Education for a sustainable agriculture: A vision

As the coordinator of the University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming undergraduate program, I spend a lot of time thinking about education for a more sustainable agriculture.  This blog post presents a few ideas related to sustainability education. I hope you find it useful.


A report on sustainability education I helped write a few years ago stated…..

…. the next generation of students graduating from public universities will be faced with an unprecedented challenge to redesign nearly every major natural resource based system on the planet.  These women and men will inherit systems of industrial growth that are simultaneously degrading ecosystems and endangering non-human species, while offering the highest material standard of living ever known to some humans.

As we begin this task, we must clarify core community values so that science and technology may be guided to serve the needs of present and future generations.  This work will require skills, knowledge and wisdom not currently central to the academic enterprise.  Education for a sustainable agriculture must help us re-imagine and re-create our industrial farming systems in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources,no longer use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, and no longer cause harm to people or the natural world.

We must ask – are our graduates ready?

Today’s graduates from university agricultural programs are generally well-prepared to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels.

Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and farming systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.  Studies of social systems must complement studies of biophysical systems at these higher levels of complexity.

The current situation

Most science-based undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Sustainability education on the other hand, requires a broad set of learning that integrates multiple disciplines with new practical skills and the evolution of personal and community wisdom.  Lacking wisdom… knowledge can be dangerous. Human knowledge for example, has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love.  Human knowledge has degraded ecosystems and created cycles of poverty and despair.  Human knowledge alone cannot solve the problems that we have created.  To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond knowledge.

Today we need skills, knowledge AND wisdom (where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life).  More than a technical education is required.  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Rhodes former president of Cornell University wrote…..

“…beyond the complexities of sustainability as such, there lies the larger question of sustainability for what purpose. For sustainability will be best understood within the larger framework of values, meaning, and purpose — just as ‘solutions’ are best considered within the context of the global society. That is why the wisdom that the traditional liberal arts provide is such a vital part of any such new curriculum.”

Developing wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  Unfortunately, this integration is not a core value of the academic enterprise.  While some faculty try to offer a more holistic educational experience at the university, their work is generally unappreciated by the majority of their colleagues.  Students on the other hand are very supportive of these creative teachers who may be marginalized within the mainstream citadels of learning.

In spite of the dominant paradigm, teachers of sustainable agriculture recognize the value of a pedagogy founded upon a model of transformative learning that builds students’ capacity to make meaning of their experiences, and reconstruct their notion of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, ecological-self, and cosmic self.

A successful sustainability education program must focus on both the content of learning as well as the context of learning (such as the ability to integrate theory and practice through managed experience).  This ability can’t be acquired by sitting passively in a classroom, listening to a lecture, or reading a textbook.  Most adult learning (after graduation) is unstructured, random, and takes place as a result of living and making meaning out of everyday experience.  However in much of our university education, knowledge is handed over to students in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for evaluation and reward.  Power remains in the hands of the teacher.  While efficient in one sense, “normal” classroom teaching does little to nurture the curiosity, inventiveness, or leadership capacity of active adult learners.

Experiential education puts primary responsibility for learning in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learners.  While experiential education must be guided by teachers, it is not controlled by the teacher.  Teachers are responsible for creating an environment where students can explore complex questions and learn by doing –  but power is shared!

Teachers must trust students to make decisions for themselves, and encourage them to either learn from their successes or learn from their mistakes.

Learning “about” sustainable agriculture is not enough.  Most university programs are grounded in a commitment to building instrumental knowledge, that is knowledge about how the world works.  Instrumental knowledge is used to manipulate the environment, and while important, it must be balanced by communicative knowledge of values, ideas, feelings and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom, equality and love.

Communicative learning uses different teaching methods than instrumental learning and may rely on metaphors and analogies in addition to facts and data to unravel complex human and human-natural system relationships.  Learning tools such as decision cases, dialogue, service learning, and story telling are core to communicative learning.

The history of the university is one of continual (if very slow) change.   I am confident that once the urgency expressed in the opening statement in this blog becomes more widely accepted, education for a sustainable agriculture will become more of a priority within the academy.  At least, that is my hope.

As always, your comments are welcome.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

13 thoughts on “Education for a sustainable agriculture: A vision”

  1. These ideas are completely aligned with my educational upbringing.

    Where industrialism is reliant on workers as cogs in a machine, the most innovative companies rely on the autonomy, creativity, versatility, and teamwork of their employees.

    Certainly on the personal and community level education that encourages wisdom is beneficial, but it's even starting to be accepted in mainstream business.

  2. I am proud to work closely with such a progressive thinker. You understand the needs of hands on learners and push students to make the changes they need in the conventional university setting. I am so grateful for all of your support and am very excited for the future of sustainability here at UMass. Thank you.

