest, particularly among students, but also among staff, in the role of student farms in SA education. The diversity among student farms is impressive and arriving at a generally agreed upon definition of a student farm is not easy, nor do we propose a definition here. In this discussion we focus on facilities and programs of various sizes (making no distinction between ‘farms’ and ‘gardens’) that emphasize practical and experiential, student-centered learning in sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Typically, a student farm is a place where students get practical experience in sustainable agricultural production, marketing and management. It is also common for students to have their farming experiences broaden and deepen their knowledge and practice with food and issues of health, nutrition, and social equality. Some of these experiences are integral to formal courses, but, more commonly, they are not. Student led experimentation, including both formal and informal research, is also common on student farms. However, much of the importance and value of many student farms is related to some of their other features.

DSC_0236Students have initiated many student farms, and students are involved to various degrees in farm management and decision-making. Student farms have proven to be a vital place on campus where students have had the freedom to exercise self-directed learning, critically reflective thinking, and innovation. These innovations have at times contested traditional values, thinking, and practices, in terms of both agriculture and education. Often, student farms have played a historically significant role in introducing to their campus community the discourse of organic, ecological, low-input, and sustainable agriculture. Student farms today offer a sense of place and community for students (and faculty and staff) and provide a foundation for student efforts focused on larger issues and efforts, such as developing sustainable food systems on a campus, regional or larger scale.

While some student farms have existed for more than a 30 years, many are less than a decade old. Regardless of their age, however, most students, staff, and faculty associated with student farms have a strong connection with advancing sustainable agriculture educational efforts on their respective colleges and universities.

The continued interest in and development of student farms and SA education presents opportunities to ask questions regarding the goals of such efforts. These questions span from the pragmatic to the philosophical. Some questions aim at instrumental-technical issues, while others reflect on the underlying value and purpose of education. Through the SAEA conferences and venues like this website, we explore and begin to answer some of the questions surrounding student farms and their relationship to SA education. Please join us in both answering these questions and asking new ones.

IMG_0289Discussions at past SAEA conferences have focused on the following topics:

  1. What are the challenges and advantages of having the students run the farm in relation to the quality of their learning experience and the capacity of the operation?
  2. What is the student’s role? What if the pendulum shifts too far (paid staff do too much) and the students become lazy and their experience suffers. How can we maintain balance?
  3. How can students get as many experiences as they want with increased leadership opportunities?
  4. As a farm manager, are you a role model, a facilitator, or?
  5. How valuable is it is for students to see reality and to have a real experience, like operating a CSA?
  6. How do you balance the tension between competing with other farmers in terms of sales?
  7. How do you balance the tension between the responsibilities and labor of a working CSA and the time focused on education? Can too much stress on the making-money part of the CSA make students’ educational experience suffer?
  8. How can a CSA integrate the rest of the university in a way that is not available via other methods (e.g., the Dean, other professors have shares in the CSA)?
  9. What is the balance between the “formal” piece of the sustainable agriculture curriculum, and the “informal” piece, which is often the farm?
  10. To have animals on the farm, especially larger animals, how important is it to have a “professional” farm manager, from a consistency standpoint?
  11. How do you excite faculty and students to get involved?
  12. How do you evaluate and assess the roles and values of student farms – so you can show something to administration, etc.?
How do you use season extensions, since the growing season is often in the summer and students aren’t there?
  14. How do you best coordinate between staff and student management?
  15. How do you support student accountability and ownership?
  16. How do you foster a good work ethic amongst students?
  17. How do you maintain continuity of the program/farm?

By: Damian Parr & Mark Van Horn