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A History of the University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Program

The University of Maine is a land-grant school in a state where agriculture forms a substantial, but not dominant, portion of the local economy. Although the majority of the state’s economy is dominated by forest products, fisheries, and tourism, Maine farms sell between $400 and $500 million of potatoes, milk, eggs, blueberries, apples, vegetables, and other crop and livestock products each year. By the time these products have been processed, packed, and shipped, about $1.3 billion dollars moves through the Maine economy.

In a state where economic conditions are so closely linked to the management of natural resources, widespread support for improving agricultural sustainability is not surprising. Maine has a well developed organic farming organization (MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), and in recent years 50,000 to 60,000 people have attended MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair to celebrate rural culture and teach and learn more about organic methods. Maine has also seen significant political activity directed toward improving forest management practices, including a 1996 ballot initiative that sought to ban clearcutting. Ecologically responsible and economically resilient agricultural and forestry systems are important to many Maine people.

In the mid 1980’s a group of University of Maine students began to press for the development of an agricultural curriculum that would emphasize principles and practices of sustainability. Franklin Eggert, a professor of horticulture, had been conducting research for many years comparing organic and conventional vegetable production practices, but there was very little focused support within the university for research, classroom teaching, and extension activities dealing with agricultural sustainability. That situation changed, however, with the near-simultaneous retirements of several members of the (then) College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, and the concerted efforts of several administrators who consciously assembled a faculty team who could teach and conduct integrated research projects concerning sustainable agricultural systems. Within a period of about 18 months, starting in 1986, eight new faculty joined three existing members to create the core of the University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Program. Additional faculty have joined and some have left, but the creation of that clearly identified core group was a very important first step. Faculty in the program are currently distributed between the Departments of Applied Ecology and Environmental Sciences; Biological Sciences; Biosystems Science and Engineering; and Resource Economics and Policy. Women are reasonably well represented within the sustainable agriculture faculty, occupying positions in agronomy, crop evolution, horticulture, soil chemistry, insect biocontrol, and bioresource engineering.

Much credit must be given to three administrators who actively promoted the development of the Sustainable Agriculture Program. Vaughn Holyoke, who served as chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences during the mid-1980’s before assuming the directorship of Maine Cooperative Extension, hired many of the new faculty members and gave them strong support as they explored new directions in teaching, research, and extension activities. Mark Anderson, associate director of the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) and director of the Natural Resources B.S. program, facilitated the development of interdisciplinary research projects and participated actively in discussions of key issues affecting agricultural sustainability. Wallace C. Dunham, dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Agriculture and MAES director, firmly committed the University of Maine’s upper level administration to a path emphasizing the concepts and practices of sustainable agriculture. In an interview published in 1989, Dunham explicitly identified reducing reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as a way to increase farm profitability and better protect environmental quality and human health. Dunham put agricultural sustainability at the core the college and experiment station’s activities, organized and re-organized university farms to encourage sustainable agriculture research activities, and bore a considerable amount of criticism from farmers and agricultural industry leaders who opposed these changes.

Much of this criticism was set to rest in early 1989 when faculty and students of the newly formed Sustainable Agriculture Program went to answer questions at a meeting convened by leaders of the state’s agricultural commodity groups. The meeting began in a fairly tense, confrontational manner, but after it was concluded, letters were sent to the university’s higher administration stating support for the Sustainable Agriculture Program by a broad spectrum of the Maine agricultural community.

The University of Maine began offering a B.S. degree in Sustainable Agriculture in 1988, and undergraduate enrollment in the program rose rapidly to 25 to 35 students. Currently there are 26 B.S. students in the program, and many non-program students take sustainable agriculture classes because of a personal interest or a need to fill distribution requirements. Although program enrollment is not huge (the university’s Natural Resources B.S. program has 135 to 150 students), it represents a large increase over the declining enrollments in traditional agriculture degree programs that took place in the early to mid-1980’s. A key feature of the curriculum is a set of core courses covering principles and practices of sustainable agriculture; cropping systems; crop physiology and ecology; soil chemistry and plant nutrition; soil organic matter and fertility; pesticides and the environment; weed ecology and management; insect pest ecology and management; sustainable development and public policy; agroecosystem analysis and design; and directed field experience and readings. These core courses are supplemented by more traditional offerings in natural sciences, mathematics, economics, humanities, and social sciences to form a 120 credit hour, four-year degree program. The undergraduate degree program is coordinated by Mary Wiedenhoeft.

