by Heidi Broadhead
photo by Brian Charles Clark
“Agriculture is not a sexy word,” says Dr. John Reganold, Regents Professor of Soil Science at Washington State University, talking about the difficulties of recruiting students for agricultural careers.
“Well, to me it is. I really like agriculture. I really like soil.”
The 18 organic ag majors now studying at his school probably agree with him.
WSU has long been the premier agriculture education institution in the state. Established as a land-grant university, the school opened in 1892 as Washington Agricultural College and School of Science with the mission of giving people in farm communities around the state the chance to study agricultural science and other topics, including military tactics, home economics, and classical studies. WSU remains the primary institution for anyone wanting to study agriculture in Washington, with 1,241 students enrolled in the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. Although the university had a more than 20-year history of research in organic agriculture, WSU did not offer this major until recently, after it became apparent that the demand for organic products was increasing.
Dr. Reganold, one of the preeminent soil researchers in the country, saw the opportunity for WSU to take a leading role in providing organic agriculture education opportunities to meet this growing demand. When the National Organic Program was established in 2002, along with the USDA certification, he approached his fellow soil science professors at WSU: “This is happening, guys.”
They began developing a curriculum and building support for an organic ag major in 2002. The university approved the first and only organic ag major in the country—officially called “Organic Agricultural Systems”—within the newly established, interdisciplinary Agricultural and Food Systems department (which now has a total of 119 students). The first class started in fall 2006.
Now that Dr. Reganold is getting weekly calls from prospective students, or from prospective employers looking to hire organic ag students, he admits that organic ag is becoming more sexy.
“It certainly wasn’t 20 years ago when I started doing organic research,” he says. “People supported my research, but it wasn’t popular.”
As recently as the early ’90s, less than 1 percent of the national food and beverage market was organic, according to Dr. Reganold. In 2008, it is expected to reach nearly 4 percent.
“It’s increased by about 20 percent each year,” he says. “We can’t keep up with the demand.”
He expects enrollment to increase to 40 to 50 students over the next few years. WSU has already added an online certificate in organic agriculture for undergraduates (new this year), and they are in their first year of the Graduate Certificate Program in Sustainable Agriculture, which has seven students.
“The job possibilities are unlimited,” says Dr. Reganold, who explains that people with organic ag degrees can be buyers for organic food companies or restaurants, become certifiers for the government or independent organizations, work on farms, or own their own farms (“only the millionaires can do that,” he says, realistically). He has been contacted by restaurants in Texas and farmers in Eastern Washington, all looking to hire people with organic ag degrees.
Dr. Reganold estimates that half of the students who’ve enrolled in the program so far are from rural backgrounds and half come from urban areas, but with some exposure to agriculture. Among the people who inquire about the program, though, more than 50 percent have no ag background whatsoever, and many of them are looking to change their careers: “They think, ‘If I were to do something growing food or working at a restaurant or working for an organic company, that would be fun.'”
Some are dissuaded when they learn that they have to go back and take basic chemistry, biology and math just to qualify for the more advanced soil and animal science courses required for the major. Another challenge for people who do not come from an ag background is that they are not familiar with the amount of work that goes into an organic CSA vegetable farm.
“All students—graduate and undergraduate—are required to complete a 6-credit practicum on the organic CSA farm,” says Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, who coordinates the Graduate Certificate. “It has scared some people off.”
For most students, though, the WSU Organic Farm—three acres located inside a 50-acre research and teaching orchard just a mile and half from campus—provides a valuable opportunity for them to get hands-on experience managing a working organic vegetable farm and CSA that sells 100 shares and has a waiting list of 30 families a year.
“It was the pinnacle of the organic ag major for me,” says Mark Knue, an undergraduate in the program. “You meet a lot of cool people and learn about a lot of different cropping systems. Once I saw all the labor investment that’s required, it made sense to me that there is such a premium on organic foods.”
