Students will be
able to major or minor
in sustainable agriculture and
come out well-versed
in a broad area of agriculture.
From the left: Graduate students Audrey Horrall '00 and Delia Scott '02 with Mark Williams, assistant professor of horticulture, at the horticulture research farm.
Eleven acres at the horticulture research farm have been set aside for organic farming.
by Terri Darr McLean
When Mark Williams thinks about farming in Kentucky, he thinks small. After all, most of the farms that dot the state's landscape are small, family farms.
But when Williams thinks about the future of those farms, he thinks big—big in terms of change, big in terms of opportunity.
"We're experiencing a big change in our agriculture in this state with the decline of tobacco production," said Williams, assistant professor of horticulture. "Also, there are changes that are happening globally and in this nation—gas prices for instance—that are changing the way we look at agriculture. Do we want to give up this history of farming, or do we want to try to find ways to maximize it and to create highly efficient, profitable farming systems?"
Williams, of course, is a proponent of the latter—reinvigorating small-scale farming in Kentucky to ensure its very survival. And he's convinced that the key to making that happen is sustainable agriculture, an approach to farming that challenges producers to enhance the economic, environmental, and social viability of their operations.
"Sustainability really means long term," said Williams. "It's looking at your system and asking: How can I maximize the economic profit? How can I do this in a way that is environmentally friendly? And, how can I strengthen relationships within my community?"
Williams is so convinced of sustainable agriculture's merits that he has become a driving force behind the College's increased research, education, and outreach in this area. (For more information on the College's research in organic crops, go to page 21 in this issue.)
Most recently, Williams led efforts to develop an undergraduate degree program in sustainable agriculture—one of only a few such offerings in the nation.
He and Mike Mullen, associate dean for academic programs, and Larry Grabau and Victoria Bhavsar in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences applied for and received a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant to create the curriculum. Then they formed a committee to get the job done.
Joining them were colleagues from across the College as well as from the departments of English and Sociology. "What we wanted to do was get a multidisciplinary group together so we could create a curriculum that was outside the box," Williams said.
At the heart of the program, which is being offered through the College's Individualized Degree Program until it is formally approved, is an innovative, multidisciplinary curriculum.
Mike Mullen said the curriculum zeroes in on what he calls the three "pillars" of sustainability—economic profitability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility—and their applications to Kentucky agriculture.
"All that tends to imply, if you will, more attention to agriculture on a local scale," Mullen said. "That has started to become a focus point, when you talk about the tobacco buyout and family farms looking for alternative niches, and the interest in farmers' markets," he said.
Mullen also said the curriculum brings a "liberal education edge to the agriculture core."
"What we envisioned was a program that provided not only agriculture but also social context," Mullen said. "And so one of the unique things about this is we are actually going to be encouraging students to take a core of classes outside the College of Agriculture—not outside the major, but outside the College."
Additionally, Mullen said students who major in sustainable agriculture will be required to spend two semesters working at the College's horticulture research farm, where 11 acres have already been set aside for organic farming. The students will operate a community-supported agriculture program and will sell "shares" to consumers, most likely other UK students, in return for a regular supply of fresh produce.
"We feel that learning about sustainable agriculture is not just learning about farming," Williams said. "It's learning about economics marketing, it's learning about how the farm affects society, it's learning about sustainable community development, really.
"What we're trying to do here is develop farms that support the community and communities that support the farms," said Williams, "farms that can create a local economy kind of system, with the farmer providing a necessary thing for the community and the community funding it. To have a small-scale farm like what is typical here in Kentucky, you have to have people who are willing to buy into that."
Eventually, when the program gets final approval, at least five core sustainable agriculture classes will be offered. Students will be able to major or minor in sustainable agriculture and, Mullen said, "come out well-versed in a broad area of agriculture" and with a broad range of careers at their fingertips.
"We think that there's an opportunity to affect a lot of people with this curriculum," Williams added. "That’s what our hope is."
Turn, Turn, & Return
This building at the horticultural research farm will be used in the College's new academic track in sustainable agriculture. It was created by students in Tony Roccanova's design/build class in the UK School of Architecture. The students used only recycled and donated materials.
Sustainable & Organic:
What’s the Difference?
Organic farming is sustainable agriculture, but sustainable agriculture is not necessarily organic farming.
Organic farming requires the use of sustainable practices and materials. But there are many things farmers can do to ensure the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of their operations, including using no-tillage technology, incorporating integrated pest management, creating local-economy food systems, and running farm machinery on biodiesel fuel.
Perhaps the more important distinction to make about sustainable agriculture is that it is not a set of practices, it is an approach to farming—one that values economic profitability but also protects valuable resources and emphasizes the social aspects of farming and its benefits to the community.