Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sustainable Agriculture: At UMD's Institute of Applied Agriculture

Walk around any college campus in autumn, and you’ll see sidewalks illustrated with neon, chalk‐written invites to rush sororities and attend student government rallies‐‐but if you want the real news on the University of Maryland, College Park campus, you’ve got to look up as well. Up to the roof‐top community gardens, that is.

Fruits, veggies and herbs are growing as strong on the top of the campus diner as they are in the Greenhouse. Soil nurtured by student volunteers this summer produced more than just delicious heirlooms and a sense of community scarce in modern society. It produced a group of students interested in sustainability.

The Institute of Applied Agriculture (IAA), in the college of Agriculture and Natural Resources, partnered up with the Accokeek Foundation to create a program designed specifically for Sustainable Agriculture that officially began this fall semester.

Brian Hughes, a University of Maryland graduate in Landscape Architecture with nearly 20 years farming experience, teaches the new course required for the major but open to allstudents: Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture. Interest in the course this fall was sogreat that students found themselves waitlisted.

Wednesday nights, earth‐conscious students pile into a small classroom in Jull Hall to learn how to integrate sustainable conservation practices into their respective courses of study and perhaps most importantly: their own farms and gardens. The class met on Hughes’ organic CSA Shaw Farm in Columbia, Maryland once this semester already. Seeing the health of carefully nurtured soil on a bio‐diverse farm enhances students’ understanding of soil health, compost practices, and the rich atmosphere of community supported agriculture.

“I’m excited to be at the beginning of a shift like this,” Hughes said while waiting for students to arrive on the farm. “I feel like the university needs to catch up with the students on this creeping awareness. Interest in sustainable and organic agriculture used to be the fringe but it’s becoming common now.”

The enthusiasm and activism of students interested in this resurgence of community‐supported, sustainable agriculture is contagious. Class discussions allow for spirited and constructive debates between students from varied backgrounds and courses of study. Many have spent summers working on organic farms while others come with a strong background in economic and environmental policy. A handful have grown up on or worked on conventional farms and offer a grounded perspective for the fundamentalist organics. Hughes encourages cutting‐edge Urban Farming and Aquaculture majors to share their perspectives and concerns about farm run‐off and the importance of small, local farming ventures. Several students have even begun a small, honor‐based book exchange in the computer lab of the IAA’s main building, Jull Hall, to which local author and conservationist Ned Tillman has agreed to gift copies of his award‐winning book The Chesapeake Watershed: A Sense of Place and a Call to Action.

On top of regular coursework, the unique certificate program allows students to spend six months in a full‐time cooperative position with local farms and organizations to plan, plant, cultivate, harvest and market various products. Upon graduation, students will have the tools to start or manage sustainable agricultural operations or seek employment at established operations, parks, schools and organizations focused on natural resource management and advocacy.

IAA Director, Glori Hyman, hopes that the new Sustainable Agriculture Program will provide a growth area within the Agricultural Business Management Program, which has been stagnant for the past decade. A partnership with the Accokeek Foundation will help place students in co‐ops and internships catered to their specific area of interest.

“Two years ago we met with the Accokeek Foundation and began working on a plan to jointly offer education and training in sustainable agriculture,” Glori explained. “Matt Mulder, the Director of the Center for Agricultural and Environmental Stewardship at the Accokeek Foundation, helped us design the curriculum and the Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture course.”

“This type of educational opportunity in sustainable agriculture has not been available in the Mid‐Atlantic region,” Mulder adds. “Until now, those interested in this style of learning have needed to leave the area to get the educational component or they have had to cobble together information from various programs. The consolidation of information will prove invaluable to farmers whoa re just beginning their careers or those who are looking for ways to enhance their existing operations.”

Established in 1957 to protect the view from Mount Vernon across the Potomac River, the Accokeek Foundation became one of the nation’s first land trusts. The educational nonprofit stewards 200 acres of Piscataway National Park where visitors can hike trails to the wetlands, walk through a native tree arboretum, visit an outdoor living history museum, and observe an award‐winning forest restoration project.

IAA Horticulture graduate Carin Celebuski is currently enrolled in the Sustainable Agriculture course and interned at Accokeek’s Eco‐System Farm last year. “The Integrated Pest Management practices there are remarkable,” reported Celebuski. “Conservation strips and proper irrigation make a huge difference as far as energy consumption and pesticide use.”

The eight‐acre USDA‐certified organic vegetable farm is a model for farming in the future. Its aim is to achieve optimal production per square foot, as opposed to maximum yield per acre.

For now, the IAA’s aim is to pull all these conservationist components together to provide an educational resource for the progressive agriculture student.
*Note: For mor information about the program, which yours truly is currently enrolled in, check out the IAA website.

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