Knue grew up in the SkagitValley, and while he didn’t live on a farm, his parents are ag teachers at Mt. VernonHigh School. He was an officer in FFA, and a golfer, and he participated in turf grass competitions at state and nationals. He went to WSU to study international hospitality management and, he says, “I was raised a Coug.”
The summer after his freshman year at WSU, Knue’s mom introduced him to sustainable agriculture, and they took a workshop together at the Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island.
“It showed me an entirely different idea of agriculture ,”he says. “We don’t have to have monocropping—just growing one type of food—with these gigantic machines using up a lot of oil.”
Knue was a year and a half away from graduating when he looked into Organic Agriculture Systems as a possible second major.
“He came to me and proposed a double major in hospitality management and organic agriculture,” says Dr. Reganold. “And I said, “That’s a great major.'”
Eventually, Knue would like to own his own restaurant that is locally sustainable and supports as many local producers as possible. “When people drive up to my restaurant,” he says, “I would like them to see something growing there.”
Emily Rude was part of the first class of organic ag majors in fall 2006. She came to WSU because she wanted to learn about wheat.
“I spent a lot of time on my grandma’s farm in Kansas growing up,” says Rude, who was born in Chicago and attended junior high and high school in Seattle. “I wanted to study something that would make a big difference.”
She started experimenting with soil when she was 15, living in the Wedgwood neighborhood of Seattle.
“I had a great bout with flax,” she says. “It caused my parents lots of headaches, especially when I turned our side yard into a terraced set of plots for my flax.”
Although she also considered attending Evergreen State College to get organic farming experience, Rude decided that WSU would give her the best chance to learn about agriculture on a larger scale. “If you come to the farmer who has 5,000 acres with a background in small organic vegetable farming, he’s not going to listen,” she says. “You need an extensive knowledge of all forms of conventional agriculture.”
Rude is also majoring in soil systems, and she is interning at the university’s Winter Wheat Breeding Program, which is dedicated to finding new varieties of wheat that can contribute to more sustainable methods of agriculture in our state. Her current project is trying to find a wheat that mimics the natural system.
“It’s difficult to maintain yield, because the energy of the plant is focused toward the seed,” she explains. “The challenge is to find a perennial wheat that has as good or better yield as the current methods.”
Rude is optimistic that they will reach their goal (she says they are at 70 percent now), as soon as they can prove to farmers that the new wheat will be profitable.
“I know farmers who’ve spent a ton of money for precision ag equipment—weed seekers with 40-foot booms that help them save money on herbicides,” she says. “So it’s not impossible getting them to invest in new methods. But it has to actually work. I’m totally confident that it can become the new paradigm.”
Her experience highlights one of the key benefits of studying organic ag at a major land-grant university—access to research and internships. Organic ag majors at WSU also benefit from exposure to a wide variety of agriculture programs—soil science, horticulture, food science, and animal science, for example. In fact, OAS students are required to take 32 credits in other AFS departments, such as Animal Science, Natural Resource Ecology, and discussion-based classes such as Ag, Environment, and the Community.
“That class had kids from large-scale conventional farms, some with no ag experience, and some from small-scale organic ag,” says Knue. “Everyone listened to everyone’s opinion. I learned a lot hearing from the person from a large-scale family farm about what they have to do to keep their heads above water, like selling to large corporations.”
Knue admits, though, that there can be a stigma against organic in some of the general ag classes. “The TAs didn’t know much about organic. The message is ‘organic is an option, but we’re not really going to talk about it. You can’t learn animal husbandry here or any holistic styles,” says Knue of his experiences in the large animal science class, for example. “It’s just antibiotic intensive, high volume production, which is good in a way. You have to learn what’s happening so you know what needs to be done to fix it.”
For more information about Washington State University’s Organic Agricultural Systems major, visit their website
Heidi Broadhead writes for Amazon‘s books blog, Omnivoracious, and Fantagraphics‘ BEASTS! series. She showed her first lamb at the fair in Malad, Idaho when she was seven.