Canada marks an organic milestone
Guelph University’s new major builds on stalwart faculty, supportive farmers and a dean that said “Do it.”

By Paul Henderson

Photos by Paul Henderson

Farmer involvement in Australia shapes
dean’s commitment to adding organics

Editor's Note: Dean Pearson talked to during the 2004 Canadian Organic Conference to explain how – and why – he had empowered Ann Clark to create an organic major in a college known for its entrenched non-organic centers of interest.

Australian native Craig Pearson, PhD, returned to his graduate-degree alma mater at Guelph University in 2001 shaped by what he had learned from farmers and others engaged in Australian grasslands research. The “participatory” nature of that work meant farmers were involved in designing and implementing the project, and in analyzing the findings of managed livestock utilization of native grasslands over a 2,000 square-kilometer area.

He was impressed that researchers received place-based indigenous knowledge from the farmers they would otherwise have missed. The farmers received the ability to think of new approaches to managing these lands. “Our close engagement with the local farmers built strong links,” he said. This dovetailed in a powerful way with Dr. E. Ann Clark’s early commitment to see organic farmers as respected mentors for the organic program’s students.

Pearson said goals of the planning process for the college’s pioneering major in organic agriculture were important to the whole university in how it served all its constituencies: biological resource management, food production with a minimal ecological footprint, whole-systems thinking, consumer benefit, and a value-chain paradigm spanning farm to table. He said his persistent advocacy for the new major was not to champion organics per se, but to create a situation of pro-active philosophical tolerance for organics on a campus where this alternative agricultural approach had been routinely discounted in many quarters.

“I want to move to tolerance for a multiplicity of styles of agriculture – from organic to industrial – with sustainable ag as the wide middle,” he said. He credited Clark and her colleague Peter Stonehouse, PhD (professor of agricultural economics and business) with already having done the “hard yards.”

– Greg Bowman

Experience beyond farm production
envisioned for integrated internships

One way that students taking the new organic major at Guelph University may end up getting experiential learning is through a proposal being given serious consideration by a student from the Agricultural University of Norway working on a master’s degree in agroecology.

Alexandra English set up and runs the CSA at Whole Circle Farm just outside of Guelph. After completing her coursework in Norway, she was allowed to come back to Canada to complete her thesis. She now studies while working at Whole Circle through the CRAFT program. Her thesis has blossomed into a plan to add intensive experiential learning to the University of Guelph’s organic major.

English’s proposal is that, after two years, students in the four-year organic major program would have a choice: continue on with the university’s curriculum, which will be course-oriented with little practical work; or do two years of practical experience involving two six-month internships.

The first year would involve an internship on a farm but also doing an on-farm project of some kind, such as setting up a composting system or saving seeds of different vegetables if the farm wasn’t already doing it.

“The second year it would be a more senior internship, where they would have to do something like I’m doing this year, setting up a CSA,” she said. “At the end of those two internships, they would be developing a business plan for what they would want to do in the future.”

Her vision is that the second internship may not even have to be on a farm but could be in some other sector of the organic industry, such as working with a processor or at The Big Carrot (a popular co-op health food store in Toronto). This means people working in the industry would increasingly be people who had actually worked on an organic farm, knowing what organic agriculture really means.

English says that students who can integrate academic study with practical experience in production and marketing will help to build the program over time and make the most of what the university can offer.

-- P.H.

For more information

Organic Agriculture at the University of Guelph

E. Ann Clark

Washington State in lead to launch first US undergrad organic major

Washington State University hopes to offer the first undergrad organic agriculture undergraduate major in the US this fall, pending final academic reviews. A new teaching farm is slated to provide practical experience in the challenging course of study.


Posted January 12, 2006: With the continued growth of organics, it was only a matter of time before an agricultural school in North America created an academic major in organic agriculture. The surprise is that it happened in a leading ag-biotech research school that had its share of organic detractors and a small core of faculty familiar with organic farming disciplines.

The Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph (Ontario) has its first students in their first of four years in pursuit of a bachelor of science (agriculture) major in organic agriculture. A Canadian education site says Guelph “is Canada’s innovative leader in plant and animal life-sciences and a premier centre for agri-food, biotechnology and environmental research, education and outreach.”

Within this environment, faculty members had tried and failed in the past to institute a major embracing of organics. But with the persistence of a well-known organic advocate as well as the blessing in 2003 of a new dean, Guelph’s new program developed from within the department. This is relatively unusual, as most organic programs develop rather tangentially to standard ag offerings.

“It has never been done intentionally from the inside,” says E. Ann Clark, PhD, the professor who was the go-to person for the dean, Craig Pearson. “That’s what distinguishes this degree. It was done with the blessing of our dean, and it’s fabricated from within by faculty.” The collaborative process across a mix of agricultural perspectives makes the new major academically rigorous, she says.

Clark specializes in pasture and grazing management, organic farming and GMOs.

Major resistance overcome

While Clark and others point to how incredibly supportive the administration has been about the major, this was not the case as recently as 2001. The former dean was more sympathetic to the concerns of traditional faculty members, many of whom were at best cynical -- and at worst hostile -- to the work of Clark and others on sustainable agriculture.

