San Diego Org Offers Unique Urban Farming Training Program, Preps Students for Careers in Sustainable Ag
October 2, 2012 | Missy Smith
In downtown San Diego, on San Diego City College’s campus, Seeds@City Urban Farm is growing a variety of crops, as well as grooming students for careers in sustainable agriculture. Formed in 2008, the 1-acre urban farm—a cooperative of San Diego City College and San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project—gives students hands-on training in sustainable urban farming.
“Seeds@City was created to fill a void in southern California for those who want to learn about organic farming in an urban setting,” explains Erin Rempala, associate professor of biology and Seeds@City program manager.“The goal was to provide urban students––with little or no access to local, organic produce––an opportunity to engage in a hands-on education in sustainable agriculture, health, nutrition and leadership.”
For the last four years, Seeds@City has offered apprenticeships to students three times a year, and Rempala says that there is great interest growing among students to get involved with the farm. Building on the success of its apprenticeship training program, Seeds@City began offering a sustainable urban agriculture certificate and associate degree program in the fall of 2010. “The sustainable urban agriculture program provides students with hands-on experiences necessary for learning the skills of urban farming and is the first, and still only, program of its kind at an institution of higher education in San Diego County,” says Rempala. “Prior to the development of Seeds@City, young people were forced to leave the county, and southern California, if they wanted academic training in sustainable urban agriculture.”
Now San Diego City College students can find hands-on sustainable agriculture training right on campus. The college currently offers five career tech certificate programs: Urban Farming, Urban Gardening, Organic Gardening for the Culinary Arts, Introductory Ecological Landscaping and Advanced Ecological Landscaping; and an associate degree in sustainable urban agriculture for students who plan to continue their agriculture education. “Ultimately, the college is able to train students in sustainable urban agriculture, moving a cohort of 30 students per year though the various certificate and degree programs,” explains Rempala. “These students will then be able to spread the word to the community as entrepreneurs as they start their own sustainable agriculture businesses or take jobs working for local organic employers.”
Rempala says that Seeds@City’s former students have experienced great success after completing apprenticeships and degree programs. “At least 28 out of our 78 former apprentices have gotten jobs, though the actual statistics may be higher since this is from self-reported data from those students we are still in touch with,” Rempala explains. “Our former students own farms and businesses, work in the edible landscaping industry, are managers for school and community gardens, are farmers for educational gardens and working farms, and are faculty in our program and staff members at Seeds@City.”
Because of the popularity of its sustainable urban agriculture program, Seeds@City has found that the demand is very high in comparison to what they are currently able to offer. “We must turn away as many students as we serve each semester,” she explains, which is due to a lack of full-time staff and funding. The faculty members and support staff that work with Seeds@City work part-time on the farm. And, the farm manager is a full-time biology professor with only 20 percent of her time currently designated to managing the program, raising funds and writing grants. “We rely heavily on student and volunteer labor to maintain the farm,” she says.
And, like many other schools across the country, San Diego City College’s Seeds@City has felt the effects of cuts in spending and, as a result, a lack of funding. “A perennial issue for programs such as ours has been the state of California’s increasing inability to extend funding to crucial educational ventures,” Rempala explains. “Ironically, this funding deficit occurs at a time when interest in our programs is greater than ever. In order to meet the student demand for our one-of-a-kind sustainable urban agriculture programs and increase our course offerings additional funding is needed. Over the past year, we have only been able to offer four courses supporting these programs, as state budget cuts prevent us from offering more than the equivalent of two courses per semester.” Rempala says that at the current rate of course offerings, it will be challenging for students to finish their education in sustainable urban agriculture without having to wait several years for the classes they need to be offered.
In order to support the farm and its educational programs, Seeds@City uses the money it makes from sales to the community, faculty and students through its weekly on-campus farm stand and CSA. And, to keep heading in a financial self-sustaining direction, Seeds@City has begun several direct marketing ventures. Rempala says that the farm has expanded its CSA and will continue to do so in the future. “We currently serve 10 CSA shareholders and hope to double that within the year,” she says. In addition, Seeds@City has recently begun supplying some of its produce to a local farm-to-table restaurant, Alchemy. And, in the near future, it hopes to start a quarterly plant starts CSA, and work with the school’s cafeteria, as well as local farm-to-table restaurants, cafes and markets.
“As soon as the farm is able to increase production we can formalize agreements with both the cafeteria and other restaurants eager for our organic, locally produced crops,” says Rempala. “With the income generated from selling produce to local restaurants and increasing our CSA offerings, not only would this move the farm toward financial self-sufficiency, it would provide income to offer additional courses to meet the current demand.
“The college would also be able to showcase food on campus that it could be proud of. Perhaps nothing would raise awareness more on campus than the farm providing food to the cafeteria in which hundreds of City College students eat every day. The campus community and surrounding community of the east village will have access to local organic food to purchase and will receive instruction in growing, and preparing, this food.”