USDA grant boosts opportunities for sustainable agriculture education

Supports efforts to bring more high school and community college students into four-year agriculture programs

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Environmental Studies associate professor Stacy Philpott will direct the three-year program to help attract regional high school and community college students into four-year sustainable agriculture programs. (Photos by Abby Huetter)
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UC Santa Cruz students work the fields in the 2013 spring Agroecology Practicum class taught by Damian Parr, who co-wrote the grant.

UC Santa Cruz has a history of education and innovation in agroecology and organic farming that stretches over four decades, and hosts one of the oldest campus farms in the nation. A new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture builds on those strengths to expand opportunities for UCSC students studying sustainable agriculture, and for Central Coast junior college and high school students who might not otherwise have considered a career in agriculture.

Community college partnerships

The three-year, $730,000 grant is part of the USDA’s Higher Education Challenge program, which funds efforts to improve agricultural education in the U.S. and attract students to the agricultural sciences. UCSC will team with Cabrillo and Hartnell colleges, along with the “Food, What?” and Greenaction programs that serve high school students, to bring more students into four-year degree programs focused on sustainable agriculture.

“There’s so much history in agroecology and organic agriculture both at UCSC and throughout the region,” said Stacy Philpott, who will direct the grant. Philpott recently joined UCSC’s Environmental Studies Department as an associate professor and holds the Ruth and Alfred Heller Chair in Agroecology.

“The time is right not only to build on that history and strengthen the sustainable agriculture curriculum here at UCSC, but also to reach out to students who are underrepresented in the agricultural sciences,” Philpott said.

More courses and internships

UCSC students will see a better-integrated set of courses and internships in agroecology and sustainable agriculture, along with new opportunities to get hands-on experience working at the campus’s 30-acre organic farm and campus gardens. “Our hope is to strengthen the existing curriculum and create more cohesive programming,” Philpott said.

Philpott also hopes to see more students from Cabrillo and Hartnell choosing UCSC to pursue a degree that focuses on agroecology and sustainable agriculture. “Currently, few students from the region’s Latino communities choose to pursue agricultural sciences as a career. We want to show them that there are chances to get involved in organic and sustainable agriculture at UCSC and other colleges. And we want to make sure they’re taking the classes that will smooth their transition to four-year schools,” she said.

 UCSC’s Transfer Preparation Program will work with Cabrillo and Hartnell to improve the transfer process for students interested in agriculture-related studies.

Programs for high school students

That effort will extend to high school students through the grant’s non-profit partners, “Food, What?!” and Greenaction. Both programs work with Latino students in the Santa Cruz and Salinas Valley regions.

Damian Parr, research and education coordinator for UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) who co-authored the grant, said students from Watsonville will visit the UCSC farm, sampling cover crops in the field and calculating fertility benefits. "Our goal is to create personal connections for the students where they can experience hands-on farming and agricultural science fieldwork, and visualize the possibility of pursing a four-year agricultural education,” he said.

Philpott said the program will work with UCSC’s Educational Partnership Center "to tap into their expertise at reaching out to underrepresented high school students and their families, and letting them know about things like Hartnell College’s new agriculture facilities and the program in horticulture at Cabrillo.”

Other UCSC participants in the project include Environmental Studies professors Daniel Press, the CASFS executive director, and Carol Shennan, and Deborah Letourneau, along with Education Department professors Doris Ash and Kip Tellez.