Who should study sustainable food and farming – ONLINE?


I was contacted recently by a teacher in a metropolitan area who wanted to quit his job and start a farm. While this might sound strange to many, it is an inquiry I’m getting on a fairly regular basis lately.  He asked me if I thought he should take one of our university online classes in Sustainable Food and Farming.  _________________________

I usually try to avoid giving someone I don’t know advice, but this time I told him “NO!”  Don’t take more classes!  Anyone with a strong educational background would surely be comfortable studying sustainable food and farming online – but THAT is not what most folks need to be successful in farming, food marketing, or working in the area of local and sustainable food advocacy and education. 

What they need is practical experience!

I advised this individual to volunteer or intern at a local farm, food market, or non-profit for at least a year – more is better.  I realize that lots of people today are looking for education related to backyard gardening, homesteading, farming, and creating a food related business – but I still can’t recommend university online courses for most people.  There are other (less expensive) options such as the online workshops offered by the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project.  These workshops are an excellent, inexpensive way to enhance your learning.

I advise most people to not take university online courses, but I do recognize for some people college credit is important.  So we need to ask….

Who should study sustainable food and farming – ONLINE?

Based on our experience with students at the University of Massachusetts, the answer is clear.  The online approach is perfect if you;

  • …recently graduated from high school are not quite ready to make the leap to college – but plan to do so in the future, or;
  • …are working in a food or farming related business and want to earn academic credentials to improve your chances getting a loan or a grant, or;
  • …are studying at an academic institution that doesn’t offer this area of study and can transfer the academic credits, or;
  • …are already involved in a career and want to explore your options in a food or farming related enterprise and earn an academic credential.

We have had students in all four of these categories take online classes with us at UMass.  Most have given our classes very positive evaluations.  Those few who were disappointed were the same folks who really would have been been better off learning to farm by farming!

Nevertheless, the world is full of people who are unhappy in their present line of work (or study) and are looking for something more fulfilling.  Many of us believe our world would be better off if we had lots more local farms and markets.  So we encourage a select few to get both the practical experience AND to study the academic side of the local food system either online or in college.

But is there good work?  Great question!

I’ve written about this before in “Are there sustainable agriculture jobs after college?”  We must realize there is a difference between “finding a job” and engaging in good work.  In sustainable food and farming, finding a job (even during difficult economic times) may be easier than discovering your calling in life.   I encourage you not to sell yourself short.  Consider this short essay by Derrick Jensen Who Are You? before you choose a career path.  And recognize that in a rapidly changing world, experts suggest that the work that will be needed (and rewarded) 10 years from now, may not even have been invented yet!

Just a few of the areas of good work taken from my “finding work” page are:

  • small farm management
  • managing cooperative food store
  • processing local food for local sales
  • farm and nature center curator
  • urban community development food/garden educator
  • sustainable farming project manager and educator
  • and many more…..

Local farming, direct marketing, and being engaged in advocacy or education related to sustainable food and farming is good work!  But is it for you?

If you want to learn to farm or get involved in some aspect of the local and sustainable food business, just do it!  Apply for a job, volunteer or intern.

But for those individuals who fit one of the four categories above, the online approach may indeed make sense.  We currently have about a dozen students involved in our 15-credit Certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming and about 200 or so students who take individual online courses with us each year.  Anyone with a high school diploma or GED is welcome to take our online courses.

If you are one of the select few for whom online university classes make sense, check out these  5-week online classes offered this winter:

Winter Session Online Courses (December 17 – January 19, 2013)

And see this link for a description of the 15-credit Online Certificate Program.

Price:  the cost of online courses offered through UMass Continuing and Professional Education vary, but our courses cost $371/credit, which is a lot – but much less than “going to college.”  There is also a $45 (one time) registration fee.  Generally financial aid is not available for online courses unless you are a full time university student.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.


2 thoughts on “Who should study sustainable food and farming – ONLINE?

  1. Hi – it’s possible that I am the former teacher referred to in the post. Here’s the reason I was interested in the course:

    I worked on a farm for 8 years while in high school and college. I have a ton of experience with the grunt work of farming. I have no experience with the business side and was looking for courses that would help me learn how to market and sell my produce.

    I have spent 20 years working with urban youth as an OB instructor, teacher, and principal. I have grown very interested in how we feed our young people, so I am exploring ideas of urban farming, 100 mile farm, to sourcing local produce to school cafeterias.

    Thanks John for your work, your bio was very inspiring.


  2. Aloha Dr. Gerber! I am taking sustainable farming classes online for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I LOVE to eat. I want to eat healthy, and do it for a LONG time. I care greatly about my home. My farm, my island, and my planet. I have some farming experience. I was a goatherd at a dairy. While are animals were treated very well, and we made good cheese, I always felt that we were not sustainable. We depended far to much on the electric company, the water company, and the feed store. Now that I have my own farm, I have already cut off the electric and water companies. It is my goal to to feed the land, to feed the plants, to feed the animals, to feed my family and I. I am taking online classes because I am incredible busy during daylight / normal school hours!

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