Sustainable Agriculture at UC Santa Cruz
Patricia Allen and Martha Brown
A food and farming system that exploits neither people nor resources and lasts indefinitely has come to be called “sustainable agriculture”. While this concept is familiar and even supported in many American agricultural universities, it hasn’t always been so. For decades, issues such as soil erosion, exploitive working conditions, pest resistance to pesticides, and small farm viability were brushed aside as the price of progress in the industrialized agrifood system. Few thought about sustainability in agriculture until spikes in petroleum prices during the 1970s caused many to question the energy intensification of industrialized agriculture and its attendant problems.1 Some twenty years later a government report heralded sustainable agriculture as the fourth major era in agriculture (following the horsepower, mechanical, and chemical eras)—and one that could have more profound effects than those of the previous agricultural revolutions.2 This did not mean, of course, that agricultural universities joined a sustainability bandwagon, preferring instead to stick to the tried and true perspectives and technologies.
California, however, was an “early innovator” in the development of sustainable agriculture programs. It was in 1985, at a time when the concept was considered heretical within the agricultural establishment, that the University of California held its first conference on sustainable agriculture. The next year, the California State legislature passed the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Act of 1986, directing the Regents of the University of California to establish the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. This systemwide program is complemented by sustainable agriculture programs at individual campuses of the University of California, the nation’s largest agricultural land-grant university (see addendum).
And yet ironically—or perhaps predictably—it was a non-land-grant University of California campus that had the first and most diverse program in sustainable agriculture. Based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the work of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (the Center) is wide-ranging, including natural and social science research and multiple teaching and learning approaches. It covers a spectrum that includes research (theoretical and applied), education (practical and academic) and public service (with audiences ranging from local school children to international agencies). This article tells the story of the development of this unique program and reflects on the challenges it faces as interest in sustainability grows.
We are now at a turning point in the evolution of sustainable agriculture research and education. In the nearly forty years since the center’s beginnings, organic agriculture has grown from fragile, “fringe” origins to become a multi-billion dollar business, with companies such as Safeway and Wal-Mart starting their own organic product lines. Universities around the country are responding with new undergraduate, graduate, and research programs in organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Nongovernmental organizations and citizen groups are developing community supported agriculture, farm-to-school programs, and farmers’ markets. As we watch these developments, it’s an interesting time to look back at the way that the programs at Santa Cruz have helped drive the changes taking place today. Here in brief is the story of the center’s metamorphosis from a small student garden to a catalyst for the sustainable agriculture movement both within the University of California system and beyond.
Laying the Groundwork: a Farm and Garden at UC Santa Cruz
Beginning in 1967, long before sustainability became part of the vernacular, students at UC Santa Cruz were practicing organic gardening under the exacting direction of British master gardener Alan Chadwick. Chadwick had been brought aboard at the fledgling campus to start a garden project that would help give students a “sense of place” amidst the chaos of construction at the newest of the University of California campuses.
Chadwick brought with him a blend of gardening practices he called “French intensive biodynamic.” He emphasized a craftsman-like approach to soil care, using compost and other organic fertilizers and eschewing anything synthetic. The methods he espoused—creating double-dug or “raised” beds, placing plants close together to limit weed competition, amending the soil with organic inputs—would eventually become standard practice for many organic gardeners across the U.S. and around the world. (For a more detailed history of the Garden Project, see The Farm and Garden Projects at the University of California, Santa Cruz.3)
Some UC Santa Cruz science faculty objected to Chadwick’s approach and advocated his ouster, calling his practices “unscientific.” But the students who were attracted to the Garden Project found in Chadwick an engaging teacher with a missionary zeal, preaching an earth-friendly approach to gardening that inspired his young charges and many others on the campus and in the community. In a 1997 interview with Jim Nelson, one of Chadwick’s student gardeners, writer Christina Waters noted, “Nelson agrees that Chadwick’s offbeat approach to agriculture—one that fell through prevailing scientific cracks—might have threatened some administrators as much as his popularity with students did. ‘He had a huge following at his lectures,’ recalls Nelson of Chadwick’s spellbinding interweaving of poetry, storytelling and philosophy. ‘He would fill the giant hall of Thimann 3, and even that wasn’t big enough. He had to start giving lectures in the Quarry, so many people from town started attending.’”4
Chadwick’s students formed the core of an informal student “apprenticeship,” laboring alongside him to transform a chaparral-covered slope in what was then the heart of the growing campus into a lush, vibrant organic garden. This apprenticeship approach to teaching—in which instructors worked side-by-side with the students, gradually giving them increased responsibility—would become a hallmark of the training approach used at UC Santa Cruz.
