College of Organic Farming

It's been 45 years since Earth Day 1970 which, in some circles, is seen as the birth of the modern organic growing movement.  Tell that to Sir Albert Howard who was doing some of his best work at the turn of the 19th century or Lady Eve Balfour who started her Haughley Experiment in 1939.  The fact of the matter is organic farming is what humans have been practicing for thousands of years before the advent of mechanization and chemical inputs.  Even with decades of study and development organic methods are still in their infancy.  I can only imagine the level of understanding we'll have in another 100 years.

There are a few colleges and universities that have jumped on board with the organic movement to offer degrees in organic agriculture.  It turns out the University of Florida in Gainesville, about an hours drive from me, has one of the best organic agriculture programs in the nation, if not the world.  I've been down there to take a look at some of the projects going on.  The bat houses are impressive.  Looks like a pair of short garages lifted 20 feet inn the air.  When the sun goes down, hundreds of thousands of bats come streaming out.  There's a pile of guano underneath which is several feet deep.  I'm one of those freaks that sees that heap and longs for it.

The UF program has a handful of staff members teaching the curriculum.  Looking at the course of instruction sees a general education for the first couple of years, with more focus on the organics later on.  It strikes me the degree would most benefit someone looking to get a job as an administrator for someone else's farm.  For someone looking to start their own farm, the tens of thousands of dollars spent on tuition, room and board, books and fees, would be better spent on getting the land.  I think it would be disappointing to invest 4 years in a degree which offers limited hands on experience and sets the student up to be an employee rather than self employed.

The statistics don't merely suggest we need more farmers, they scream it out.  The average age of a farmer in the US is well over 55.  The US has something like 2 Million farms, with around 30,000 of them certified organic.  The USDA recognizes the owner or operator as beng a farmer.  Everyone else is a farm worker.  Just to replace the old farmers, we need 200,000 new farmers each year.  If we don't get new farmers, those retiring farmers will have only the big companies to take over the farm.  Hence the need for college graduates.

We need to decentralize our food supply system.  We've got too many eggs in too few baskets.  The majority, 85%, of our food supply comes from less than 20% of these 2 millions farms.  Doing the math, 400,000 farm operations produce most of the food for most of the people.  This puts a huge amount of control into the hands of a few.  As we've seen with this year's Bird Flu, last year's egg recall, and the ground beef recall the year before, centralized production means a small problem creates a nationwide crisis.

To create new farms, we need new farmers.  They need practical experience in operating a farm.  Attending lectures by day and keg parties at night does not cut the mustard.  Following the policy manual of the corporation is not what I'm talking about.  We need a place where these wannabe farmers can go to immerse themselves in farming from sunup to sundown.  Instead of just studying the theory, get out there and put it to practice.  Work it, live it, be part of it, make it perform, and learn every aspect of operations along the way.

There are programs out there which make strides in the direction to which I'm alluding.  WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, has been around for quite a while.  A prospective farmer can take a position as an intern on a working farm and learn as they do.  There are plenty of high quality experiences to be had, and these interns often walk away with a better understanding of organic farming.  It's a fine program, and I've had some interns around here based on the idea: trading room and board for practical exposure.  

Internships have some shortcomings
-They are often short term-a summer project while the kids are on break from school.
-Sometimes there is a stipend or pay involved, but it's often not much, perhaps enough to take care of some personal expenses.
-The incentive to the farmer is free or cheap labor.  This opens the door to abuse, and it happens.  Fortunately, the kids can leave at will.
-The interns walk away with some level of experience, but it is limited to the projects and activities of that particular enterprise.
-There is no curriculum.  

Let's take it to the next level.  A farm designed to teach as well as generate income.  A farm with an array of production methods: raised beds, rows, SPIN, deep mulch, and BTE to name a few.  A farm with a diverse culture of plants and livestock:  flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit and nut trees, mushrooms, microgreens, along with creatures that quack, cluck, moo, squeel, and chirp.  A farm with a thorough marketing plan: Pick Your Own, farmers markets, wholesale, retail, CSA, direct delivery, farm stand, and a commercial kithcen to turn some of the product into value added goods to further drive sales and offer another dimension of learning.

I propose a College of Organic Farming.  A teaching and learning farm in which students can immerse themselves in all things organic and farming.  The curriculum would go beyond growing crops and raising livestock to include operating a business, setting up a company, securing credit, managing finances, developing new markets, taxes, agriculture law, management, resource allocation, customer service, employees and labor law, renewable energy and lab work to get deep into the science.  

There are vocational and technical colleges for welders and electricians, engineering colleges for architects and aerospace designers, art institutes for graphic design and the visual arts, music academies, and veterinary colleges.  For organic farming a formal education is focused on the student working for an employer.  For those who want to start and operate their own farming enterprise, the resources and education choices are few and far between.  

A traditional college derives revenue from student tuition.  The students have to come up with that tuition on their own, often with loans or side jobs that have little to do with their studies.   While studying physics I had a job flipping hamburgers.  The fry cook was studying to be a chiropractor.  Work-study was a job waiting for a phone to ring...mundane, but there was a few bucks in it.  The farm would generate income from the sales of goods produced.  There's your work study program right there.  

Normally, students pay their own room and board fees on top of tuition.  While having a staff prepare meals for hundreds of students relieves them of the chores so they can focus on study, in an organic farm college, food preparation would be a natural extension of the curriculum.  What's more, much of the food would be produced on site as a normal part of the routine.  Rather than rent a dorm room, students could build a tiny house, power it with the sun.  Not only does this reduce the cost of starting the college, the students get to keep their tiny house and learn some carpentry skills they'll later benefit from on their own farm.

Students have to come out of pocket for textbooks.  The price of some of these is insane...$100-$150 is not out of the realm, particularly as they get into higher level classes.  There have been instances in which the professor teaching a class would require his own book as the instructional material for the class, and put out a new edition after a couple of years.  Honestly, how many different ways can one explain Newton's Law of Gravity?   Good information on organic farming is available online websites, blogs, eLibraries, and forums with folks ready and willing to answer questions.  Printed books are available for reasonable cost.  Putting together a library would be a simple matter.  The organic farming industry is relatively new.  We'd be writing the textbook as we go.

The College would have some bills.  There is the cost of the land, structures and systems, tools and equipment, taxes, insurance, utilities, vehicles, maintenance, initial seed and livestock, and staff.  Coming up with the initial investment can be done in much the same way as the Cooperative Enterprise: Establish the farm as a for-profit enterprise, use the students as the sharecroppers.  Adding a financial incentive will go a long way to making this a reality.  The investors get a return on their investment, the students have a means of generating personal income as they learn.  A Land Company would have trained, competent graduates looking to start their own farm and may well have a downpayment to get started rather than years of students loans.