Doug Fox, professor of sustainable agriculture at Unity College works with students on the campus farm. Credit: Courtesy of John McKeith

Ivy Enoch grew up in western Maine hearing stories from her father, paternal grandfather and great uncles about their family farm back in Oklahoma.

“My dad’s family is all from Oklahoma and for hundreds of years lived on the same farm there,” Enoch said. “I was raised with a love for western Maine and on paternal family stories of the farm in Oklahoma.”

That farm fell out of the family’s hands in the late 1980s when the country was hit with a downturn in the agriculture economy sparked by the United State’s 1980 grain embargo against the former Soviet Union.

“I was the first generation out of four or five [generations] that did not grow up on a farm in Oklahoma,” Enoch said. “After the [grain] embargo was put in place, the farm sort of died a slow death.”

The family stories Enoch heard painted a lifestyle that was tied to the land and planted a seed within her that eventually led Enoch to College of The Atlantic, and its farming and food systems program.

Credit: Courtesy of Ivy Enoch

Farming as business and policy

In a field where upcoming generations of farmers once learned farming from their parents and grandparents directly on the land, more and more future farmers and food systems policy makers are enrolling in Maine post-secondary degree programs focusing on agriculture, food sovereignty and sustainable growing.

More and more, these programs are taking the place of that generational knowledge as there are fewer family farms in Maine than there were even a generation or so ago.

Most of Maine’s public, private colleges and universities offer some form of agriculture degree programs or certificates, according to the online database maintained by US College Search.

“So many of these programs are cropping up,” said Ellen Sabina, outreach director at Maine Farmland Trust. “These days in farming you need to know so many things to be a successful farmer [such as] science, economics, politics and policy, so going into a post-secondary program can work well for some people who want to get into farming.”

These programs range from structured classroom-based theory degrees to on-the-job apprenticeships at participating farms in Maine.

“Different people learn in different ways,” Sibina said. “So having a range of [program] options is important.”

In the classroom

Students in the University of Maine’s sustainable agriculture baccalaureate program spend the bulk of their time in the classroom where Eric Gallandt, professor of weed ecology in the school of food and agriculture, said they benefit from the faculty’s deep commitment to research in their respective fields.

“In our programs you have students learning from experts,” Gallandt said. “Students can learn about farming in a number of different ways, and we look to give them an appreciation for sustainable agriculture and guide them if they want to go on into farming or further their education with advanced degrees.”

The program, Gallandt said, takes an interdisciplinary approach looking at topics such as crop rotation, erosion, pest management, water quality, economics and ecological formats of farming that reduce the use of chemical use on the land.

Students do get some hands-on experience during the school year working at the university’s greenhouse raising greens and microgreens for use in the campus dining hall, Gallandt said, in addition to working with area farmers to offer the Black Bear Food Guild community supported agriculture share program in the Orono area.

It’s a theory-based approach that works well for students like fourth-year student Madison Lawler.

“Much of what I learn surrounds the concept of farming in a way that will not damage our ecosystem,” Lawler said. “I think the most important lesson I have learned is the sort of domino effect that intensive, conventional farming is having, [and] that it’s a big picture with many moving parts, [and] what I am learning now is now to maintain those parts so the whole machine doesn’t crash.”

Lawler cites the recent nationwide E.Coli warning in connection with romaine lettuce from California as a perfect example of why today’s farmers need to look sustainability.

“Sustainable agriculture is about more than just the food,” Lawler said “It maintains soil quality, mimics a natural ecosystem that doesn’t damage the land and ensures the production of healthy, wholesome food.”

Fellow UMaine student Delaney Overlock agrees. “Our current food production strategies, especially in the Midwest, are anything but sustainable,” she said. “I am not against conventional farming whatsoever, but [it] can be done in a sustainable, responsible way that does not harm the environment, [and] includes small farms which allows the consumer to really know where their food is coming from and know their farmer.”

Credit: John McKeith | BDN

Learning by getting dirty

At Unity College the sustainable agriculture major puts students in direct contact with farming to give them hands-on experience in the dirt.