Inspired by the garden’s success, students lobbied for a larger plot of ground on which to put Chadwick’s organic practices to work. In 1972, seventeen acres on the lower campus were set aside for an organic campus farm. Later expanded to twenty-five acres, the Santa Cruz Farm became a demonstration and teaching site for small- and medium-scale organic farming techniques. Faculty and student involvement in the garden and farm grew in the 1970s with courses in organic horticulture and agriculture offered as “practicums” through the Environmental Studies Department, as well as appropriate technology and natural history classes based at the farm. Students took advantage of opportunities provided by the farm and garden to design thesis projects and learn through independent studies. Students and staff planted orchards, windbreaks, and perennial borders, creating a diversified organic farm on the growing campus. They also designed and constructed buildings and demonstrations gardens.
In 1975, the loosely organized apprenticeship that began under Chadwick’s direction was formalized into a full-time, year-round program offered through UC Santa Cruz Extension. With a dedicated work force, the original Garden Project expanded and the farm grew to include tractor-cultivated row crops, as well as hand-worked garden beds, generating enough produce to support a small direct marketing and wholesale effort.
For many years the farm and garden were supported primarily by student fees and volunteer efforts. Student fees paid the salaries of the farm and garden managers and covered necessary materials. Dedicated community members organized a support group named the “Friends of the Farm & Garden” to assist the students and apprentice course members, provide public education, and raise funds, including enough to construct two buildings. This primarily student-, volunteer- and staff-run initiative, successful in many ways, nonetheless needed a more solid academic and financial footing in order to thrive in the University of California system.
Institution Building: the Agroecology Program
In the early 1980s three forces combined to change the role of the farm and garden within UC Santa Cruz. The first of these was a desire on the part of the campus to add academic content to what was seen as a largely recreational program. The second was declining campus financial support as reduced enrollment and tax cuts shrank the pool of student fees and discretionary funds that had long supported the project. The third was increasing public concern over the environmental and social consequences of the conventional food and agriculture system, and the recognition by the Santa Cruz Environmental Studies Department of the possibilities for wider academic application of farm and garden activities.
To develop this potential, in 1981 the Environmental Studies Department hired plant ecologist Stephen Gliessman. He created the Agroecology Program, which attracted the attention of a philanthropist, Alfred E. Heller. In 1983 Heller funded an endowed chair (the first at UC Santa Cruz) in agroecology, held by Gliessman. His arrival marked the beginning of a formal emphasis in agroecology in the environmental studies curriculum. He developed undergraduate classes and attracted graduate students from the U.S. and abroad to study agricultural ecology. With no school of agriculture on the campus, the Environmental Studies Department served as the institutional home for agricultural research and education, while the farm and garden offered an organic testing ground for studying agroecosystems. Some of the program’s early research examined such topics as polycultures—planting a diversity of crops—versus conventional monocropping systems to compare the differences in pest damage and productivity; and allelopathy, the ability of plant species to affect the growth of other plants, as a weed control option. Other projects tested alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, including predatory insects to control pests, cover crops to control weeds, and compost to build soil nutrient levels.
As Gliessman explained, “The underlying principle of our work is to understand better the ecological processes of natural ecosystems and apply our findings to what are largely manipulative agricultural systems. There is a tremendous need and opportunity to develop and promote agricultural practices that are environmentally sensible, economically feasible, and socially responsible.”5 Developing an agricultural system based on those three tenets formed the mission of the Agroecology Program. It was the first University of California project to focus specifically on what would come to be known as “sustainable” agricultural and food systems, and to pursue research, teaching, and outreach in organic production techniques. The program also reflected Gliessman’s ties to and interest in agroecosystems in other countries, particularly in the tropics. He sent graduate students to Mexico and Costa Rica to conduct research on centuries-old farming systems and was invited to teach courses at international universities. Visiting researchers arrived from China, Brazil, and Mexico to work with Gliessman on basic research in agroecology.
While the Agroecology Program was becoming more established academically, its “practical” aspects were on less solid footing. The Environmental Studies Department covered Gliessman’s salary and the endowed chair provided a small amount of research funding, but funds were still needed to continue the operation of the farm and garden programs. Kay Thornley, a student at the time, volunteered to write grants to find funding. Together, Gliessman and Thornley developed a vision for a program that would serve both University of California students and a much broader audience composed of farmers, gardeners, and the general public. They were able to secure sufficient grant funding to establish a program that kept the farm and garden apprenticeship and other efforts operating and included a major outreach component (see addendum).
