Growing your own food may not save the planet – but do it anyway!


Its finals week at the University of Massachusetts and I seem to find myself having really interesting conversations with students.   Kind a funny…. now that we aren’t rushing from one class to the next we are finding time to really talk with each other!  Oh well………

So a student shows up in my office asking the big question “why bother?”  You know,”… why bother try to make a difference in this world when everything looks so bleak?”  This student wanted to know how I maintain a sense of hope when we are facing “the perfect storm” of…. 1) climate change, 2)  peak oil, and 3) economic collapse.

Good question!

Rather than launching into my usual rap (which I stole from Michael Pollan’s near-classic essay, “Why Bother”), I chose to tell him about a novel I had read recently.  Right up there with James Kunstler’s World Made by Hand is a new “novel about secrets, treachery and the arrival of peak oil” (according to the book jacket).  Prelude by Kurt Cobb is a fast-paced adventure and espionage story set in the context of “the end of oil” and while a bit simplistic, the book keeps your attention.

One of my favorite scenes comes when Cassie Young, a rising star at a Washington, D.C. energy consulting firm asks her friend Victor Chernov, a former oil trader who helped her gain access to a secret report that proves global oil reserves are diminishing much more rapidly than anyone thought, “so what do we do now that we know the truth about peak oil?” It is a moment of despair, that many of us who are aware of the pending oil/climate crisis have felt from time to time.  And Victor’s response………  grow a garden! It seems this former oil trader is learning to grow tomatoes at his Washington townhouse…..  hmmmmmmmm.

While not destined to become a classic, the appearance of mass market books like Prelude suggests that common culture is beginning to accept the fact that there seems to be a oil/climate crisis on the horizon…… and of course the economic crisis is with us now….. and yes, at least one of the solutions might be to grow food for myself, family and neighborhood.

Like Pollan, Kurt Cobb (who by the way is a well-respected columnist and founding member of  the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas – USA) seems to propose a simple and doable response to the crisis we seem afraid to face.  Cobb reminds us that “fear trumps hope” and finding a source of hope is a necessary first step toward developing real solutions to the problem.

I believe that if we can’t imagine reasonable solutions to a crisis, then we are not going to look at the problem (which seems to be what most Americans are doing).  But denial of the problem is actually a quite reasonable response when you can’t imagine a solution.   So yes, yes, yes, lets grow food.  Grow food everywhere! Grow food now.  Just grow food and teach others to grow food.

This is not to suggest that a few tomatoes will solve the global climate, energy and economic crises….but it is a place to begin to find hope.  And with hope….. anything is possible.

Following the story this very patient student asked me if I really believed “the perfect storm” was imminent.   So, I took a deep breath and launched into the “do it anyway” soliloquy.

You know….. that’s the one that claims the quest for individual and community self-sufficiency is a better way to live, even if there was no crisis.   And if the perfect storm slams us sooner than anyone of us would hope….. well, then at least we have begun to take some steps to be better prepared.  So, yes…. lets learn to grow our own food.  According to Sharon Astyk, we need to become a “nation of farmers,” (with farmers described as anyone who grows food for themselves and others).  That might be anything from a single patio tomato to a family garden to a small farm.  And the rest of us need to learn to cook real food!

One of my favorite books!

At this point, my student brightened up and almost shouted “that’s it! That’s what Sharon Astyk calls the anyway theory.”

And we both recalled reading with delight her “theory of anyway” which recently has given birth to one of those Astyk “lets do it together” projects that I so love.  If you have not heard about this yet, be sure to explore the “Anyway Project.”   But the point for me was that something came alive in my formerly despairing student.

Of course not everyone wants to grow tomatoes, but we all can do something.  I bake bread, make yogurt and raise worms (for my backyard chickens of course).  You pick your own sustainable thing to do!  Ride a bike to work, volunteer at the local soup kitchen, join a CSA, hang your clothes in the sun to dry, anything …… but do something – and do something fun!

I told the student that Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her book,  Small Wonder, …..people will join the sustainability movement because “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.”

At which point we both smiled – and hope restored, we laughed.

After he left, I did a quick search for more information on the book I just recommended (sort of) and found a lovely statement from Kurt Cobb who advised that if we are going to invite others to join the sustainability revolution, we need to be creative.  He suggested that “….an alternative way of pressing your case is to do it in verse or in song or in the form of a play, a novel, a painting, ora stand-up comedy routine.” Good advice!

