Get Smart About Sustainable Agriculture

If you’re curious about sustainable farming, there’s never been a better time to start learning.
By Alison Rogers
July 21, 2008
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Ready to get some dirt under your fingernails? Here's a list of ways to learn about sustainable agriculture.

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Let’s face it. The way the world goes about the business of agriculture is changing. Take corn, for example: A crop that once was grown only for food now triples as fuel and even a component of biodegradable plastics. This increased demand, along with many other factors, is forcing us to consider the sustainability of our current farming practices. If you eat, and chances are you do, you may be curious about better food and better methods of growing food. Or perhaps you’re even drawn to the idea of working the land on a farm, instead of doing paperwork in a cubicle. Either way, it can be tough to know where to begin. But we’re here with a plate full of resources to help you get started.   

Sustainable agriculture is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Alternative Farm Systems Information Center as a system of plant and animal production practices that will satisfy human food and fiber needs while enhancing environmental quality. It is the means to ensure that the lands we farm remain productive for generations to come. The study of sustainable agriculture has made great progress, and resources abound for those who wish to learn. We’ve compiled a list of examples to get you started, from local volunteer experience to graduate university programs.  

Apprenticeships, Volunteering and Workshops

If you seek hands-on instruction, consider becoming an apprentice or intern at a nearby sustainable farm or ranch. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, also know as ATTRA, keeps a regional list of farms seeking such help, or you can simply contact farmers and ranchers in your area and ask if they will show you the ropes in exchange for a little help now and then. Don’t know of any nearby farms? LocalHarvest maintains a national, searchable database of sustainable farms. Another option is to visit your area famers market (check LocalHarvest for times and locations of markets near you) and chat with the vendors. Organic Volunteers is another good resource to put you in contact with sustainable establishments willing to share their knowledge. 

Volunteer opportunities range from part-time work on a local farm or a community garden, to traveling across the globe through organizations such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOF connects those willing to volunteer with hosts in more than 30 countries who provide room and board in exchange for the help. For a firsthand report about the benefits of WWOOFing, read Learning to Farm on the Side of a Volcano; an account of Mother Earth News Senior Associate Editor Tabitha Alterman’s experience at an organic coffee farm in Hawaii. 

Many organizations offer regular workshops to get budding new farmers started, such as Kansas City, Kan.-based Growing Growers. Check with your state’s extension service to see what’s available in your area. 

Formal Coursework

You can access sustainable farming courses online, such as Sustainable Agriculture: Basic Principles and Concept Overview, which is the first course in a series of free classes from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) organization.

But if you’re looking for a formal education, such as an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree, you have more options today than ever before. Check out this list of schools maintained by the USDA’s National Agricultural Library, and this compilation from the University of California-Santa Cruz. Most offer valuable instruction in the field as well, or even student-run farms

When You’re Ready to Farm

Both ATTRA and the Center for Rural Affairs offer assistance in many forms, including business, marketing and risk management advice. ATTRA also offers an extensive list of free online publications that will guide you through a range of techniques and skills. And last but not least, don’t forget to browse through this general list of sustainable agriculture organizations, and look into grants that may be available to you. 

Believe it or not, this is just a sampling of what’s available. If you have additional recommendations or firsthand experience, please tell us about it by leaving a comment below.

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