Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about land grant universities in the West.
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 says.
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 Reproduction.
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 careers.
"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 dairies."
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."
Indeed, 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 says.
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.
"My 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 units (farms)."
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 economics.
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 year.
"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.
Rich Doss 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 planting.
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."
"We 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 boat."
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 this."
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 40.
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."