Well, I can’t sing or dance very well, but I can grow food.   And I can teach others to grow foodWhat can you do? How will you contribute to the sustainability revolution?


Here is a contribution to the sustainability revolution from a friend who makes videos about peak oil.  Check out Kriscan: Peak Oil Action and Adventure!


And don’t forget to keep dancing…..


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in a college program in Sustainable Food and Farming, check us out at UMass.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

Education for sustainable agriculture: A story


In my last post, I shared a vision of education for a more sustainable agriculture that helps to inform the continued development and growth of the new University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming undergraduate program.  In this post, I will present an example of one class that is representative of that vision.  But first, I’d like to thank those of you who commented on last blog and share a few of their thoughts:

  • Trying to bring sustainable ag education to undergrads and grads within a holistic integral methodology is challenging…
  • The ONE SHARED qualification for every sustainable ag related job I’ve pursued since college has been “experience”….

In addition to the testimony of teachers and thoughtful learners, there is solid pedagogical evidence which supports the idea that college students benefit from well-managed experiential classes.   But rather than citing the extensive academic literature on experiential learning, I want to share a story of an experiential education program at the University of Massachusetts.  Here is a video introduction to the Student Farming Enterprise class….


In the fall of 2007, three members of the Plant, Soils and Insect Sciences Department at the University of Massachusetts started a pilot student farming project at the UMass Crops Research and Education Center in South Deerfield, MA.  Two students planted, managed, harvested and sold organic kale and broccoli to the student-run natural foods restaurant on campus, Earthfoods Cafe.  They earned $850, which covered their costs that fall.

While the project was small, it was so well-received that interest grew immediately and the following spring 6 students enrolled in the 3-credit practicum class.  According to project director, Ruth Hazzard, the educational goals for the class and project are:

  1. To develop skills in the techniques, tools and equipment used to grow, manage, and sell vegetable and other crops.
  2. To develop understanding of soil fertility, water, pest management using IPM and organic methods.
  3. To learn how to develop, use and evaluate crop plans and budgets for production and marketing.

Some of the 2010 class

I”ve had the privilege to observe this project as faculty adviser for many of these students.   I know the students gained valuable practical and technical  knowledge and MUCH MUCH more.  They grew as confident young entrepreneurs both individually and as a team.  To watch this group make decisions together, solve problems, and share the work with enthusiasm and commitment is inspiring.


Students typically speak glowingly about the opportunity this project has offered them to complement their classroom learning with real-world experience.  Here is a short video featuring some of the students from the 2009 class talking about their experience…..

…….. ….

The project quickly developed into a year-round class, including a paid summer internship which requires that the students plan the farming enterprise during the spring semester, grow the crops in the summer, and harvest, sell and evaluate their business in the fall.  The UMass Dining Services has become a major supporter and a regular buyer of the organic produce grown by the students.  In 2010, a 25-member CSA was added to the project which will be expanded next year.  Sales in 2010 exceeded $12,000, which is used to cover costs and pay student stipends during the summer months.

Harvesting Brussels sprouts together

Plans for 2011 include expanding both production and markets to allow 12 students to gain practical experience and learn the value of working together in community toward a common goal.


Digging carrots early in the morning

This is more than a class!


This is an enterprise guided by faculty but powered and managed by students.  I’d like to end with some words from the students…..

Emily Errico, one of the students in the 2010 class reported “…the Student Farming Enterprise has been the culminating experience of my time at UMASS.  No other class has exposed me to every aspect of farming, from planning in the winter, to planting in the summer, to harvest and sales in the fall.  This class is so special because you actually run the farm and are responsible for it’s success, while working in an environment  that is still safe for learning.”

Malaika and Kaeleigh picking kale

Malaika Spencer, a Hampshire College student who took  advantage of the Consortium which allows students to take classes at any of the Five Colleges in the area claimed that …the UMass Student Farm Enterprise course has been the only course that has allowed me to explore farming as a business while still in the academic environment. We have been given the chance to create a farm operation that is rooted in academic process but manifested in real experience.”

According to Emily French, one of the students in the first class…the SFE prepared me for my current work with the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, where I facilitate sustainable purchasing relationships between farms and schools statewide.  The agricultural and marketing experience I gained during my time with the Student Farming Enterprise class provided me with skills I use in my work every day.”

