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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Penn State’s Ag Program Prepares Students to Tackle Tough Issues Associated with Sustainable Agriculture

April 5, 2012 |

Pennsylvania State University has its roots in agricultural education, a focus that still remains strong today. The university’s College of Agricultural Sciences offers majors that address today’s issues of sustainability while also working to inform local farming communities about environmental issues, such as those related to the Chesapeake Bay.

Penn State University was founded as an agricultural college in 1855. After Congress passed the Morrill Act in 1862, the university broadened its mission. The purpose of the Morrill Act was to encourage higher education institutions to add engineering, mining, agriculture and other applied sciences to their curricula, according to the university. Through the act, states received federal land that they could sell. The proceeds were used to support colleges that added these new focus areas. Penn State University became the sole land-grant institution for Pennsylvania in 1863.

Studying Sustainability

Barbara Christ, Professor and Senior Associate Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences’, said issues of sustainability are explored at a broad level through the colleges majors and course offerings. However, there are a handful of majors where the focus on sustainability really shines, she said.

There’s the college’s Community, Environment, and Development major, an interdisciplinary program that Christ says allows students to “deal with some of the tough issues, the problems, that really are associated with sustainable agriculture—and not just sustainable agriculture, but with our rural communities.” Students graduating from this program might enter careers that deal with community issues that are related to the agriculture-urban interface, among other things. The major is fairly new and has been growing tremendously, Christ said.

There is the AgroEcology major, which focuses squarely on sustainable agriculture. The major is shared between Penn State’s Departments of Crop and Soil Sciences, Entomology, and Plant Pathology. The AgroEcology webpage says the major gives students an understanding of how agricultural ecosystems work and the science of sustainable agriculture.

“It’s looking at the food and fiber systems, looking at a systems approach to agriculture—and in this state, primarily the cropping systems, whether it be horticulture (or) row crops,” Christ said. “It’s bringing together all of the disciplines that if you were in the role of either consulting or a grower yourself, it would be the skill sets that you need (and) the knowledge base you need to operate your operation as a system. … Students that are coming out of here, they’re all getting jobs.”

Christ said this major is not as popular as some other majors, such as animal science and food science, but it is important for understanding sustainability. The college is working on modifying the major and making it “a better seller” to students, she said. The major includes courses on topics such as plant stress, the effects of weather on ecosystems, sustainable agriculture science and policy, and organic agriculture practices, among others.

A couple of other sustainability-focused majors include the Environmental Resource Management major (which focuses more on policymaking and managing environmental resources) and the Forest Science major. The Environmental Resource Management major offers three options for students to focus on: Environmental Science, Soil Science and Water Science.

Sustainability Inventory

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has been going through a lot of changes. The college is in the in the process of restructuring its academic departments, reducing the number of departments from 12 to nine, which is expected to take effect July 1. The reorganization is part of the a two-year strategic planning process, known as the Ag Futures initiative, which aims to alter the college’s business model in response to economic and social realities and needs, the college announced last year.

As part of the Ag Futures initiative, the college’s faculty, department heads and other leaders came together to discuss what they envisioned for the future of the college and the future of agriculture, Christ said.

“Sustainability was one of the four or five initiatives that we came out with,” she said, noting that the college decided to conduct an inventory of everything it does that fits under the “sustainability” umbrella. The college, which has been side-tracked by budget issues, still has to complete its inventory and finish developing its sustainability initiative, Christ said.

When thinking about those sustainable agriculture-focused activities, a few things come to mind.

There’s the Penn State Sustainable Ag Working Group, a collaborative group of College of Agricultural Sciences faculty, staff and students; farmers; and local organization representatives who are all interested in sustainable agriculture.

Mary Barbercheck, professor of entomology at the university and member of the working group, said some of the group’s activities include a newsletter, field day visits to research farms for the purpose of learning about research projects, and an educational seminar series.

“Quite a number of larger, multidisciplinary projects have developed out of that, just out of information sharing and knowing what other people are doing and who to go to make these teams,” Barbercheck said.

She noted that the group has explored topics such as organic agriculture production issues, as well as energy and inputs reduction.

Penn State also has a composting facility on campus, which turns food waste from the dorms and campus eateries, animal manure and green waste into compost, Christ said. The facility started after the college partnered with the university’s Office of Physical Plant, did research and helped to staff up and develop the composting area.

Penn State is home to the Environment and Natural Resources Institute (ENRI), which focuses on water quality initiatives and environmental markets and incentives. This institute worked with the College of Agricultural Sciences to establish the Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center in 2008.

Jim Shortle, director of the ENRI, said the institute—largely through the work of the Agriculture and Environment Center—focuses on providing information about the need for natural resource conservation and also helps local growers figure out how to mitigate these problems within their own operations. The institute does experiments with certain technologies and shares information with the local agricultural communities, he said.

While a major focus of the institute is to address the issue of the soil erosion of nutrients and sediments, which enter the Chesapeake Bay, Shortle noted that the institute tries to take a narrower approach in order to better appeal to the state’s farmers.

“We really try to focus much more on (the farmers’) local conditions and how local conditions can be improved … and the local benefits of it within the community,” he said.

Matt Royer (left) and Kristen Saacke Blunk (right) presenting an on-site overview of the Conewago Creek Watershed. Photo credit: James Shortle.

Another center supported by the ENRI is the Biomass Energy Center. This center has teams to address the following four areas: production of biomass feedstocks; integration of biomass production into sustainable agrosystems; conversion of biomass into energy; and technology transfer to companies, state agencies, NGOs and others, according to the center’s website.

Other ENRI-supported centers include the Center for Climate Risk Management and the Energy and Environmental Economics and Policy Initiative. Shortle said the institute also recently added the Center for Green Infrastructure and Stormwater Management.

Unique Attributes

There are a couple of things that set Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences apart from other colleges that are dedicated to sustainable agriculture, Christ said. One is that Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry is so diverse, which allows the university to look at sustainability with a focus on a wide span of industry sectors, she said. The other is the university’s strong team of researchers working on environmental and water quality issues, particularly because of Pennsylvania’s proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, she said.

Christ said there are notable projects dealing with issues of water quality and natural gas, particularly related to the Marcellus Shale. In another project, several major grant awards have gone to faculty members who are looking at cropping systems where the experiment will take up more than 40 acres at any one time, she noted.

More can be read about the college’s research projects at the college’s website, and some highlights on sustainable agriculture research projects can be found at the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s website.

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