Partnership across UC campuses will prepare the next generation of leaders in organic agriculture

Students gather in an agricultural field around instructors
UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology student staff share their knowledge of organic agriculture with first-year students. Photo: Damian Parr

A grant of more than $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will support a University of California collaboration to improve and expand undergraduate education in organic agriculture, with an emphasis on supporting underrepresented students. The project will be led by UC Santa Cruz, in partnership with UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR). 

The grant award demonstrates the educational leadership of this group of UC campuses, which are among the most well-established and widely respected university-based organic agriculture programs in the country. Each partner campus and UC ANR will bring unique academic strengths and distinct regional knowledge and networks to the collaboration, in an effort to broaden the student educational experience beyond what any one campus could offer. 

Over the next three years, the project will establish new options for courses and advising across the three partner campuses and provide students with more opportunities for experiential learning and research internships with UC ANR. These efforts come at a time when organic production has been growing rapidly, resulting in increased demand for professionals trained in organic-centered research, extension, and grower services. The new programs will prepare students for these roles and will be especially focused on underrepresented students. 

“We need more diverse voices in organic agriculture leadership if we ultimately want to improve the agricultural system,” said UCSC Professor Stacy Philpott, faculty director of the Center for Agroecology and project director on the new grant. “Diversifying the field and making sure that the experiences and knowledge of many different communities are represented will push us to new places in the future.”

Co-leads on the grant include UCSC Center for Agroecology Research and Education Coordinator Damian Parr, Ph.D., UC Berkeley Assistant Professor and Co-Associate Faculty Director of the Berkeley Food Institute Timothy Bowles, UC Davis Professor and Faculty Director of the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute Ryan Galt, and UC ANR Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist and Presidential Director of the UC Organic Agriculture Institute Houston Wilson.

Expanding course and internship offerings

students plant strawberries in rows
Center for Agroecology student interns practice planting
strawberries. Photo: Jim Clark

To better support students in becoming the next generation of organic agriculture leaders, the grant project will combine the best educational offerings from across the UC system. A new intercampus exchange program will be developed to guide students in the UC Santa Cruz Agroecology B.A., the UC Davis Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems B.S., and the UC Berkeley Food Systems Minor to take courses at any partner campus and apply the credits toward completion of their organic agriculture-related degree program. This will help students follow their interests across the biophysical science and social science aspects of organic agriculture.

UC Santa Cruz will also lead development of a new seven-week, system-wide field quarter program, with a supercourse in organic agriculture. The supercourse cohort of students will travel together to farm operations, UC campuses, and UC ANR field stations statewide for experiential fieldwork focused on organic agriculture production, research, and policy. The UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology will serve as the primary host site for the initial supercourse offering in 2024, and the UC Santa Cruz Environmental Studies Department will lead instructional development, with administrative support for the fieldquarter program provided by UC ANR.

Additionally, UC ANR will launch a new program to connect students from partner UCs with internships, paid student staff fieldwork opportunities, and professional development and mentoring, through participation in UC ANR Cooperative Extension-led organic agriculture research projects. Joji Muramoto, a UC ANR Assistant Cooperative Extension Organic Production Specialist based at UC Santa Cruz, is the system’s only extension agent focused specifically on organic agriculture, and he will contribute to designing the internship program to meet the needs of both students and the state’s organic farmers. 

Muramoto says California leads the country in organic production, with one-in-five U.S. organic farmers located in the state. Yet specialized organic extension services have historically been lacking. Training more students in this field could help to fill the need.   

“Both production-wise and in terms of history, California is one of the states leading the organic movement, and our organic farmers deserve to have more public support,” Muramoto said. “We need to respond to their unique needs and provide more extension services. Connecting extension specialists with student interns is a win-win, because the extension gets highly motivated assistants, and students gain experience with different types of agricultural research across the state.”

As part of the new internship program, UC ANR researchers will receive specialized training to build their mentoring capabilities for working with underrepresented student populations. And all of the new grant programs will strive to demonstrate how farmers and community stakeholders can have direct influence in setting research agendas, defining problems and solutions in organic agriculture, and shaping policy and extension services. 

Supporting student success 

Advising services associated with the new grant programs will be designed with the needs of underrepresented students in mind, and a Student Leadership Development Program will use federal work-study funds to provide mentored fieldwork opportunities in organic production at the UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis campus farms for students with financial need. UC ANR internship opportunities will also connect students with scholarship and fellowship funding. And campuses will host career panels featuring alumni from underrepresented groups to help students build professional networks and explore possibilities for their futures. 

Damian Parr, a UCSC research and education coordinator with the Center for Agroecology and a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Department, is a co-lead on the new grant and says the project ultimately seeks to not only respond to the needs of students but to also take its lead from the many dedicated underrepresented students who have found creative ways to chart their own educational journeys in organic agriculture over the years. 

“The core inspiration for this work has really come from watching students who are minoritized and underrepresented on campus innovate and take advantage of resources across campuses in ways that they see as being best-suited to their needs,” he said. “Pretty much everything this proposal is putting forward has been done before by students who took it upon themselves to figure out how to do it, but until now, they haven’t had the programmatic structure and support to make this as accessible to them as it should be.” 

Parr says there’s a long history of student passion driving advances in organic agriculture research and education at the University of California. In the 1970s, student-led organic farms at UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis were established to draw attention to the environmental and social costs of conventional agricultural production methods. Those efforts laid the foundation for the University of California to become a global leader in organic agriculture today. 

“UC organic agriculture has matured to a point where we have entire degree programs, centers, and institutes dedicated to this,” Parr said. “We’ve hit a threshold where we can now design UC system-wide partnerships, like this grant project, to offer even more powerful educational programming for future generations of leaders in the field.”