In 1984 the Agroecology Program hired social scientist Patricia Allen, who initiated some of the nation’s first work on social issues in sustainable agriculture. Allen was connected to small farm and direct marketing projects as a result of her prior position as coordinator of the Small Farm Center at UC Davis. She continued to work with these groups, integrating sustainability into programs and projects from which it had been absent. In order to bring greater attention to the subject of sustainable agriculture, it was Allen who conceptualized and spearheaded the first University of California systemwide conference on agricultural sustainability in 1985. At UC Santa Cruz, she worked with faculty to establish a working-group seminar that focused on special topics in sustainable food systems. Reaching out to an international audience, in 1986 Allen and Gliessman held the first international conference on sustainable agriculture at a University of California campus, marked with the publication of style="font-style: italic;">Global perspectives on agroecology and sustainable agricultural systems.6 Allen continued to develop social science research and education projects, and consideration of social issues began to be integrated into many of the program’s activities.
As interest in organic production expanded in the 1980s, growers in the area began to look to the Agroecology Program for answers to farming questions that more traditional extension services did not address. Entomologist Sean Swezey was hired in 1989 to develop the Farm Extension Project and began working with other researchers and local, small-scale growers on their farms to analyze the transition of a conventional production system to organic farming practices. “Steve [Gliessman] put together the team to work with local growers because he recognized a need,” says Swezey. “It was the first attempt by the University of California system to formally assist organic growers with coop-extension style services,” (Swezey, pers. comm., September 2005).
The first of the program’s off-campus efforts focused on strawberries, a major crop of the region. Grower Jim Cochran worked with program members to compare conventionally and organically managed strawberries on land recently cropped in conventional Brussels sprouts. This study of a farming system in transition was the first of what was to become a major feature of the Agroecology Program’s research efforts.
As the research and undergraduate education aspects of the program developed, the already well-established Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture grew from a dozen students a year in the early 1980s to thirty annual participants, under the direction of instructors Orin Martin, Olivia Boyce-Abel, Jim Nelson, and Dennis Tamura. The apprenticeship catered to a nontraditional student audience—most already held a bachelor’s degree and were looking for practical skills to apply in a variety of settings.
Unlike most traditional college agronomy programs, the apprenticeship offered a unique blend of classroom and hands-on training that emphasized learn by doing. Students received intensive training in organic soil management, crop planning, greenhouse skills, orchard care, pest and disease control, and small-scale marketing. The apprenticeship was clearly meeting a need for this kind of training since every year it received far more applicants than it could accommodate. Graduates of the program went on to start their own organic farms and gardens, teach in school and community gardens, work in international development programs, and start organic landscaping companies. Some returned to school for advanced degrees; others got in on the ground floor of the organic food industry.
Despite the extent of its work, the Agroecology Program lacked secure funding until 1985 when the University of California Office of the President provided stable, permanent core funding through a line item in the university budget. Although the systemwide Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education Program (SAREP) was initiated in 1986, the Agroecology Program at UC Santa Cruz retained its importance. A 1989 academic external review extolled the program and stated that it was unique in three ways: 1) it is the only research and education unit at a major research university dedicated to research in agroecology; 2) it is the only such program to address the socioeconomic dimensions of agricultural sustainability; and 3) it is independent of the established research traditions of agricultural experiment stations. This review provided an important endorsement of the program’s critical role within the University of California.
Expanding the Framework: the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
By 1990, sustainable agriculture was gaining increased attention as the social and ecological costs of conventional agriculture mounted and the organic food industry expanded. A federal Organic Foods Standards Act was proposed to create a nationally defined standard for organic and a federal list of allowable materials. Little by little, universities began to respond to the interest in sustainability, developing sustainable agriculture programs at many of the nation’s largest land-grant universities.