  3. Well, John, you said it just right – again! Thank you.

    This farmer-philosopher-wild bee researcher (read: experiential/theorist/ecologist) couldn't agree with this particular post more. I work (for the short term) in the corporate ag world as a sustainable/resilience-minded farmer and educator and I might as well have a target on my back.

    Trying to bring sustainable ag education to undergrads and grads within a holistic integral methodology is challenging, especially at the corporately funded land grant, but also has been a challenge at the small liberal arts college as well. Its interesting to consider the threats and/or paradigm challenges experiential-wisdom education presents for institutions of many kinds.

    This would be interesting to unpack in discussion among colleagues. Wonder if the SAEA would be offer a round table for this in August? Bee well, friend!

  4. My only question to those who doubt the validity of experiential learning in regards to sustainable agriculture is, "Did you learn to drive by sitting in a classroom?" The idea that even the best of teachers could possibly teach agriculture without stepping foot on a farm is inconceivable to me!

    As the director of a160 acre organic farm in suburban Boston, I have observed our educational staff leading hands-on learning experiences with over 4,000 children this year through field trips, on-site school programs, 16 schools' "farm gardens" and summer programs here at the farm.

    Please….come to our farm and watch the wonder of children (and adults) experiencing nature first hand. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for the "real" thing!

  5. The ONE SHARED qualification for every sustainable ag related job I've pursued since college has been "experience". Thanks to a class I took at Hampshire College through the 5 College System, I was able to briefly speak to some "real-life experience" experience during my very first post-college job interviews. UMass would be smart to support more experiential learning classes within the Sustainable Ag major. I think that in this tough job-search climate, graduating students would be thankful to the University for such an endeavor.

  6. I wonder why students are so appreciative of this type of experimental education and why faculty isn't. Perhaps, it goes back to the power idea and that individuals may have a difficult time with giving up power. However, I think that with time students will place a greater demand for a type of education which integrates thinking and feeling. I think students know when a class is something which goes beyond knowledge and into the combination of thinking and feeling and while they may not be able to voice exactly what draws them to that they know they want more of it.

    It's also interesting to apply this to other majors- what benefits could all students reap if experimental learning was applied to all majors & what connections would they be able to draw?

  7. As far as I am concerned, there's no words to add. Let's do it ! I completely agree with those statements.

    Ghislain "Gigi" Jutras

    University Lecturer in Ecological Agriculture
    Faculté des Sciences de l’Agriculture et de l’Alimentation (FSAA)
    Université Laval, Québec, Canada


    Junior College Teacher in Organic Fruits and Vegetables Production
    Gestion et exploitation d’entreprise agricole (GEEA)
    Cégep de Victoriaville, Québec, Canada

    Blogs: et

  8. I suppose this is why, I am a Hampshire student. Because I see that there needs to be more done then just this knowing. John, I think you touch on a great idea about the "teacher." Sometimes it feels to be that the blind are leading the blind. i think my generation needs to begin to really trust itself and gi beyond what our "leaders" our "faculty" are telling us. You are a gem, and you know this. You practice what you preach. You are expanding your "vision.

    To me being sustainable is a form of only using as much as i am able to replenish. Sometimes it hink evenwith allthese programs.n ew methods and innovations for the future, we still aren't sustainable. We are burning ourselves out emotionally and physically. I think being sustainable encompasses so much more then building farms and waste management systems. We need to begin to be spiritually and psychologically sustainable. We have to release our fears and learn to help one another heal and love.

    My best moments with teachers are when they open themselves up to me and bring down an invisible wall.There is no longer teacher and student but space travelling creatures inhuman bodies. they replenish me with there love and I, in return. SOme of my best teachers tayught me nothing about "skill." but only how to be a better me.

    regardless, universities are institutions. we need to break down this self imposed walls and really begin to learn fromone another in new settings!

    Ive had many smart people teach me but without that soul connection, i cannot hear what is attempting to come through.

    this topic is so rich and juicy i could go on. I suppose what I am trying to say is that… age and acadmic record alone , makes a teacher not.

  9. I would also add that library research is a vital piece of this picture. While I am a huge advocate of self sufficiency, I observe many students needing more support and encouragement from faculty to employ quality, reliable information into their papers and projects. Enter the librarian. Most academic librarians are enthusiastically available to teach about effectively search, finding and evaluating information from the overwhelming stream before all of us. Faculty, get in touch and schedule a session for your students. Students, find out which librarian can best address your topic and make an appointment with him/her. It is a joy when I witness students' empowerment as they get a deeper understanding of how information is organized and accessed. Talk about learning by doing…!

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