Sustainable agriculture and the public university

My last blog presented a vision of sustainable agriculture and called for a renewed commitment of the “body, heart and soul” of those of us working at public universities like the University of Massachusetts to agricultural research, teaching and outreach.  However if the public universities don’t re-energize their agricultural programs at a time when a billion people are hungry, another billion malnourished, and still another billion “overfed”, others surely will!

Agricultural education is traditionally associated with state universities, but many private colleges are adding courses on sustainable food and farming today.  I was asked recently by a reporter if there was much difference between these new programs and that of the public land grant university.  While I applaud the growth of the colleges into this field, I don’t believe they can provide quite the same “breadth and depth” of study as a major research university.  I must add however this will only remain true IF we invest in this important area of study and “put the public back into the public university.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as UMass is working to strengthen our agricultural programs by merging our Bachelor of Science programs in Sustainable Food and Farming and Managing Green Landscapes with the nearly 100 year old Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  This blog presents some of my own thinking on the role of the public university and the opportunity we have at UMass to create our own destiny.

Here is what I believe to be true…

  • My truth is that the industrial agricultural system currently practiced in most of the developed world is not sustainable, as it continues to leak toxins from their point of application, uses natural resources such as fossil fuel and water at rates greater than replacement, puts farmers and ranchers off the land, and results in a poorly nourished citizenry.  I believe that in New England, we can at least partially address these problems by investing in the continued development of more local farms and distribution networks.
  • My truth is that the commitment of the U.S. public university system to agricultural research and education has waned over the past 30 years, as discipline-bound science has come to dominate the research agenda.  Interdisciplinary research and application oriented studies that benefit small family farms, ranches and green businesses are not adequately supported through public or private funding.  Agricultural programs at the land grant (public) universities have suffered and are in danger of disappearing at a time when they are badly needed to address the triple threat of peak oil, global climate change and global pandemic from factory farms.
  • My truth tells me that the human quest for sustainability of the earth, including human and non-human communities, may be the best hope we have to revive those agricultural research, education and outreach programs of the public land grant university.  Maybe, just maybe, working in partnership with progressive farmers, consumers, and environmental and social activists to find a new way to farm, new ways to distribute food to those in need, and new ways to live, our public university agricultural research and education programs may experience a rebirth at a time they are most needed.

Its all about sustainability

The term sustainability is overused and abused by politicians, academics, agricultural commodity group leaders, and corporate public relations executives.  It has been co-opted by evangelists for the current industrial agricultural system, who continually try to narrow the definition to economic sustainability at the expense of environmental integrity and social equity.  There are times when I feel that we need a new word to describe the kind of agriculture that lasts.

But mostly I feel the debate, argument and even some of the hyperbole has been a good thing, for it focuses our attention on the lack of sustainability of the current industrial food and farming system.  So for me sustainability remains a big beautiful idea which acknowledges the importance of financial or economic vitality, but balances that goal with ecological integrity and social equity.

The quest for a more sustainable agriculture is a vision worthy of the full commitment of the “body, heart and soul” of those of us at the public university who teach, do research and work with people in communities.   It is a way for us to serve the public good while at the same time creating a sense of purpose in our lives.

Serving the public good

I believe that a clear understanding of how the land grant organization serves American citizens, those today and those yet to be born, is key to the future of the institution.  Most people agree that the system has an obligation to serve the public.  But we have difficulty talking about “who is the public ‑‑ and what is the public good?

Many of the current research, education and outreach programs are designed not to serve “the public” but to serve particular publics, or special interest groups.  I propose that there are interests, common to all people which we might call “basic human needs” such as:

  • affordable and nutritionally adequate food;
  • adequate clothing and shelter;
  • a healthy, livable environment free of violence;
  • opportunities to provide for one’s livelihood; and
  • accessible educational opportunities.

Our teaching, research and outreach should serve these larger public goods by working with the farmers, consumers and communities dedicated to building a more local food production and distribution system.  This is truly “public work.”

