Mitch Levesque drove from Maine to Washington last fall to enroll in what he'd heard was the best undergraduate ecological agriculture program in the country. He didn't stop at the state's flagship agricultural program at Washington State University in Pullman, which has more than 1,000 undergraduate students, 90 full-time teaching staff members and a budget of more than $60 million. He continued west to Evergreen State College in Olympia, a liberal arts school established in 1967. There, two instructors teach agriculture on a budget of less than $100,000 per year on a campus that one alumnus calls "the granola center of the universe."
"I don't want to be an
agribusinessman," says Levesque. But he does want to grow enough
food for his family and his community. "The results of industrial
large-scale agriculture are becoming obvious to society:
diminishing quality of land and water, increased frustration of
farmers." During his first year at Evergreen, Levesque studied the
relationship between agriculture and native cultures, technology
and women's issues.
"Issues like that, Pullman
doesn't address at all," he says. He has a point. Washington State
is oriented toward large-scale agriculture. After all, this is the
university renowned for developing Gaines' wheat - a highly
productive strain that increased the income of regional farmers by
$770 million over a 10-year period. It recently increased its
emphasis on biotechnology research. Washington State Interim
Agriculture Dean Larry James acknowledges that the alternative ag
community sees the university as a center of industrial
agriculture. "We're reinforcing the problem, as they see it," he
As agriculture has become more specialized,
so have the course offerings at Washington State. In 1891 - the
year after the ag college was established - its students took
Butter Making, Handling and Training of Livestock, and
Horticulture, which was described as "practical work in gardens and
orchards." In 1969, they enrolled in Meat Grading, Sprays and
Spraying Practices, and Truck Gardening. In the 1990s, they take
Mineral and Vitamin Metabolism of Livestock, Herbicide Fate and
Mode of Action, and Genetic and Molecular Aspects of Plant
And although the 60 percent of ag
students studying production agriculture at WSU is about the same
proportion as 25 years ago, they are headed for vastly different
"For the most part we're not training
people to go back to the farm," says Greg Harness, a program
assistant at WSU's College of Agriculture.
"We've gone from agriculture to agriscience ...
Twenty-five years ago they'd come here and then go back to the
family dairy. Now people who take courses in dairy are going to
work for the big outfits, or in sales - selling pharmaceuticals to
But there are students who don't want
to focus on agriscience, or even on a single agricultural
specialty. They want to make conscious connections between food
production, nature and society. They aren't going to land-grant
universities to learn this approach; they are going to places like
Evergreen. That college's program, which has a combined capacity of
70 students for its classroom-based Ecological Agriculture and its
farm-based Practice of Sustainable Agriculture, regularly has 100
on its waiting list.
"They're not interested in
the land-grant programs," says Pat Moore, sole faculty member in
Evergreen's applied program, and manager of the school's two-acre
organic farm. "The students don't want to study just apples, or
nematodes, or potatoes. They want a full approach to diverse
agriculture, and the land-grant universities haven't been doing
that - or they're just starting to."
most graduates from Washington State's ag school are likely to be
making a living selling fertilizer, promoting dairy cattle, or
working on the Chicago grain exchange. "Entry into farming is
tremendously expensive," says Tim Nichols, the assistant to the
director of academic programs at Washington State. "To make the
investment is overwhelming, if you're not inheriting it."
Robin Starkenburg, who graduated from Washington
State in 1992, agrees. "Most places you're not looking at $100,000
- you're looking at $1 million to get started," she
She grew up on a dairy farm, and was
planning to make her living the way three generations of her family
before her did. But as a junior in high school, she was crowned
alternate Whatcom County Dairy Princess and sent out to educate the
public about the dairy industry. To her surprise, she found many
people were ignorant about where their food came from, and why
dairy products were good for their health.
heart is with the cows," she says. "But I felt there was something
more I should be doing."
So she majored in
Agricultural Communications, and took a job in promotions for the
Holstein Association, U.S.A., Inc. "In agribusiness I see more and
more opportunities, but ... I think there will be less production
Recent Washington State graduate
John Thulen is one of the rare ag school graduates who is farming.