“Here at Unity I’ve learned not only about sustainable agriculture, but how to manage and set up my own farming business,” senior Cathryn Kandle said. “Now I can’t wait to have my own farm one day and be part of a changing food system.”

Students like Kandle are the future of agriculture in Maine and the country, according to Doug Fox, Unity College professor of sustainable agriculture.

“A lot of these young farmers really want to move the whole [agriculture] industry forward,” Fox said. “We don’t have all the answers yet on how to grow food sustainably and financially, and they want to be an active part in problem solving and moving things forward.”

Fox said the students work directly with farmers in Maine experiencing real life situations and challenges faced by food producers.

“Our students can then understand the problems that need solving,” Fox said. “It’s a very participatory quest for environmentally sustainable food production.”

The Unity program also teaches students how to develop a working farm plan, secure financing, how to calculate depreciation of farm machinery and examine their own ethics when it comes to food production.

The loss of generational connections

It’s a brave new world for today’s food producers and growers, Fox said, with farmers needing to know as much about policies as they do about how to grow things.

Many students, he said, are coming into the Unity program with no farming experience and programs like the ones in Maine are replacing the generational knowledge that was once passed down right on the farms.

“Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of the traditions where older generations taught farming to their children and grandchildren,” Fox said. “Now we are seeing folks who are not from faming backgrounds wanting to get into farming, and that is where university education comes in.”

“That really speaks to the fact that we are seeing a lot of first generation farmers,” said Sabina. “I would guess a lot of the folks in these programs are coming from nonfarming backgrounds.”

Post-secondary agriculture and farming programs, she said, can help future farmers gain that food production knowledge needed moving forward.

“If I had just gone out on my own I could probably have learned as I went how to farm,” Kandle said. “But here at Unity, I have learned how to farm, and how to manage and set up to be a financially successful farming business.”

New farming paths

Kourtney Collum, chair of the food and sustainable agriculture program at College of The Atlantic, said the increased interest on the parts of growers and consumers in sustainable food production has created new career paths for students interested in agriculture.

“About 30 percent of our students actually go on to farm,” Collum said. “A lot go through the program and end up opening restaurants, creating value-added businesses or go into the policy side of food production working with nonprofits.”

In recognition of those options, College of The Atlantic’s program has evolved to include an emphasis on the social sciences.

“In addition to classic agriculture courses in soils and other sciences, we offer a lot having to do with food sovereignty, social justice and policy development,” Collum said. “Our students can fully understand why people are hungry and the root causes of hunger, and think about ways to adjust food production.”

College of The Atlantic students also work on the school’s two production farms raising vegetables and meat animals for use in the campus dining hall, to sell at local farm stands and to supply area restaurants.

“Small, diversified farms are becoming more competitive,” Collum said. “Working on our farms allows them to see how farms run as a business, how to think about things like crop rotation, see purchasing and all the nitty-gritty things that go along with running a business.”

Future farmer

Enoch, who graduated from College of the Atlantic in 2018 and works in the campus’ admission office, said she cannot imagine looking at modern farming without taking the social implications into account.

“Food is fundamental to human existence,” she said. “It is so important and the policies around it are so important that you really have to study history, ecology, economics, and sometimes even religion to get a grasp on food systems and agricultural practices.”

At the same time, Enoch said the hands-on work at the school’s farms has left her with a desire to return to the soil.

“This job as an admissions counselor is one of the first jobs I’ve had where my hands are not in the dirt,” she said. “I’ve always seemed to have my hands in the dirt and like to imagine that will always be the case, but I also want to work on becoming some sort of policy bridge-maker to bridge the gap between farmers and the people in power to make the [agriculture] policies.”

Fox said modern food production programs are sending students out well prepared to join the ranks of today’s and future producers and the policy makers.

“Students today are really looking for ways to be environmentally sustainable and financially viable in food production,” Fox said. “These programs are really oriented to send them in that direction.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.