UF launches one of the nation’s first organic agriculture degree programs

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-0400

Dan Cantliffe djc@ifas.ufl.edu, 352-392-1928 ext. 203
Melissa Webb mwebb@ufl.edu, 352-392-4711 ext. 216
Mickie Swisher meswisher@ifas.ufl.edu, 352-392-2201, ext. 256
Rebecca Darnell rld@ufl.edu, 352-392-1928 ext. 224

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With revenues from U.S. organic food sales climbing by almost 20 percent each year, the demand for skilled workers in this field is booming – and a new University of Florida academic program will help meet producers’ needs.

Fall semester marks the official launch of a science-based organic agriculture undergraduate degree program at UF, making it one of the first three U.S. institutions to offer this major. Colorado State University and Washington State University debut similar programs this fall.

UF has offered a minor in organic agriculture for the past year. Both the major and minor programs are administered by the horticultural sciences department, part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Florida has a growing organic food industry, but producers must look beyond the state to find highly trained personnel to manage their operations, said Dan Cantliffe, chairman of the horticultural sciences department.

“This (program) is something that’s been long overdue, especially for UF and the United States,” Cantliffe said. “There’s a big industry, a big demand and a lack of people who are qualified to do the work employers need.”

Organic agriculture is an approach to food production that involves little or no synthetic chemical fertilizer and pesticide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established strict guidelines for certifying organic farmers.

In 2005, organic foods accounted for $13.8 billion in U.S. consumer sales, about 2.5 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to a manufacturers’ survey commissioned by the Organic Trade Association, a leading industry organization. Since 1998, revenues from U.S. consumer sales of organic foods have risen by an average of more than 18 percent per year.

And it’s not just consumers who are interested in organic food, Cantliffe said. The UF major and minor programs were developed partly in response to ongoing student demand.

“Another big factor was that we have faculty and facilities that are suitable for teaching this material,” he said. “As the demand and the curriculum develop, we may expand the program.”

Three students have enrolled in the undergraduate degree program, and many others have expressed interest, said Melissa Webb, academic support services coordinator for the horticultural sciences department.

“We think a lot more (students) will come out of the woodwork,” Webb said. “There’s no set cap on enrollment, so the more, the merrier.”

About one dozen students are enrolled in the minor program, she said.

The undergraduate degree program will focus on training students to manage an organic farming unit, said Mickie Swisher, director of UF’s Center for Organic Agriculture.

“This gives you the skills and technical knowledge where if you needed to put 2,000 acres of organic crops into production, you could do it,” said Swisher, a UF associate professor of family, youth and community sciences.

The program requires 120 credit hours, most of them in science courses including chemistry, botany, genetics, entomology and soil science, capped off by several production-agriculture classes.

One required class, Principles of Organic and Sustainable Production, was devised specifically for the program; another, Alternative Cropping Systems, was modified to put greater emphasis on organic agriculture.

The minor program requires the sustainable production and alternative cropping classes, plus at least three credits of electives on each of three subjects – crop production, pest management and resource management.

Swisher helped organize a committee that developed the minor program over a six-month period in 2004. Launched in fall 2005, the minor is considered interdisciplinary and is also headquartered in the horticultural sciences department.

While the minor program was being proposed, a committee in the horticultural sciences department developed the proposal for the organic agriculture major. Webb and Rebecca Darnell, a professor of horticultural sciences and undergraduate coordinator for the department, chaired the committee. Darnell also helped secure approval from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the UF Curriculum Committee for both the minor and major.

The new undergraduate degree program will enhance the prestige of both UF and the department, Darnell said.

“The development of this program is addressing a critical need in educating students in science-based information required for successful organic production,” she said. “These students would then be in an excellent position to aid in the success of the organic industry in Florida and elsewhere.”



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Posted: August 30, 2006

Category: UF/IFAS

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