But he says he probably wouldn't be driving a tractor today if the
land hadn't already been in the family. A fourth-generation farmer,
he now farms 2,000 acres of cucumbers, peas and vegetable seed with
his father on the Mt. Vernon farm where he grew up. He graduated
from Washington State in 1991 with a degree in agricultural
Thulen was instrumental in persuading
his father to buy a $200,000 cucumber-picking machine this year. He
hopes it will allow the family to drastically reduce the need for
300 laborers who spend a month in the field each
"Boy, if we could cut labor from 300 to 20
people, it'd be tremendous," he says. He thinks the picker could be
paid off in four years with saved labor costs. This is what
Washington State teaches. "The education is in money management ...
how you can improve, how you can mechanize," he says. "If it's
going to make a profit, how can you not do it?"
Evergreen State graduates see things
differently. They see agriculture as a "place for social change,
for the nature aesthetic," according to Pat Labine, who teaches
ecological agriculture at Evergreen.
graduated from Evergreen last year with a degree in ecological
agriculture, after dropping out of a traditional ag economics
program at the University of Idaho in the late 1970s. As part of
his course requirement at Evergreen, he started the Kitchen Garden
Project in Olympia last year. The project provides low-income
people with vegetable seeds and raised beds for
This year, the project gained
non-profit status and grant funding. With Doss at its head, the
project installed 86 gardens in the Olympia area and on the nearby
Skokomish Indian Reservation. Six interns from Evergreen helped
with the expanded project.
"You see things like
little kids out there with their moms growing produce, which is a
generationally lost art," he says. "It works really well in
empowering people and providing extra food for them."
Labine, who has coordinated the ecological
agriculture program since 1981, says that it took some time to
change the program's reputation from a haven for slackers. "I had
to clean hippie house," she says. "My one trick was to put a
chemistry prerequisite in the program. That did it. One step." For
the last five years she's had a waiting list.
This sort of success hasn't gone unnoticed at
Washington State. University officials plan to broaden their ag
program to make it appealing to students it hasn't reached yet,
including those interested in alternative agriculture. In the
currently offered course, Horticulture and Society, students study
gardening "for personal, economic, environmental and social
benefits." And the university is thinking not only of broadening
its undergraduate agricultural degree to include environmental
issues, but of forming a joint ag program with Evergreen as well as
with other colleges in the region. As Interim Ag Dean James puts
it, "we can't be an island unto ourselves."
currently produce technically competent students," says David
Bezdicek, a soil science professor and director of the university's
Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. "I think
where we need to improve is more interdisciplinary skills, more
problem-solving skills ... if we don't move now, we may miss the
James agrees: "I think our programs need
to be more in line with sustainable systems," he says. "I don't
think it's a big leap. I think we definitely have some very
traditional faculty, but also some faculty are very ready to do
Washington State has already formed some
successful partnerships with other schools, breaking its isolation
and attracting more students. Two years ago, Washington State's
undergraduate major in pomology (the study of apples) merged with
Wenatchee Valley College's two-year program. Washington State's
program had fewer than 10 students. Wenatchee Valley's - which had
gone through a renaissance the previous decade - had
The students spend their first two years in
Wenatchee, located in the heart of Washington's apple country.
There, they work in a research orchard and take core courses,
including four in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) - a method of
controlling pests that is as specific to each pest as possible, and
as nondisruptive as possible to the orchard's ecology. "That's 200
percent more IPM than any other horticulture student in the country
gets," says Kent Mullinex, director of Wenatchee's program. "We're
not teaching "See "em, spray "em, kill "em."
The language Mullinex uses to describe his
students and the pomology program betrays something like reverence.
His students are learning "the art and science" of horticulture, in
order to become "practically learned," rather than "practically
skilled," which Mullinex says doesn't give proper credit to the
complexities of intensive horticulture. Most of the graduates
become "consulting horticulturists' rather than "fieldmen," because
up to one-half of the students in the program have been women. The
graduates are successfully getting jobs in an apple industry that
is increasing in both size and complexity (see story page 10).
"We merged science and production," says
Mullinex of the collaboration between the two schools. "Our
graduates actually know the industry and the science."