On a trip that lasted three weeks and covered 5,900 miles, six students enrolled in the class “U.S. Agricultural Production Systems” learned firsthand how America produces its food, and why getting it from farm to table is a complex process.
Traveling in a 12-passenger van and accompanied by Tom Morris and Karl Guillard, both professors of agronomy in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, they visited nine farms and 14 farm support businesses, from Pennsylvania to Wyoming.
“How we produce our food is a popular topic, and classroom experience goes only so far towards explaining the details,” Morris says. “I feel strongly that before any coherent discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of current production methods can occur, students need to get out in the heartland to see how things really work. They need to throw their mental model of what they think agriculture is all about on the ground so it breaks into pieces. Then they need to reassemble that model and recalibrate their brains.”
For this reason, he offered the trip as an additional ‘hands-on’ component to his class on agricultural production systems. The class is one of four new courses the plant science department is offering about sustainable agriculture and agroecology.
Andrew Brown ’14 (CAHNR), an environmental soil science major who will begin graduate studies in hydrology and agronomy at the University of California-Davis in the fall, says the group got to talk with a wide range of people working on different aspects of agriculture.
“Everywhere you go, the challenges of agricultural production are slightly different,” he says. “It was great to talk with experts in different fields, and I feel the trip provided me with a scaffold on which I can hang all these bits of knowledge I acquired.”
Initial stops were made at the Rodale Research Institute’s organic research station in Kutztown, Pa., and at a small Amish dairy farm in nearby Lancaster. As the group moved west, the land got flatter and the farms bigger, including a 2,900 acre grain farm and a 5,000 head dairy farm in the Maumee River Valley of northwest Ohio. By the time they visited the expansive 72,000 acres of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, and the enormous 100,000 head-capacity beef cattle feedlot on the plains of eastern Colorado, the group was entirely familiar with the open skies and seemingly endless vistas that characterize Middle America.
Molly Deegan ’15 (CAHNR), vice president of the Real Slow Food Club on campus, was wary about a planned visit to Monsanto, given the company’s predominantly negative image in the media.
After meeting some of their scientists, however, she says, “They turned out to be a sensible company doing a lot of interesting research. … As we made various stops, it became obvious that issues related to food production are not black and white.”
Added Jennifer Kruzansky ’14 (CAHNR), who will be starting a position with Food Corps in the fall, “The scale of the farms and ranches in the middle of the country was beyond anything I had ever imagined. Everywhere we went, we met good people who are on the front lines of agriculture in this country. This was a totally eye-opening experience.”