For more information, see UMass Student Enterprise Farm.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

Education for a sustainable agriculture: A vision


As the coordinator of the University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming undergraduate program, I spend a lot of time thinking about education for a more sustainable agriculture.  This blog post presents a few ideas related to sustainability education. I hope you find it useful.


A report on sustainability education I helped write a few years ago stated…..

…. the next generation of students graduating from public universities will be faced with an unprecedented challenge to redesign nearly every major natural resource based system on the planet.  These women and men will inherit systems of industrial growth that are simultaneously degrading ecosystems and endangering non-human species, while offering the highest material standard of living ever known to some humans.

As we begin this task, we must clarify core community values so that science and technology may be guided to serve the needs of present and future generations.  This work will require skills, knowledge and wisdom not currently central to the academic enterprise.  Education for a sustainable agriculture must help us re-imagine and re-create our industrial farming systems in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources,no longer use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, and no longer cause harm to people or the natural world.

We must ask – are our graduates ready?

Today’s graduates from university agricultural programs are generally well-prepared to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels.

Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and farming systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.  Studies of social systems must complement studies of biophysical systems at these higher levels of complexity.

The current situation

Most science-based undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Sustainability education on the other hand, requires a broad set of learning that integrates multiple disciplines with new practical skills and the evolution of personal and community wisdom.  Lacking wisdom… knowledge can be dangerous. Human knowledge for example, has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love.  Human knowledge has degraded ecosystems and created cycles of poverty and despair.  Human knowledge alone cannot solve the problems that we have created.  To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond knowledge.

Today we need skills, knowledge AND wisdom (where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life).  More than a technical education is required.  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Rhodes former president of Cornell University wrote…..

“…beyond the complexities of sustainability as such, there lies the larger question of sustainability for what purpose. For sustainability will be best understood within the larger framework of values, meaning, and purpose — just as ‘solutions’ are best considered within the context of the global society. That is why the wisdom that the traditional liberal arts provide is such a vital part of any such new curriculum.”

Developing wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  Unfortunately, this integration is not a core value of the academic enterprise.  While some faculty try to offer a more holistic educational experience at the university, their work is generally unappreciated by the majority of their colleagues.  Students on the other hand are very supportive of these creative teachers who may be marginalized within the mainstream citadels of learning.

In spite of the dominant paradigm, teachers of sustainable agriculture recognize the value of a pedagogy founded upon a model of transformative learning that builds students’ capacity to make meaning of their experiences, and reconstruct their notion of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, ecological-self, and cosmic self.

A successful sustainability education program must focus on both the content of learning as well as the context of learning (such as the ability to integrate theory and practice through managed experience).  This ability can’t be acquired by sitting passively in a classroom, listening to a lecture, or reading a textbook.  Most adult learning (after graduation) is unstructured, random, and takes place as a result of living and making meaning out of everyday experience.  However in much of our university education, knowledge is handed over to students in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for evaluation and reward.  Power remains in the hands of the teacher.  While efficient in one sense, “normal” classroom teaching does little to nurture the curiosity, inventiveness, or leadership capacity of active adult learners.

Experiential education puts primary responsibility for learning in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learners.  While experiential education must be guided by teachers, it is not controlled by the teacher.  Teachers are responsible for creating an environment where students can explore complex questions and learn by doing –  but power is shared!

Teachers must trust students to make decisions for themselves, and encourage them to either learn from their successes or learn from their mistakes.

Learning “about” sustainable agriculture is not enough.  Most university programs are grounded in a commitment to building instrumental knowledge, that is knowledge about how the world works.  Instrumental knowledge is used to manipulate the environment, and while important, it must be balanced by communicative knowledge of values, ideas, feelings and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom, equality and love.

Communicative learning uses different teaching methods than instrumental learning and may rely on metaphors and analogies in addition to facts and data to unravel complex human and human-natural system relationships.  Learning tools such as decision cases, dialogue, service learning, and story telling are core to communicative learning.

The history of the university is one of continual (if very slow) change.   I am confident that once the urgency expressed in the opening statement in this blog becomes more widely accepted, education for a sustainable agriculture will become more of a priority within the academy.  At least, that is my hope.

As always, your comments are welcome.  And here is a related story.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.