Working for the public university

Many of us came to work in agriculture at public universities because we cared about people, hunger, or the environment.  Over time however, we found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who held money and power.  Our current system of rewards and advancement pushes us in this direction.  If we are to save ourselves and the agricultural programs of the university, we must reestablish a commitment to public service.

There have been times in my own university career when I’ve traded off my civic ideals for personal advancement.  I too am a “sinner”.  Today I try to speak and live my truth, even when that truth is not very popular.

I know many faculty who have maintained a commitment to their ideals and have directed their work toward public priorities.  Many of these women and men affiliate with the sustainable agriculture research and education agenda.  If you are an agricultural researcher, teacher or extension worker, you are invited to join them.  This may be our last best chance.

In any case, I encourage you to speak out and tell your own truth  – whether you agree with mine or not.  As the Red Queen told Alice  “always speak the truth — think before you speak and write it down afterwards.

And perhaps you will “write it down” in the comments box below!


For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

4 thoughts on “Sustainable agriculture and the public university”

  1. The first time our 'Public Land Grant" in Massachusetts drifted from it's mission was in the late 1890s as the industrial revolution took hold. Mass. Agricultural College had expanded into other courses of study beyond the original areas of agriculture and agricultural engineering. It was not a bad thing that other courses of study were added but the original mission needed to stay strong at the core of the enhanced institution. In 1906 Kenyon Butterfield became President of Mass. Aggie and had very similar feelings as John has spoke of. Kenyon realized the importance of the public college connection to local farmers and their value to the future both on a local and global level. He worked local but always considered global. His first action was to" tie an agricultural tread" of the original mission through the expanded course studies. This was a brilliant idea but did not come without early criticism. With his first commencement he brought in Liberty Hyde Bailey as the speaker. Again this was criticized but Liberty gave an inspiring speech to all. He started the "Good Farming Special" a train car filled with agricultural books and resource information and staffed with a rotation of teachers and researchers. It would be pulled to the rural areas to bring the resources to the people. This was also valuable to learn the needs of farmers and public which led to his efforts of creating the Extension system. He knew that learning was a two-way street between the state college and citizens. He knew very well of the Ivory Tower syndrome that can occur at institutions of higher education. He also added a certificate program much like John has been working on. These were winter short courses for farmers and citizens during winter break. My grandfather took advantage of these courses and was proud of his certificate.

    During Kenyon's time as president between 1906-24 UMass. grew with balance. Not only were buildings built for other courses of study but buildings like Stockbridge Hall were added to the campus to ensure a balanced system and to represent the importance and be a reminder of the agricultural mission. In the early 1990s the landscape in front of Stockbridge Hall had been neglected as had been the original mission just as the new local small farm movement was being revitalized in the public sector showing great potential for the future. I developed a project called "Stockbridge Spruce-Up Days" Physical Plant brought in some soil for what had eroded away and mulch to avoid future erosion. Local nurseries donated new plant stock and on a weekend the ag. administration leaders and some farmers pitched in with shovels and wheelbarrows and beautified again the area. I'm sure Kenyon and Levi were smiling from above.
    This was not the answer to the problem but a simple sign that local agriculture was not dead in the real world and nor was it to be continued to be neglected on campus. The university then continued to renovate the building with roof work and other renovations.
    Can what Kenyon Butterfield did 100 years happen again? Why not? Is food and farming any less important? Is there any less a need to a balanced approach respecting the importance of the original mission?
    The concept that led to the Land Grant system started in the 1840s in Northampton Ma. with a handful of farmers and concerned citizens. If they could develop it there's no reason we couldn't revitalize it. We must assemble the truths John speaks of and bring them to higher administration of the University as well as the legislators and citizenry with the same level of dedication and planning as has happened in the past.

  2. It was disappointing to find GMO corn at the UMass. Field Day in Deerfield. Seed saving seems like a need for the local sustainable farming future in the area.

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