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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Shift from Quarters to Semesters Opens Door to Expand Sustainable Ag Programs at Ohio State

April 23, 2012 |

Contributing over $90 billion to the state’s economy, agriculture is big business in Ohio—in fact, it’s the largest industry in the state. While urban sprawl has enveloped agricultural lands throughout much of the nation, the major cities of Ohio, Cleveland, Akron, and Columbus all remain ringed with farmland. “If there ever was a state where local food systems should flourish, Ohio would be such a state,” says Casey Hoy, Professor of Quantitative Ecology at Ohio State University.

The sustained connection to agriculture in Ohio has helped to spawn a growing interest in sustainable agriculture programs at OSU. An administrative shift that will change the university calendar structure from quarters to semesters beginning in summer 2012 has also opened the door for additional departments to rethink their course offerings, and establish new majors and programs geared toward sustainable agriculture.

Formalizing Sustainable Agricultural Curriculum

As chair of the Agroecosystem Management Program, Professor Hoy has helped to develop a new two-year degree program in sustainable agriculture at OSU’s Agricultural Technical Institute that will debut in the fall of 2012. While many of these classes have been offered before, sustainable agriculture has not previously been available as a major. Hoy says that a bachelor’s degree program is also in the works. Both the two-year and four-year programs will focus heavily on entrepreneurship and the importance of identifying a market and developing production that meets the needs of that market. A collaboration with, a Pennsylvania-based software company that links local food producers with larger institutions such as hospitals and universities provides students with experience extending the local food market beyond the traditional CSA and farm stand.

The Department of Horticulture and Crop Science currently offers a major in sustainable plant systems and will be adding an additional bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture in the fall of 2012. At the School of Environment and Natural Resources, natural resource management majors can specialize in sustainable agriculture. The School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics jointly will offer a brand new undergraduate major in environment, economy, development, and sustainability. Coursework for this major will focus on the intersection of the environment, economics, business management, and rural sociology. In addition to coursework in social sciences, students will also explore natural sciences and engineering.

Buckeye Metro Farm

In 2009, a few students in Elaine Grassbaugh’s organic gardening class requested a student farm to be able to test the techniques they were learning about in class. The university carved out two plots of land for the student farm, including one dedicated to organic techniques.

Grassbaugh says that the farm began without any funding and relied entirely on student volunteers. Since then the farm has secured a grant to employ several part-time students and purchase some basic tools such as trowels and shovels. High school students volunteer on the farm during the summer months and run a farmer’s market out of a school parking lot. Additional funding from the university Council on Sustainability has enabled the purchase of a high tunnel and several low tunnels to extend the growing season.

Students can work with faculty to create an internship program at the farm during the summer months. Other students from all areas of the college volunteer on the farm. Grassbaugh says that in the last year issues relating to sustainability have exploded around campus. Many departments are adding related majors and university-wide programs address larger issues of sustainability such as an initiative to reach a level of net-zero waste at the university stadium.

Research Programs

While it has taken awhile to formalize curriculum offerings relating to sustainable agriculture under designated majors, departments throughout the university have been conducting extensive research relating to sustainable agriculture for over twenty years. Because agriculture plays a major role in the Ohio economy, it has always been a major player at OSU. Hoy says that the university as a whole moved past the notion that sustainable agriculture and production agriculture must be mutually exclusive philosophies years ago. He adds that issues relating to sustainable agriculture are being explored in many departments beyond those directly related to agriculture. For example, the department of entomology has done quite a bit of research into the use of cover crops in insect control.

Below is a small sampling of research being conducted at OSU.

Organic Food and Farming Education and Research

  • A field crop transition experiment examined the ecological transition that takes place when converting cropland from conventional to organic farming in the field crop transition experiment. This experiment highlighted increased nitrogen as a major benefit of transitioning to organic farming but also noted significant challenges in controlling weeds.
  • Compost experiments examine different soil fertility amendment treatments by comparing four organic methods, one chemical fertilizer, and one untreated plot and the effect on crop output and nutritional value.
  • Organic forage crop weed control experiments focus are researching the efficacy of alfalfa, red clover, endophyte-free fescue (a grass used in pasture and hay production), and fallow as well as compost on problematic Giant Ragweed and Canadian thistle.
  • Fruit and vegetable experiments have examined transitioning to from traditional to organic strawberry production and disease and weed management for organically tomatoes.
  • A study of organic chicken feed will test the viability of adding naked oats to the diet of pasture raised boiler chickens in an effort to find a lower cost organic feed.

The Crop Observation and Recommendation Network

On-farm research at CORN examines use of cover cropping and it’s impact on crop yields. Many studies focus on natural versus synthetic nitrogen sources. Others address efficacy of tillage techniques.

The Center for Farmland Policy Innovation (CFFPI)

CFFPI coordinates projects, policy briefs, and research relating to local, regional, and community-based agriculture as well as land use issues and farmland preservation. Specific projects target delivering healthy food to urban and rural food desserts, comparisons of farmland preservation efforts by county, and examining the effects of zoning on agriculture. Additionally, the center offers a grant for community-based, agricultural, economic, development projects that strive to achieve economic, social, and environmental benefits for communities and community members.

Ohio Marketing Connections

The MarketReady Program offers comprehensive training for food producers targeting both retail and wholesale markets. Retail readiness workshops address on and off farm markets and farmers’ markets, CSAs and agritourism. Wholesale readiness trainings delve into larger markets including to chefs, grocery stores, specialty retailers, schools, institutions, and food processers.

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