AG ON CAMPUS 2016
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Sustainable ag program growing at University of Maryland
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When the University of Maryland first launched its sustainable agriculture certificate program in 2010, only one student signed up.
This fall, that number shot up to 33 students, making the program the most popular area of focus within the school’s agriculture college.
Meredith Epstein, lecturer and adviser in the sustainable agriculture program, said the university has had “thousands” of agricultural students over the years.
“But a lot of people still don’t know that the University of Maryland, a four-year institution, offers a two-year, hands-on, vocationally-focused program like this.”
The institution launched the program to address the unique educational needs of people who are perhaps new to the field of agriculture or wanting to bring a more sustainable approach to a family operation.
Some of the program’s participants already have a four-year degree in another field and are pursuing a second career in farming.
Others are interested in pursuing nonprofit ventures aimed at feeding people with locally grown food in urban settings or bringing beekeeping to suburban areas.
The sustainable agriculture program is housed in the university’s Institute of Applied Agriculture, which has offered two-year certificates in various fields for more than 50 years.
This year, sustainable agriculture became the most popular major in the institute, surpassing the golf course management degree that has reigned for the last couple of decades, Epstein said.
Other universities in the country, such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst or Pennsylvania State University’s agricultural Extension, offer similar programs in sustainable agriculture, but the University of Maryland is the first four-year institution to do so in this region.
With interest in small-scale or environmentally minded farming growing, other organizations, such as Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture are growing their programs to provide internship opportunities and workshops for beginning farmers. Chesapeake College recently launched a two-year program focused on agriculture training as well.
“Demand has been growing rapidly,” Epstein said. “Some people are more academic learners and some are more hands-on, experimental learners who want to be on the farm with internships or apprenticeships. Our program is very middle of the road, so students that benefit from mixed learning or want to do both do very well with us.”
Deb Dramby, the program’s first graduate in 2012, went on to become a farmer and market manager at Willowsford Farm in Virginia’s Loudoun County, where food growing is the centerpiece of a thriving development and neighborhood.
Dramby said she still uses much of what she learned in the program — including skills she would never have anticipated needing — in her every day job, or “every time an irrigation pipe busts.”
At the university, Dramby got her hands dirty helping to build raised beds for a community garden, learning about soil health and permeable pavers along the way. She collected and studied insects and weeds and learned about pesticide use in a way she might not have through another program.
“I don’t think I would have gotten that somewhere else,” she said. “Also, I had access to the whole university and could take classes on the Chesapeake Bay and other topics. I was plugged into this whole network.”
Students in the program take classes on business management, entrepreneurship and marketing, but they also have the chance to spend time on the university’s Terp Farm, where they can learn agricultural mechanics, drive tractors or learn how to extend the growing season with greenhouses.
Some students continue beyond the program to earn a four-year degree at the university in a related field such as environmental science.
Students who enroll in the program pay University of Maryland tuition and, if eligible, can receive financial aid or apply for many of the same scholarship programs as four-year students.
Most students enroll in the program full-time and appreciate getting the workforce-focused certificate in two, rather than four, years.
So far, the sustainable agriculture program has a 92-percent rate of placing students in jobs in their areas of study by the time they graduate. Some graduates have gone on to work in traditional farm settings raising pastured pork or growing flowers to sell directly to customers.
Others work for nonprofits that teach low-income seniors to garden in Baltimore or pursue careers at agricultural extension offices.
Several of the students have focused on farming in an urban or suburban setting, Epstein said, which sets them apart from the students that have typically sought agricultural degrees at the university.
Students in the program are required to participate in a summer internship between years one and two and are told they can do it “anywhere in the world,” Epstein said.
“But they all seem to stay here,” she said. “Most of these people end up finding work in Maryland and in the region. I don’t know what it is, but people who come here tend to want to stay.”