Taking Sustainable Ag Students on the Road

By: Krista Jacobsen, Assistant Professor, Department of Horticulture, University of Kentucky

Like many students in Sustainable Agriculture degree programs around the country, students in our Sustainable Agriculture Undergraduate Degree Program (SAG) at the University of Kentucky participate in a number of experiential learning activities in their time at UK. They apprentice on our university’s organic farm, intern at farms and community food-centered non-profits, and participate in education abroad courses. The final spring semester of the SAG program is marked by our Capstone course, a course focused on integration of sustainable agriculture principles by incorporating individual concepts learned throughout the program into a system that they are particularly interested in, be it their future farm, a project, or just a topic of interest.

The class (10-15 students) and their instructor, Dr. Mark Williams, essentially create the course syllabus together. The students discuss their career goals, interests, and identify concepts they would like to explore in a deeper way before they leave our program. Working with Mark, the students create a course schedule filled with weekly afternoon workshops around Central Kentucky, including visits to farms and community food non-profits, as well as skill-building workshops (see Capstone Workshop List below). However, with the broad interest of students in our program, there is only so much the students can see and do in an afternoon in their own backyard.

High tunnels at Crystal Organic Farm GA
In addition to the afternoon workshops, the students work with Mark and other supporting faculty across the UK College of Agriculture, Food, and the Environment to design a “Capstone Study Tour.” This Study Tour is a spring break trip focused on a particular region (Northeast, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic) and create an action-packed 5-6 day study tour where they explore everything from homesteading to urban agriculture, from rotational grazing to aquaponics.

This year the Capstone students headed south on a whirlwind tour of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. The Study Tour focus was “sustainable living and farming at different scales.” The group visited homesteaders, intentional communities with subsistence farms, upscale green developments, and all manners of farms. They visited with herbal medicine-makers, grist mill operators, permaculture devotees, high tunnel growers producing for major metropolitan markets, and pastured livestock producers. Each day included 3-5 tours, a little downtime (like trampoline jumping (!) or a walk around a new city), and an evening meal at a locally-owned or local foods-oriented restaurant.
2014 capstone Jubilee farms GA
“What surprised me about the capstone trip was the amount of diversity. Every place had a different view yet they were all honing one goal: to be more sustainable,” said graduating senior Erica Indiano. Erica was one student who became more focused on her future farming and career goals after the Study Tour. Her family is aspiring to buy land, but after seeing some sheep operations in Kentucky and North Carolina, Erica and her sister, a sustainable fashion major, are working on a business plan with their family to develop a “fiber CSA” and local fashion-focused farm.

The goal of the Capstone Study Tour is for students to see real-world folks making a living doing what the students aspire to do, to learn about their challenges and successes, and to process these learning experiences as a team with their faculty. The students reflect on these experiences in multiple ways, on van rides between stops, at dinner, and late night hotel room chats, as well as through a formal report capturing what they learned on the study tour.

After this year’s tour, several students have found apprenticeships that build on farming systems they were exposed to on the tour, including sheep farms, dairies, and permaculture-oriented farms. Other will continue their studies, or work for a few years while they save money to begin their own farming operations. For more information about the UK SAG program and to see some photo highlights from experiential learning activities in the program, visit the UK SAG website or email Mark Williams (mark.williams [at]uky.edu) or Krista Jacobsen (krista.jacobsen [at] uky.edu). See below for this year’s student-selected topics.

rotational grazing in blueberries jubilee farms GA

Student-Selected Topics for 2014 SAG Capstone Class

1.       Permaculture

2.       Carpentry for farm buildings and structures

3.       Homesteading/Self-sufficient living: creating closed systems, i.e. recycling farm wastes for fuel, building materials, etc.

4.       Foraging for wild edibles and medicinals

5.       Goats: Goat care and cheese making

6.       Planning and economics of starting a CSA

7.       How to care for egg chickens

8.       Nut production

9.       Added value products and other on-farm processing

10.   Farm-to-table

11.   Economics of starting a farm

12.   Livestock production, particularly integrated systems

13.   Cheese making

14.   Meat processing

15.   Agroforestry, alleycropping

16.   Agrotourism

17.   Edible landscapes

18.   Hemp production

19.   Mushroom production

20.   Intentional communities

21.   Electrical work

22.   Organic agriculture

23.   Season extension and tunnel production and construction

24.   Tillage and soil conservation

25.   Cover cropping

26.   Agro-energy

27.   Aquaponics