AGROECOLOGY 101

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It has taken decades for the back-to-theearthers to turn the tide at N.C. State University’s ag school, but as that ‘60s anthem goes, to everything, there is a season.

As students streamed back into State’s brick buildings this fall, some were headed for a relatively new course of study. They will major in crop science or horticulture but they will also pursue a concentration in Agroecology. Since 2005, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Crop Science Department has offered Agroecology as a minor. Making it an academic concentration this year puts it on the verge of becoming a full-fledged major.

Agroecology studies farming outside the framework of the conventional, industrial agriculture practices that have dominated land grant universities such as N.C. State. Those
conventional methods focus on coaxing the highest yield from plants and animals using chemical inputs. The goal is to achieve the greatest productivity and profit without much consideration for the long-term impact on the environment. State’s evolving Agroecology program teaches students to consider how farming practices affect the environment and to explore new economic models that don’t rely on large-scale production. Understanding the interdependent role farmers play in their communities is also key.

Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, an assistant professor who came to State to start the Agroecology program, says it’s a response to student demand. The days of a farm family sending their son off to State to learn the latest in conventional methods are fading. Enrollment in Agronomy courses is slipping, she says.

“We have a lot of students that come from farming backgrounds and maybe are going back to the farm, but they’re getting degrees in Agribusiness or Ag-education, not just Crop Science,” she says.

In part, changing economics is forcing that trend. Unless a farm can really capitalize on commodities like corn and soybeans with bigscale production, farming alone isn’t economically viable. Schroeder-Moreno says many of her Agroecology students are not crop science majors but biology or humanities majors who have developed an interest in where food comes from. Year after year, that interest grows. Schroeder-Moreno says her Introduction to Agroecology class doubled last year to more than 43 students, and about half of them were female.

“Students are looking for this,” Schroeder- Moreno says. “This is not just North Carolina. It’s nationwide…We’ve worked to reinvent ourselves.”

The University of Maine created a bachelor of science in sustainable agriculture in 1988. The University of Missouri at Columbia,Washington State University and Montana State University are among the few land grant universities that have followed Maine’s lead. Change comes slowly in academic settings. Just ask the farmers.

In the 1970s, a wave of farmers spurred by the currents of social upheaval started growing vegetables and raising animals without relying on conventional methods, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. A few of them came here, to the countryside outside North Carolina’s growing Piedmont cities. They sold their tomatoes and peppers at farmers’ markets, read Rodale Institute literature, and most often worked against the advice of state agriculture extension agents. The ag schools, long devoted
to industrialized farming practices, viewed them as a bunch of hippies.

Paul Mueller, an NCSU professor of crop science and coordinator of the school’s sustainable agriculture program, shared that mindset when he came to State in the mid-‘70s.

“I had a conversion on the road to Damascus,” he says.

The farm crisis of the 1980s started turning things around, Mueller says. Laden with debt, farmers fell victim to falling commodity prices that forced many of them into bankruptcy and foreclosure.

“There was a lot of unrest and at the same time, there were a lot of people interested in organic agriculture,” Mueller recalls.

Still, it wasn’t until 1990 that the state of North Carolina set about to formally address the lack of support. That’s when the state Cooperative Extension Service commissioned a handful of task forces to look at agriculture issues. Among their missions: Give the state’s independent organic farmers some help.

Alex Hitt was one of the farmers tapped to help the state figure out what form that support should take. He and his wife Betsy founded Peregrine Farm in Alamance County
in 1981. Their farming and marketing methods—they work closely with the Car- 24 EDIBLE PIEDMONT | HARVEST 2009 rboro Farmers’ Market—are models of how to make small-scale, sustainable vegetable and flower growing work.

“There were so few of us on the ground back then who were farming sustainably or organically that they tapped as many of us as they could,” Hitt says. “Because my degree is in soils, and it’s from a land-grant university, I at least spoke their language.”

He sighs a bit at the memory of those first steps toward cooperation. Early meetings between organic farmers and state agriculture agents were not exactly studies in peace and harmony. Old-school conventionalists didn’t see the point of organic methods. Mueller, who was involved in those first task force conferences, recalls that the original leader of the project resigned in frustration. Mueller wound up taking on a leadership role.

“What I thought was going to be a one-year project turned into a career,” he says. “I realized that agriculture needed to focus on environmental aspects.”

Among the projects generated by those meetings was the Center for Environmental Farm Systems (CEFS), a joint effort between N.C. State, N.C. A&T University and the
N.C. Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services. Established in 1994, the center puts innovative and sustainable practices to work on 2,000 acres of farmland
near Goldsboro. Pasture-raised dairy and beef cows, swine raised in hoop houses instead of the common slatted floor houses, organic vegetables, no-till soil experiments, and integrated pest management are among some of the research projects the center has undertaken. Students and faculty from both universities get their hands in the dirt at CEFS. The continued involvement of academic leaders at the center helped make way for the agroecology minor that is thriving today.

The center also looks at ways to make smallerscale farming pay and works to teach urbanites the importance of supporting local farms. Mueller says he believes building connections between farmers and non-farmers will keep farming alive.

“What I think can save it is if people become aware of what an issue it is and make the connection between health, nutrition, and agriculture,” he says.

Hitt credits the persistence of academics with making sure sustainable farming didn’t get pushed aside.

“There were a few brave souls over there who said we need to pay attention to this,” he says. “They really put their necks out there against the prevailing powers and said, ‘We have to do something about this.’“

Amber Nimocks grew up in a Southern home where food meant love, and she was very loved. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she fell in love with shrimp and grits, and journalism. She is the former food editor of The News & Observer, where her monthly wine column “Let it Pour” appears. She lives in downtown Raleigh with her son, husband and two dogs. Contact Amber Nimocks at amber@amberwrites.com .


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