Although gratified by this growing interest, Allen and Gliessman raised concerns over the direction research efforts were taking under the rubric of “sustainability.” In a 1990 Agroecology Program newsletter article, Gliessman wrote: “Rather than viewing sustainable agriculture as a system that encompasses environmental, social, and economic considerations, many of the efforts now in place have focused solely on substituting one type of farm input or practice for another. A number of new programs have been established around the county, many of which have the word ‘sustainable’ in their title, but most of which suffer from what I call this ‘input-substitution’ narrowness”.7 Gliessman published his perspective on sustainability in his 1990 book, Agroecology: Researching the Ecological Basis for Sustainable Agriculture.8
To address this concern over the narrowing of the definition of sustainability, in 1990 Allen organized a conference, Sustainable Agriculture: Balancing Social, Environmental, and Economic Concerns. She sought to reverse the narrowing trend by broadening the concept to explicitly include important issues of social needs and human welfare. Allen wrote, “A major challenge to implementing sustainability is not only to resolve differences in how the concept is defined and consequently in how its goals and policies of action are structured, but to recognize how social and ethical issues factor into the equation."9 In an effort to encourage thinking and discussion about the need to integrate social and environmental issues in sustainability, Allen invited chapters and produced an edited volume, Food for the Future: Conditions and Contradictions of Sustainability,10 the first book to articulate the social aspects of sustainable agriculture.
While working to incorporate social issues in sustainable agriculture, Agroecology Program members also recognized the urgency of finding environmentally and economically viable ways for growers interested in organic farming to make the transition from conventional management. In order to provide much-needed information to these growers, program researchers initiated a suite of “conversion projects,” building on the work with strawberries they had begun in 1987. The projects teamed Agroecology Program and UC Cooperative Extension entomologists, plant pathologists, soil ecologists, and agricultural economists to study changes in crop yield, pest and disease populations, beneficial organisms, soil fertility, and costs and income as local artichoke, strawberry and apple growers converted their operations from conventional to organic practices. The work eventually expanded to include studies of organic and conventional cotton production in the Central Valley.
A number of factors marked these projects as unique to the Agroecology Program: they examined “whole systems” rather than isolated factors within the farming system; they took place on local farms rather than agricultural experiment stations; they focused on small- and medium-scale growers rather than large, corporate farms; and they included the growers as integral parts of the research team. According to Sean Swezey, “These relationships [with growers] are now commonplace throughout the land-grant universities across the country. However, that wasn’t the situation in the late 1980s—that’s one reason the program was unique,” (Swezey, pers. comm., September 2005). The 1990 hiring of Jim Leap—an experienced organic farmer from Fresno—to manage the Santa Cruz Farm also enhanced the program’s link to the local farming community.
The program worked with the community in other ways as well. For example, Allen and Van Dusen developed the Santa Cruz Food Security Project to address food security issues, such as hunger and access to nutritious foods, by teaming with local organizations. Gliessman and environmental studies professor Jim Pepper initiated the Agriculture and Community Program that focused on strategies to preserve farmland and examined farm worker housing issues in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties in an effort to inform policymakers of threats to agricultural sustainability in the region.
Recognizing the Agroecology Program’s major role in addressing both environmental and social issues in agriculture, the Kellogg Foundation chose the program as lead agency for the California Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture [CASA]. Led by Gliessman as principal investigator and Allen as steering committee member, this two million dollar project united a diverse group of university programs and non-profit organizations to work together with a goal of redirecting agricultural practices and policies onto a more environmentally sound and socially equitable pathway. The consortium’s work culminated in CASA’s Call to Action, 11 which laid out a series of strategies for promoting sustainable agriculture and food systems.
Acknowledging the interdisciplinary and whole-systems scope of the program’s work, beginning in 1989, various review committees and campus leaders recommended that the program’s name be changed to reflect its interests in environmental and social aspects of sustainable food and agriculture systems. In 1994, the Agroecology Program was renamed the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Shortly thereafter, under the direction of Dean William Friedland, the campus decided to invest in the further development of the center by creating a newly funded 50-percent-time director position. This commitment of university funds marked a major contribution by UC Santa Cruz to the center’s future.
In 1997, agroecologist Carol Shennan was hired as the center’s director and professor of agroecology in the Environmental Studies Department. Shennan brought an interest in agroecosystems and landscape ecology and developed a focus on intersections among agroecology, environment, and community. This involves examining landscape-level processes in agroecosystems, such as nutrient cycling and water quality impacts, and the mechanisms needed to implement more ecologically sound production systems without disadvantaging people who have limited power or access to resources, including land and capital. Shennan’s experience in working with divergent groups in agricultural landscape management provided an important complement to her academic expertise.
The creation in 1995 of the PhD program in Environmental Studies provided graduate students the option to specialize in agroecology and sustainable agriculture. Students also worked with the center through internships or independent studies developed in collaboration with faculty in a variety of campus departments, including Community Studies, Education, Environmental Studies, and Latin American and Latino Studies. Gliessman’s 1997 textbook, Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture and its accompanying lab manual, were the first resources for teaching about ecological concepts and principles as they apply to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.
