The College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) has added a major in Sustainable Agriculture to the Ohio State roster of more than 200 academic majors following official approval from the Ohio Department of Higher Education. The major will become available beginning in fall 2021, and will help to advance InFACT's efforts to lead agri-Cultural transformation among an important demographic: students—and future farmers and practitioners of sustainable agriculture.
The new interdisciplinary major will tap Ohio State's expertise across the college to prepare students for promoting agriculture using regenerative and ecologically sound practices that are both profitable and valued by neighbors and consumers. Students will develop a systems-approach to thinking about problems and important communication and technical skills, while exploring the wide-ranging issues affecting sustainable agriculture, including nutrition, social justice, the environment, economics, public policy and more.
InFACT Faculty Director and Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty member Casey Hoy has led development of the new major with a dedicated group of colleagues representing every department within CFAES as well as faculty from the College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. “It's a unique and different way of approaching training in agriculture that would prepare someone to operate a farm of any size and be entrepreneurial,” says Hoy. “Our graduates will have practical skills, be problem solvers and systems thinkers—the qualities needed for success in many careers and that will help them make the changes in the world we're all hoping for.”
While discussion of a Sustainable Agriculture major first began in the 1990s, it took Hoy landing a Higher Education Challenge grant from the US Department of Agriculture to push it through development and approval. Rather than shoehorning existing courses into the major's requirements, Hoy and his colleagues partnered with Teresa Johnson at the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching to create the new major through “backwards design”—a process that starts with a set of desired goals and outcomes for future graduates, then works backwards to map proficiencies to specific courses that ensure students achieve those proficiencies, outcomes and goals. In the process, three new courses were planned.
In addition to the carefully selected coursework, students who major in Sustainable Agriculture will gain hands-on experience at the Ohio State Student Farm at Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory on the Columbus campus, which will serve as a living laboratory. Senior Lecturer Christopher Ratcliff helped develop Horticulture and Crop Science 2307, the major's practical experience course conducted partially on the Student Farm. “The best learning happens by theorizing, then putting theory into action and coming back to think about what happened,” says Ratcliff. “Students today are spending so much time on assignments in front of screens that the opportunity to do actual farming with tangible results is powerful."
Associate Professor of Horticulture and Crop Science, Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty member, Co-advisor of the OSU Student Farm and InFACT Executive Committee Member Kristin Mercer, who helped develop the new major, notes that many students desire hands-on knowledge of food production and have questions about the sustainability of our food system and farming practices. “The new major and the OSU Student Farm will bring a lot of what InFACT does to the student level, as students practice agriculture in a living laboratory on campus and link to broader conversations about sustainable food and farming systems,” she says.
Concerns about climate change, the environmental impacts of farming and food insecurity, combined with a renewed desire to connect with the land and food-related entrepreneurship, are driving an unprecedented interest in sustainable agriculture nationwide. “There's a growing interest in agriculture as part of how you live, whether or not it's part of how you make your living,” says Hoy, who notes that similar majors at other universities are seeing high enrollment numbers.
“I think there are a lot of students who are looking for something like this,” says Ratcliff. "Gaining knowledge and experience about ecology and growing plants can support us nutritionally and economically, as well as spiritually, psychologically and morally. Ultimately the goal of sustainable agriculture is to create a more equitable and healthier society."
In addition to the new BS major and an existing graduate specialization available on the Columbus campus, Ohio State offers a two-year associate's degree in Sustainable Agriculture at its Agricultural Technical Institute campus in Wooster, Ohio. During the development of the new major, Ohio State partnered with other institutions throughout Ohio including Central State University and Lorain County Community College to connect sustainable agriculture education across campuses, enabling a consistent transfer of credits for students wishing to move on from certificate and associate degree programs to the BS programs at Ohio State and Central State.