Agroecology major available this fall

New major responds to student interest, campus excellence

Two people examining grain in the wheat field at UCSC
The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden are valuable resources for students who want to study agroecology. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

For years, agroecology has been a hallmark of UCSC's programming, with faculty conducting pioneering research, students gaining hands-on research and practical experience, and alumni making transformational contributions to the field and to organic farming. The only thing missing was an undergraduate major. 

That's about to change.

Beginning this fall, students will have an opportunity to enroll in a new agroecology major, an interdisciplinary program housed in the Environmental Studies Department.

As an academic discipline, agroecology focuses on the basic ecology of agricultural systems with the goal of designing farming methods that conserve resources, maintain yields, and protect the health of people and surrounding natural landscapes. It encompasses conservation biology, political ecology, and political science and builds on ecological principles such as nutrient cycling, biodiversity, and predator-prey relationships. 

"A lot of sustainable agriculture programs don't include the social sciences," said Stacy Philpott, a professor of environmental studies and the director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). "They call themselves interdisciplinary because they include chemistry, physics, and biology. We are thinking about chemistry and biology—but also about the sociological and political ramifications of food production."

Critical topics include farming practices, the use of pesticides and herbicides, corporate control over seeds, and problems related to food distribution and access.

The new major incorporates ecological concepts, the development of sustainable agricultural systems, and hands-on experiences. The core curriculum builds on three classes and at least one internship: a natural science-focused lab course based at the UCSC Farm; a social science-based class that focuses on food justice aspects of agroecology; and a hands-on class that establishes the foundation for subsequent independent work, said Philpott. Like the environmental studies major, students must meet a senior exit requirement by writing a senior thesis or doing a senior-level internship, or taking a senior seminar or capstone class.

Students have access to CASFS, which manages the UCSC Farm, perhaps the oldest university-based organic farm in the country, and the Alan Chadwick Garden, both sites where undergraduates have opportunities to work, learn, and intern. 

"International leaders in their field"

Damian Parr (B.A., Kresge College, environmental studies, 2000), research and education coordinator for CASFS, was instrumental in getting the new major approved, having helped design a major at UC Davis in sustainable agriculture and food systems. Parr experienced learning from "international leaders in their field" at UCSC before earning a master's in international agricultural development and a doctorate in agricultural and environmental science education from UC Davis.

"UCSC has played a lead role in advancing this field from the very beginning," said Parr, who is also a 1991 graduate of the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture. "There were robust academics doing research and developing courses decades before anyone else. The apprenticeship and the student garden project and farm were way ahead of their time."

Over the years, the program integrated practice and partnerships with community stakeholders to encompass justice and inclusivity, environmental degradation, pesticide management, and wildlife and water conservation. "It's been my goal to create a major like this," he said. "It's central to our mission as a hybrid liberal arts and research university, to have commitments to both the ethical and empirical sides of research and education."

Environmental Studies has offered a "concentration" in agroecology that has been popular with undergraduates, attracting 25-30 students per year. In addition, 250-300 undergraduates take agroecology classes and internships every year, according to Philpott. Courses address plant physiology, the anthropology of food, research ecology, food sovereignty and social movements, as well as farming practices and ecological stewardship of the land. Professor Emeritus Steve Gliessman literally wrote the book on agroecology, authoring the first textbook in the discipline, and it was time to formalize the programming as a major, said Philpott, noting that the concentration will no longer be offered to new students beginning this fall.

"We started losing students to other schools who offered programs," she said, noting that UC Davis offers a sustainable agriculture major. "This will boost our recruitment of high school and community college students." Philpott expects to enroll about 150 majors.

"This new major acknowledges the work our students are already doing in this area," she said. "Agroecology is the way of the future, and we need to be able to train students in the theory, farming practices, research practices of organic agriculture, and the sociopolitical ramifications of agroecology. We really need it."

Philpott said she "takes issue" with the assertion that we must intensify agricultural systems to feed the world's population. "Really what the industrial food system is producing is food for cars and food for cows—grain they weren't evolved to eat—and grain to make Coke and candy," she said. "Agroecological food systems produce food that actually feeds people, here and in the developing world."

The job prospects for graduates are strong, she said, noting that alumni of the agroecology concentration are working in education, as farmers, in research positions at the Almond Board of California and Driscolls, coordinating farmers markets, in the cannabis industry, and more.

With a nod to UCSC's decades-long leadership in the field of agroecology, Philpott acknowledged the early support of Alfred Heller and his wife Ruth, who were early and vocal advocates of an agroecology major. Their establishment of the Ruth and Alfred Heller Endowed Chair in Agroecology—the first endowed chair at UCSC, which Philpott now holds—continues to provide invaluable support to campus programs. Alfred Heller died in December; a new $100,000 grant from the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, made in his honor, will help support the launch of the new major.

"This is definitely the culmination of a lot of things, and I think people have assumed we've had this for a long time," said Philpott. "We're able to launch this new major without creating new classes or hiring new faculty, and we'll be able to be more formally recognized for this education we're providing students."