Along with serving undergraduate and graduate students, experiential education remained a major part of the center’s work through the 1990s. An increasing number of international apprentices, including students from Asia, Africa, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Israel, Palestine, and Central America, joined participants from around the U.S. for the annual apprenticeship training program. Although its focus remained teaching basic organic farming and gardening skills, the apprenticeship evolved to reflect trends in the sustainable agriculture movement. The staff added training in community supported agriculture project (CSA)—an innovative marketing approach that connects growers and consumers, and is particularly appropriate for small- and medium-scale organic farmers. A series of talks on social issues in sustainable agriculture was also added to the curriculum, as students sought information on social justice aspects of the food system. With more restaurants turning toward specialty crops and organic produce, the program initiated a series of cooking classes to help increase apprentice knowledge of the “farm-to-table” connection.
Expansion of Research and Education Programs
Over the past several years, the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems has expanded and deepened its commitment to multidisciplinary research, relevance to the community, and dedication to social justice. Much of this work has been supported by Congressman Sam Farr who helped obtain U.S. Department of Agriculture funds to expand the reach of the center’s work in California’s Central Coast region. This multiyear funding made possible an ambitious, ongoing suite of center research projects to document land use and water quality; examine the effects of alternative production, marketing, and research efforts on both ecological sustainability and social conditions for growers and consumers; and identify barriers to the development of a healthier Central Coast food system, both ecologically and socially.
In addition to expanding empirical social science research on campus, the Farr funding also enabled social science staff to expand efforts to reach beyond the university. For example, Allen and assistant professor of Community Studies Julie Guthman, along with the California Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and the California Food and Justice Coalition, initiated the Activist Researcher Consortium as a way for activists and researchers to share ideas and collaborate on projects focused on the social issues of sustainable food systems. Locally, center staff and students helped develop a Santa Cruz County Food Forum and worked with students in their efforts to bring local, organic, socially just food to campus dining halls. An active participant in both university and NGO efforts in sustainable food systems for many years, Allen collaborated with Environmental Studies professor Margaret FitzSimmons on a major study of programs and priorities of alternative agrifood institutions in California in 2003,12 and in 2004 published an analysis of alternative agrifood movements and programs in the U.S., Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System. 13
The Center continues its commitment to local growers. For example, Marc Los Huertos was hired in 1999 to conduct water quality monitoring research, measuring nitrogen and phosphorus levels in rivers, streams, and irrigation ditches to determine the effects of farming practices on water quality, with the goal of helping growers manage nutrients in their farming systems to reduce runoff from agricultural fields. Directed by Shennan, this landscape-oriented approach to addressing sustainable agriculture questions has led to collaborations with faculty in the Department of Earth Sciences and has garnered additional grant funds from the State Water Quality Control Board to increase work with local growers.
Efforts to help organic growers received a boost in 2004 as Gliessman, Shennan, and researcher Joji Muramoto were awarded a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund on-farm research projects in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties designed to improve organic production techniques while protecting natural resources. Commenting on the grant, Shennan noted, “Organic farmers face the same production challenges as conventional growers, but the research community has overlooked their needs. With one of the oldest university-based organic research and training programs in the world and one of the pioneering academic programs in agroecology, UCSC is in a good position to help fill in the gaps of scientific knowledge.”
In response to requests for training materials from college farms and other education programs that had long recognized the apprenticeship as a model for teaching organic production skills, in 1999 instructors took up the challenge of putting the program’s more than thirty-five years of training experience down on paper. Center staff members coordinated by Albie Miles and Ann Lindsey teamed with seven invited authors to document the curriculum of the six-month training program. The result was the training manual Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening: Resources for Instructors (2002).14 Miles also headed an effort to develop an online sustainable agriculture curriculum for California’s post-secondary schools, now available on the center’s web site.
The efforts of center staff and faculty over the years had collectively produced a University of California program of high academic standing as well one that is valued by growers, gardeners, non-profit organizations, children, and others. The most recent (1999) academic external review of the center found that it was a unique resource and one of the most renowned sustainable agriculture programs, both domestically and internationally. The reviewers stated that, they believed that the social science dimension of the center was what provided much of its “national and international reputation and appeal.” The report also found that the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems is the University of California’s “most accomplished sustainable agriculture program in terms of instruction, research, and outreach.”