Clark is well-known in the U.S. and Canada for her outspoken views on agricultural biotechnology and sustainability issues. She’s ready to move on with creating a strong department and feels the conflict over creating an organic major has been pretty well worked through. While many conventional agriculture professors were reluctant, some might have accepted the value of an organic major as, if nothing else, a public relations tool. Regardless of why, the support is now there.

That grassroots pressure to start the course came from the true roots of any university: the students. Seven years ago, 350 undergrads signed a petition that spurred – against some opposition – creation of “Crop 3400: Introduction to Organic Agriculture.” Clark says her overview of programs in the U.S. and Canada showed initiatives in sustainable ag or agroecology typically come from either student or farmer demand.

The roots of Clark’s role as the dynamic force that pulled the major together go back to 2002. That autumn, she gave a plenary talk with graduate student Jacinda Fairholm at the 2002 IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Movements) conference in Victoria, B.C. Looking for models in organic education, they surveyed 25 programs -- 15 in Canada, and 10 in the U.S. -- as well as 10 experiential programs. Much to their surprise, they learned that not a single one of these schools had an actual academic major in organic agriculture.

Clark vowed at that time that organic agricultural education had to have a strong link with organic farmers to be true to the principles of knowing the land, biodiversity, passing on agricultural wisdom and experiential learning.

Drawing new kinds of student

The program Clark designed from her research and student contact is not aimed at your usual “aggie” profile of being farm-raised. Most will come from other worlds. Clark has found that there are more women involved with organic agriculture. Many interested students are more culturally and politically progressive and have more environmental concerns than conventional farm students. Having many students with no farm background whatsoever poses new challenges and opportunities.

“The way agriculture has traditionally been, you didn’t worry how to lube a tractor or birth a calf or whatever because the students already knew it, but now they don’t,” Clark finds. Yet she is also going about giving the hands-on experience in a different way than the typical school farm.

“I’m about convinced that organic systems are ‘interactions-based,’ in that the determinants of how a given crop grows are a 500-way interaction among all sorts of factors making the ‘whole’ a very site-specific phenomenon,” Clark says. So anything learned by a student body on a campus farm, while useful, may be of little relevance to the farm they start up in a different region with largely variant conditions. Until specialized spaces suitable for organics come about, Guelph’s organic program relies heavily upon the local organic farm community, which, according to Clark, is “arguably a better and more grounded way to learn.”

One option open to all Guelph students interested in organic farm internships is Ontario’s CRAFT – the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training. It links interns on organic farms for shared experiences on member operations. Interns take monthly farm field trips with tours and workshops. Students see different farms, different methods, and everyone – including some of the farmers – learns more than they would in internship isolation.

Farm experience critical

Heather Lekx is the CSA and internship coordinator at Ignatius Farm, located minutes from campus on the edge of Guelph. Kaitlin Kazmierowski and Amy Thorne attended Guelph, took Clark’s “Introduction to Organic Agriculture” course, and spent a summer working the fields at Ignatius Farm. Kazmierowski, an environmental science major, grew up in Toronto. She had no interest in agriculture whatsoever until taking Clark’s course, but now she’s hooked. What is most compelling is her sense that organic agriculture education has given her a new perspective on the critical role of food in our world.

“I see cities and there is so much wasted space that can be used to make the city beautiful,” Kazmierowski said. “People are just getting more and more cut off. If people could provide [food] for themselves, they would find it is pretty empowering to grow something and to eat it, and say, ‘I did this; I made this happen.’ I think everyone should have a hand in seeing how food is produced, because people take it for granted.”

Amy Thorne is from a non-farm background in Ottawa. After enjoying her first internship at Ignatius Farm, she plans to do another internship this year. “If you are really interested in the environment, [producing food] is one of the first things you can do if you want to create healthy communities.”

Future looks brighter

Clark is optimistic about organic ag education’s potential impact, despite structural barriers to its success. One hurdle is that organic expertise is virtually all non-proprietary, so there is very little business-driven money coming in to fund the needed academic research positions to create more organic curriculum. Two, the non-organic agricultural input industry has a vested interest in making sure the public doesn’t accept organics, which depend on knowledge of sustainable systems more than products.

“That industry is basically addressing symptom-oriented problems,” Clark says. “Roundup deals in symptoms. If Roundup actually worked at the causal end it would put Monsanto out of business within a year. All the solutions that they are selling -- whether they are genetic or chemical or managerial -- are all symptom-oriented solutions, and they must be specifically so the cause will not be reduced.”

With elevated petroleum costs a factor, Clark calls for a “new agriculture” template where the currently externalized environmental and societal costs are added to the budget sheet. When the bigger picture is in the economic equation, organic agriculture offers a better paradigm. Organic agricultural training will have to factor in these changes, adapting to grapple with increasing consumer demand for healthy food and a sound ecosystem.

Will organic educators and farmers be up to the challenge?

“Well, I think we are following, we are not leading society,” says Clark. “And I think that’s not a bad thing.”