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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Amidst Hotbed of Organic Ag, UMass Amherst Provides Students Foundation for Success in Sustainable Food & Farming

March 2, 2012 |

Even though it is hardly the breadbasket of America, New England has become a hotspot for sustainable agriculture. “We don’t talk about organic farming here, we just assume that the farm’s organic,” says professor John Gerber, chuckling slightly. “The culture is shifting and students are responding to it.”

Gerber’s sustainable food and farming students have been the driving force behind a steady expansion of sustainable agriculture programming at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As program advisor, Gerber says that he has seen a tremendous uptick in interest in agriculture over the past five years, with the number of majors increasing ten-fold, from five to 50.

Sustainable food and farming has been offered as a concentration for agriculture students for the past 10 years. Coursework includes baseline science courses in biology, chemistry, botany, soil science as well as food and land policy, crop production, pest management. Advanced courses are offered in plant pathology, plant disease management, plant nutrition, post harvest physiology, and soil fertility. Starting next fall, this concentration in sustainable food farming will be elevated to a major.

However, the student-designed projects make the UMass, Amherst program unique, says Gerber. He challenges his students to think big and has found a big payoff in supporting their efforts to realize their ideas.

Student Farm Enterprise

Five years ago, a couple of Gerber’s students decided they wanted to start a farm and market the produce to a student-run vegan café. What began as a small plot of kale in South Deerfield has grown into a working farm with a variety of crops that operates as both a student laboratory and a viable business. A dozen students each year participate in a yearlong course called student-farming enterprise. Students spend the spring semester planning, the summer months growing, and the fall semester selling their produce. The farm still supplies the vegan café as well as a 50 member CSA and a weekly farm stand. This year, students are planning to expand the farm to a three-acre wholesale operation that will also supply squash and potatoes to the dining hall.

Permaculture Initiative

A few years back, as he tells it, Gerber assigned a class to come up with a team project that would change the world. One submitted a plan for a student-run, permaculture garden right on campus that could supply food to the dining halls. Three years later, that garden is a reality in the form of a quarter acre garden right in front of the dining hall. “We have 25,000 students here and very few of them actually have any idea where their food comes from. Putting a garden on their walking path kind of reminds them that food comes from the land.” Gerber attributes increased interest in permaculture courses to this new exposure to the food supply. Today, the UMass Permaculture Initiative tackles lawns across campus, replacing them with permaculture landscapes.

A Springboard

The sustainable food and farming program provides students with a foundation necessary for a career in farming, non-profit advocacy, food policy, and agricultural education. The student-run farm and permaculture programs provide students with the opportunity to experience real world challenges of managing a business.

The long-term benefits of these programs carries beyond the program participants.

While the sustainable food and farming program remains small, projects like the farmer’s market, and permaculture initiative have helped to amplify its presence on campus. This Earth Day, the student farm plans to hold a benefit concert to support their expansion. “We’re seeing a whole sea change of awareness around sustainability, both at the administrative level and among the students,” says Gerber. 

Moving Forward

In anticipation of growing interest in sustainable agriculture throughout the university, UMass has initiated planning for an Agricultural Learning Center, an on-campus demonstration site providing windows into where food comes from. Planning has just begun and it will likely take several years for the center to be realized. Eventually, it will include permaculture, gardening, and livestock management programs.

Research and Initiatives at UMass, Amherst

Winter Harvest- Although the New England growing season appears to be lengthening, cold winters make it difficult to supply fresh produce year round. The UMass Extension Vegetable Program has partnered with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, and Seacoast Eat Local to address an increased demand to extend crop production, increase overwintering success rates, and improve storage efficacy.

Deep Zone Tillage- Soil degradation, erosion, and water quality can all be effected by tillage systems. Researchers at UMass Amherst have undertaken a three-year project to compare reduced and modified tillage systems.

eIPM Project- This three-year project, funded by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture represents a collaboration with local growers to explore integrated pest management techniques. Some tactics up for exploration are using weather forecasting to predict insect and disease patterns, maintaining a trapping network for certain pests, and issuing pest alerts.

Local Grains- Although most of Massachussets’ current wheat comes from the Midwest, the state once met all its wheat needs with local crops. UMass Extension and Northeast Organic Wheat have partnered to explore what varieties could best be grown organically in this region today.


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