Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening: Resources for Instructors

Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening: Resources for Instructors

Francis, Charles

Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening: Resources for Instructors By Albie Miles and Martha Brown, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, 2003. binder, $45. (Available without cost on line at: http://zzyx.ucsc.edU/casfs/training/manual/index.html)

The apprenticeship program at the University of California at Santa Cruz is one of the most successful in the U.S., with a 35-year history of training young people in the theory and practice of organic production and marketing. It has consistently attracted a large number of applicants from which to select, and there are currently about 40 in the program each year. What has made the program successful is careful attention to the practical essentials of growing organic vegetable, fruits, and flowers, as well as the details of marketing through a CSA and to the general public through their twice-weekly produce stands. It is a model for other educational organizations to emulate.

Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening: Resources for Instructors is their current effort to share this long experience with educators in other locations across the U.S. and around the world. The loose-leaf binder that carries the information is organized into three major sections: organic farming and gardening skills and practices, applied soil science, and social and environmental issues in agriculture.

The first section covers a wide range of essential recommendations for managing the organic system, including soil fertility, tillage and cultivation, propagation and transplanting, pest management, and irrigation use. In each unit there are pre-assessment questions for the instructor to use to gauge the level of understanding in each student audience, followed by detailed descriptions of the most important components of each topic. It is divided into lectures on each topic, presented in outline format so that an instructor could easily insert visual materials from local sources that help provide a link to students’ own experiences and their local production context. At the end of each lecture are key assessment questions that can be used to evaluate learning of that topic, along with detailed answers and essential references. The latter include print materials and where they are available as well as key web sites. ATTRA and the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center of the USDA is prominent among the web resources cited here.

Interspersed throughout the binder are demonstrations and field exercises, with detailed instructions as well as instructor outlines for putting these hands-on activities into action. These details would be especially useful for the young instructor who has little experience other than a personal academic degree that has been taught primarily through the lecture method in one of our classical agriculture or horticulture programs. Our experience in the Nordic Region shows that this type of hands-on activity in the field is far superior to academic classroom exercises alone, and the combination of both theory and practice where students build on their prior field experiences is better than either alone. The fact that this syllabus and learning guide is based on long experience in the apprenticeship program adds credibility to the resource. Any instructor reading through the outline of information and the exercises will quickly be convinced of its value.

The second major section on soils and soil physical properties gives an excellent overview of how soil is formed and how this complex below-ground environment functions. There is adequate detail on physical, chemical, and biological properties for the beginner to grasp the essentials and then move on to enlightened management of soil fertility under organic production conditions. There are useful figures to illustrate the major elements of the system. Although no substitute for an in-depth textbook on soil science, this resource is certainly adequate for anyone needing knowledge about the key factors influencing soil fertility and how to manage this critical resource. Pre-assessment and final assessment questions are provided.

What really sets this educational resource apart from other efforts to provide a teaching guide on any agricultural production topic is Part 3 on Social and Environmental Issues in Agriculture. There is a series of units on history and development of U.S. agriculture, social issues, environmental issues, and current thinking about sustainable agriculture. The unit concludes by exploring alternatives in production systems as well as the overall food system. Similar to other sections, this is rich with key references and current web sites. The only shortcoming of the binder and its presentation is the lack of color visuals, but these are so accessible on the web and so important to bring in from local context that they are not really missed in this overview resource book.

We have found Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening: Resources for Instructors to be an exceptional resource that is practical and well organized. When we initiated a course in organic farming and gardening in our university the two key resources we provided to students were the web sites for this manual and for ATTRA. By providing these two technical resources to students, we were able to focus most of the class time on guest lectures by farmers or field trips to their farms and retail businesses. I urge anyone who is considering offering organic farming as a formal course or a practical training activity to visit the web site of the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at U.C. Santa Cruz to review this material. You will save untold time and energy that would be invested were you to develop such a resource on your own.

Charles Francis

University of Nebraska

Copyright North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Dec 2004

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