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CAFES studies get innovative

February 16, 2007

After over two years of planning, the option was made official after a Faculty Senate vote in November.

“It’s been in the works for a while,” CAFES Dean Dale Gallenberg said. “We are better defining something we have already been about.”

Led by the new environmentally and economically friendly University Center, UW-River Falls has placed a heavy emphasis on sustainability in recent years. The sustainable agriculture option is another major movement in that direction.

“It fits in nicely with the direction we’re headed institutionally,” Gallenberg said.

The definition of sustainable agriculture is to be capable of being continued with minimal long-term effects on the environment, but it encompasses more than that.

“Sustainable agriculture systems preserve the environment, economy and social factors involved in production of agricultural commodities and produce,” Gallenberg said.

Sustainable agriculturalists look to solve problems within our current agricultural systems. They help to preserve environmental resources for future generations, build markets and sustainability for rural communities to ensure they stay capable of normal growth and development, and to educate consumers to make socially responsible and environmentally friendly choices on products they produce or purchase.

Maintaining the earth’s resources in a way that is environmentally friendly, yet still economically profitable is a win-win situation any way you look at it.

“It’s a fairly unique opportunity for us because there is certainly interest out there and we are filling a niche,” Gallenberg said.  “But, it’s also the right thing to do.”

The new option will be the first of its kind in the upper Midwest, giving UWRF the chance to be a leader in the growing trend nationwide towards sustainability.

“Being the first school in the region to offer an option in sustainability is an important growth direction for our University,” Michael Crotser, professor of plant and earth science, said.

Crotser has been the leading faculty member in the sustainable agriculture option proposal at UWRF.

“We thought there was a niche out there that needed to be served by educated students,” Crotser said. “We need competent people in the area of sustainable agriculture.”

Lindsay VanBeek, a UWRF student who played a large part in promoting the new option, knew immediately that sustainable agriculture was what she wanted to do with her career.

“I felt that I would try to work in a field that allowed me to work with and help improve the natural environment and the way in which humans utilize its’ resources,” VanBeek said.

Because the option wasn’t offered when she started at UWRF, Van-Beek chose to major in conservation with an emphasis in sustainable agriculture. Now near graduation, VanBeek is glad to see sustainable agriculture become its own option.

“It’s the future of farming if we are to preserve farming as the backbone of our society,” VanBeek said. “To me it means to look forward and prepare for a future in which our societies will again need to become self preserving.”

The requirements of the option are very broad, offering a wide variety of courses, ranging from business to environment and agriculture.

Some of the courses in the major are organic production systems, organic certification principles, soil and water conservation, direct marketing, environmental sociology and business ethics.

It is an option that faculty in CAFES anticipate will attract students who normally wouldn’t consider an education in the agriculture, food and environmental science fields.

“We’re looking to attract non-traditional, urban students who are interested in protecting their environment and being socially responsible,” Crotser said.

Although there are still some kinks to be smoothed out, students can begin taking courses towards completing the option.

The new option has yet to attract its first student, but that is normal when a new curriculum is first introduced. It takes a while to get the word out and educate students on the particulars of the option.

“We know the interest is out there, otherwise we wouldn’t be offering it,” Gallenberg said. “We are in the stage of marketing the new option.”

UWRF is currently partnering with Chippewa Valley Technical College and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service on a half-million dollar Challenge Grant proposal from the United States Department of Agriculture. The grant would bring much-needed resources to further the organizations’ efforts and advance the technology of sustainable agriculture.

Though still in the beginning stage, the new sustainable agriculture option already has high hopes for the future.

“Our goal is to have it grow into a full-blown major,” Crotser said