Learning by getting dirty
Unity College the sustainable agriculture major puts students in direct contact with farming to give them hands-on experience in the dirt.
“Here at Unity I’ve learned not only about sustainable agriculture, but how to manage and set up my own farming business,” senior Cathryn Kandle said. “Now I can’t wait to have my own farm one day and be part of a changing food system.”
Students like Kandle are the future of agriculture in Maine and the country, according to Doug Fox, Unity College professor of sustainable agriculture.
“A lot of these young farmers really want to move the whole [agriculture] industry forward,” Fox said. “We don’t have all the answers yet on how to grow food sustainably and financially, and they want to be an active part in problem solving and moving things forward.”
Fox said the students work directly with farmers in Maine experiencing real life situations and challenges faced by food producers.
“Our students can then understand the problems that need solving,” Fox said. “It’s a very participatory quest for environmentally sustainable food production.”
The Unity program also teaches students how to develop a working farm plan, secure financing, how to calculate depreciation of farm machinery and examine their own ethics when it comes to food production.
The loss of generational connections
It’s a brave new world for today’s food producers and growers, Fox said, with farmers needing to know as much about policies as they do about how to grow things.
Many students, he said, are coming into the Unity program with no farming experience and programs like the ones in Maine are replacing the generational knowledge that was once passed down right on the farms.
“Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of the traditions where older generations taught farming to their children and grandchildren,” Fox said. “Now we are seeing folks who are not from faming backgrounds wanting to get into farming, and that is where university education comes in.”
“That really speaks to the fact that we are seeing a lot of first generation farmers,” said Sabina. “I would guess a lot of the folks in these programs are coming from nonfarming backgrounds.”
Post-secondary agriculture and farming programs, she said, can help future farmers gain that food production knowledge needed moving forward.
“If I had just gone out on my own I could probably have learned as I went how to farm,” Kandle said. “But here at Unity, I have learned how to farm, and how to manage and set up to be a financially successful farming business.”
New farming paths
Kourtney Collum, chair of the food and sustainable agriculture program at College of The Atlantic, said the increased interest on the parts of growers and consumers in sustainable food production has created new career paths for students interested in agriculture.
“About 30 percent of our students actually go on to farm,” Collum said. “A lot go through the program and end up opening restaurants, creating value-added businesses or go into the policy side of food production working with nonprofits.”
In recognition of those options, College of The Atlantic’s program has evolved to include an emphasis on the social sciences.
“In addition to classic agriculture courses in soils and other sciences, we offer a lot having to do with food sovereignty, social justice and policy development,” Collum said. “Our students can fully understand why people are hungry and the root causes of hunger, and think about ways to adjust food production.”
College of The Atlantic students also work on the school’s two production farms raising vegetables and meat animals for use in the campus dining hall, to sell at local farm stands and to supply area restaurants.
“Small, diversified farms are becoming more competitive,” Collum said. “Working on our farms allows them to see how farms run as a business, how to think about things like crop rotation, see purchasing and all the nitty-gritty things that go along with running a business.”
Enoch, who graduated from College of the Atlantic in 2018 and works in the campus’ admission office, said she cannot imagine looking at modern farming without taking the social implications into account.
“Food is fundamental to human existence,” she said. “It is so important and the policies around it are so important that you really have to study history, ecology, economics, and sometimes even religion to get a grasp on food systems and agricultural practices.”
At the same time, Enoch said the hands-on work at the school’s farms has left her with a desire to return to the soil.
“This job as an admissions counselor is one of the first jobs I’ve had where my hands are not in the dirt,” she said. “I’ve always seemed to have my hands in the dirt and like to imagine that will always be the case, but I also want to work on becoming some sort of policy bridge-maker to bridge the gap between farmers and the people in power to make the [agriculture] policies.”
Fox said modern food production programs are sending students out well prepared to join the ranks of today’s and future producers and the policy makers.
“Students today are really looking for ways to be environmentally sustainable and financially viable in food production,” Fox said. “These programs are really oriented to send them in that direction.”