Each year there are 12 to 15 graduate students working on sustainable agriculture projects through interdepartmental M.S. and Ph.D. programs in ecology and environmental science, plant science, and biological science, and departmental degree programs in bioresource engineering, entomology, resource economics and policy, and plant, soil, and environmental sciences. Although it has been discussed, a stand-alone graduate degree program in sustainable agriculture has never been developed. The lack of a specific sustainable agriculture graduate degree program has been detrimental in that it prevents easy identification of how much activity is taking place in graduate training and research; much of this activity is attributed to departments and other programs. On the other hand, sustainable agriculture graduate students are welcomed into host departments and programs, and broaden the scope of those units. In addition to students from many different states, graduate (and some undergraduate) students come from countries that include Cameroon, Canada, China, Gernmany, Kenya, Mexico, Philippines, and Spain.

One of the major factors contributing to the success of the Sustainable Agriculture Program within the University of Maine has been the quantity of extramural funds brought in by program faculty for research, extension, and student training. Early on, a substantial grant from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation brought recognition of the program from within and outside the university, and leveraged a university commitment to develop farm sites dedicated to sustainable agriculture activities. Shortly afterword, an award of Exxon overcharge monies from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Resources to the Sustainable Agriculture Program also provided institutional legitimacy, publicity, and much-needed operating funds. Since then, additional funds have been obtained from organizations and programs that include USDA’s NRI, IPM, SARE programs; the C.S. Mott and Charles Lindberg Foundations; the Maine Potato Board; and the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station. Financially driven downsizing of the University of Maine, which began in 1989 and continues today, has made extramural funding a critical element of the Sustainable Agriculture Program’s survival and expansion.

A large amount of research effort has been directed by program members into a long-term, large-scale comparative cropping systems experiment that has been conducted since 1991 at the university’s Aroostook Farm, in the heart of northern Maine’s potato production area. This interdisciplinary project is the result of discussions that began in 1987 between program faculty, experiment station administrators, and representatives of the state’s potato industry. The experiment and associated component studies investigate the agronomic, economic, and ecological consequences of contrasting pest management (conventional, reduced chemical, and bio-intensive) and soil management (fertilizer-intensive vs. organic amendment-intensive) systems. The ‘Potato Ecosystem Project’, as it has come to be called, has won the the political support of the potato industry and has served as an excellent vehicle for training graduate students in agroecosystem research approaches and methods. The project is currently led by Gregory Porter, after four years of leadership by A. Randall Alford. An interesting result of this interdisciplinary research project has been the enhancement of team teaching efforts and curriculum coordination.

Additional faculty research work with soils, crops, and pests and associated graduate training projects take place at the university’s Rogers Farm, near the Orono campus. This site is also used for a significant amount of public outreach and undergraduate training. It is the home of the Penobscot County Master Gardeners Program, run by Cooperative Extension; the Healthy Soils, Healthy Foods project that brings elementary school children to the farm to plant and harvest their own crops after making worm compost at their school; a small heirloom variety apple orchard; numerous field days, run by extension and experiment station staff; and the Black Bear Food Guild, a student-run community supported agricultural enterprise that in 1996 provided 42 households with organically grown fruits, vegetables, and cut flowers, and ‘sustainably grown’ (minimal chemical) cereal products and beans. Despite a bleak financial situation at the university, faculty and administration persistence, and student and staff grit and effort, have transformed the Rogers Farm from a large hayfield into a useful research and education site in a period of ten years.

Maine Cooperative Extension has a full-time sustainable agriculture specialist (Timothy Griffin) and several other specialists and county educators who have actively assisted Maine farmers in developing sustainable farming practices through on-farm research and demonstration projects, and a variety of informational meetings. Over the past several years Cooperative Extension and MOFGA have jointly sponsored an annual Farmer to Farmer conference. This event has been better attended by organic than conventional farmers. In an attempt to better serve conventional farmers who are interested in making changes but who are not closely self-identified with the organic sector, extension and experiment station faculty (notably Tim Griffin and Stewart Smith) have been working with a group of farmers over the past year to establish the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society.

As this brief summary indicates, a large amount of progress has been made toward the establishment of a durable and comprehensive sustainable agriculture program within Maine’s land-grant university. More could be done if the economic picture at the university were brighter. More could be done if a structural institutional split did not place cooperative extension and experiment station staff into two separate worlds. These will be difficult challenges to overcome, but with some luck and perseverance, progress will be made.

Reprinted here with permission. Originally published as: The University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Program-factors in success. Liebman, M. 1997. Consortium News (Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) 14 (June/July 1997): 5-6.

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