Organic Agriculture program not weeded out

Monday, April 19, 2010

  • Students in the Gateway to Organic Agriculture course take a tour of Deerfields Nursery in Hillsburgh. (Martina Schaefer)

    Students in the Gateway to Organic Agriculture course take a tour of Deerfields Nursery in Hillsburgh. (Martina Schaefer)

  • Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming, established in 2008. (Martina Schaefer)

    Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming, established in 2008. (Martina Schaefer)

Written by Martina Schaefer

Following a year-long reprieve, the University of Guelph Senate has voted to continue offering Organic Agriculture as a degree program until at least 2014, thecannon has learned.

First launched in 2004, Organic Argriculture was on a list of controversial program cuts proposed by the Board of Undegraduate Studies last spring. After a contentious debate, the University Senate voted to eliminate most programs on the list, including Women's Studies.

However, the relatively new Organic Agriculture program was given a year to demonstrate it could increase enrolment to the minimum threshold of 40 students in three years.

Staff members were also tasked with finding suitable replacements for retiring faculty and shoring up funding for the Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming (GCUOF), a 1 hectare plot that serves as a central component to the program.

At their March meeting, the Senate voted to keep the program after reviewing recommendations to do so from both Rob Gordon, Dean of the Ontario Agricultural College, and the Program Committee for the Bachelor of Science in Agriculture.

"Certainly, when we first had concerns about the ability to sustain the major kast year, the student enrollment was very low over the last four years," Gordon said.

He said the OAC, working with faculty in the program, was able to establish partnerships with public and private enterprises with the goal of "increasing efficiencies and ensuring the program caters not just to the needs of students, but also potential employers."

The Senate motion would continue to offer the Organic Argiculture program within the Bachelor of Agriculture "until at least 2014," at which point it would be up for review again, he said.

According to Doctor Ann Clark, one of coordinators of the OAGR major who is retiring this year, satisfying the Senate's criteria required a monumental effort by both staff and students.

A new distance education certificate for organic market gardening, a garden2table program to teach school children about how food goes from the ground to their plates, a new academic living cluster for students (Organic House) and a highly successful organic agriculture conference were some of the activities dreamed up by enterprising staff members and students, both to raise money and increase the profile of the program.

While the number of students who claim OAGR as their major (between 20 and 25, according to Clark's estimates) continues to fall below the minimum threshold, some courses have seen a four-fold increase enrollment in the past year.

In the fall of 2009, GCUOF also received a donation of a passive solar greenhouse, allowing students to work year-round cultaviting produce.

"Working at the GCUOF has proven to be a wildly popular undertaking for many diverse students from many majors," with more than 4000 volunteer hours donated by students in fall 2009, Clark said.

Starting in fall 2010, Loblaws will also begin funding an endowment of $3 million to create Chair in Sustainable Food Production, bringing much-needed experience to the program faculty.

The chair is expected to start in late fall, Gordon said. "We hope the awareness that chair creates will increase enrollment even further in our academic programs," he said.

Nathan Lachowsky, the outgoing Academic Affairs Commissioner at the CSA, expressed hope that Organic Agriculture would thrive at Guelph - provided it could find its voice

"I hope that it will be appropriately advertised to current [agriculture] students, but also to new prospective students," Lachowsky said. " It will be important that this program and it's related courses remain robust and well resourced; that was the real challenge."

Organic produce is a small but growing market. According to the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, mationwide sales of organic produce surpassed $1 billion for the first time in 2006, a 28 per cent increase from the year before. Still, organic produce accounted for only 0.9 per cent of food sales in the country.

Between 2001 and 2006, the number of registered organic farms in Canada increased by 60 per cent, according to the OACC report.

Given the increased demand for farmers who understand organic agriculture techniques, it makes sense for Guelph to provide a place for them to learn the necessary skills, Clark said.

"We do have a history as an agriculture school," she noted. "This was the first [organic] major that originated from within, and it was very much informed by consultation with farmers, farm groups… but it’s an institutionalized organic offering. It's a different approach."

“There really isn’t very much that’s proprietary in organics…it’s all [based on] ecologically sound management.”

Some of her students have gone onto run their own organic farms, develop urban market gardens, and research sustainable food production, she added.

With additional reporting by Greg Beneteau.

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