by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
At Seattle Tilth, a student from Seattle Central Community College is spending the afternoon getting an applied science education in dirt. Specifically, it’s a hands-on internship in modern composting and soil production. Across town, another SCCC student works with the Rainier Valley Food Bank to secure goods from fresh produce suppliers. Back on Capitol Hill, a class consisting of only a handful of students is discussing the politics of food under the lens of social responsibility. The one thing all of these students have in common is their participation in the Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAgE) Initiative; learning what it takes to change the way our society grows and distributes our food.
SAgE is a collaborative project between Washington State University, several community colleges in the Greater Puget Sound region, and the National Science Foundation. The NSF has granted the program $900,000 over the course of three years to develop and implement a multidisciplinary curriculum and internship coordination system in the field of sustainable agriculture. The ultimate goal of SAgE is to not only get young people interested in careers in sustainable agriculture, but to also create an efficient means of guiding them into degrees and careers in the field.
Sustainable agriculture is a complex, emerging concept of producing and distributing food in ways that have the most positive impact on the environment while also being economically viable. In addition to the environmental impact widespread use of sustainable agriculture would have, it may be the most important factor in maintaining the American farming industry. Recent census data indicates that the average farmer in the United States is between 55 and 57 years of age. Plainly, younger people simply aren’t pursuing jobs in agriculture in high enough numbers to replace those farmers who retire or die.
But so-called “green collar” jobs are seeing unprecedented growth, especially among young people. The venture capital firm Cleantech Network recently created a jobs projection report about sustainability-focused careers, referring to such areas as permaculture and urban greenspace conservation as businesses of considerable growth in the next three to five years. Many, including those running the SAgE program, hope that young people will flock to sustainable agriculture in an era when they are abandoning traditional and industrial farming.
The central leadership of the SAgE program is at Edmonds Community College, but the conversations that brought the initiative to the region took place at every level. At Seattle Central Community College, many on the teaching staff began a discussion as far back as 2008 concerning the kinds of programs they felt the school needed but wasn’t yet offering. Educators like Dr. Grace Sparks of the Biology Department and Dr. Pete Knutson of the Anthropology Department wanted to integrate sustainability into the curriculum. The SAgE Initiative fit that ambition perfectly.
Each institution participating in SAgE offers a slightly different approach to the material. While programs such as the Skagit Valley College SAgE focus on workforce training in sustainable agriculture, Seattle Central is concentrating on creating a smooth transition for students into four-year degrees in the field. The intent, according to Sparks, is to give students a strong foundation in sustainable agriculture that is equivalent to an Associates Degree in either Arts or Sciences, then help them enter the workforce or transfer to an institution like the University of Washington to apply that experience. Today, UW offers degrees in general fields like Biology, and more specific areas like Botany or Environmental and Forest Sciences. These degrees can lead to a diverse range of jobs in areas such as urban farming and even food-focused legislation and lobbying.
Seattle itself is currently facing a number of challenges in increasingly popular trends like localism and community gardening. Just as with the housing and retail storefront markets, agricultural businesses are struggling with steep real estate costs. Sparks voices concern over “the conflicting land uses in near-urban areas and what that does to the availability of farm land and local food,” saying that the increasingly in-demand plots in and around the city become so expensive that the market “prices new farmers out of land.”
The SAgE Initiative is in its early days, still working on a formal presence for the benefit of any students interested in pursuing degrees and careers in sustainable agriculture. The SCCC program is launching a new website in the next few weeks and will then begin planning informational sessions for prospective participants. Many businesses in the region have expressed interest in offering internships and other learning opportunities through SAgE. Oxbow Farm in Carnation and Jubilee Farm in Snoqualmie want to bring students to their fields, and Seattle Central Community College would also like to work with the City of Seattle to create policy-focused internships for SAgE as well.