The program will combine classroom instruction and practical experience, and will be located mainly at the Hampshire College Farm Center. Not only will students learn about organic vegetable production and sustainable animal husbandry at the Farm Center, which provides food to more than 200 farm share members, they will learn about microbiology through making cheese, fermentation through making sauerkraut, and cultural practices through growing heritage varieties and breeds.
Students will be challenged to explore connections between various modes of food production and human health, with a particular emphasis on linkages to obesity, micronutrient malnutrition, and chronic diseases.
Each week of the program will have a thematic focus (see below), and faculty members from Hampshire College and other Five College institutions will provide a holistic view of the topics through lectures, discussion groups, and experiential learning opportunities.
Summary of Key Topics
Agroecology; Organic and Sustainable Agriculture
We review the ecological, political-economic, and societal problems associated with industrial agriculture that have led to the recognition of the need for alternatives. We will then introduce ways of thinking of alternatives based on organic products, sustainable methods, and agriculture as a part of a diverse ecosystem and a social network, with such concepts as biodiversity, food and economic webs, human nutrition, complex biotic interactions involving mutualism as well as predation and competition, and more.
Soil Health and Sustainability
Sustainable agricultural practices such as cover cropping and returning biomass to the soil, promote sustainability through reducing erosion and pollution, increasing organic matter, soil biodiversity, soil aggregation, and water holding capacity. Part of our response to addressing the issues surrounding feeding a growing world population should include the appropriate use of ecological agricultural practices such as these and others to foster agroecosystem resilience, a critical factor in ameliorating the effects of climate change.
Synthetic chemical pesticides create well-known problems such as resistance; the destruction of natural enemies; and the pesticide treadmill (or spiral), where ever more sprays are needed, as well as environmental and health issues, such as pollution, risks for farmers, farmworkers, and consumers, and more. We will explore alternatives, used at our farm and beyond, such as the use of selective organic pesticides, biological control, and habitat manipulation such as the use of trap crops and crop diversification (e.g., crop rotation and/or polycultures).
Food Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Safety
Microorganisms are ubiquitous components of food from farm to fork. Although public awareness about food safety and quality is increasing, misconceptions are pervasive and the potential effects of food microbiology on human health and wellbeing are profound. Ensuring the future of food safety and quality will require critical thinking, innovative approaches, and healthy skepticism. Students will have the opportunity to foster those skills while studying the role of beneficial microorganisms in food fermentation, claims associated with probiotics for promoting human health, and discussions about spoilage and the occurrence of pathogenic microorganisms in our food system. We will make cheese, sauerkraut, and more.
Animals in Agroecosystems
Animals have an important role in sustainable agroecosystems. An understanding of reproduction, nutrition, housing, veterinary needs, and behavior of domestic animals allows for decision-making by the animal farmer. Breed differences also are interesting and important to consider. Farm animal health, productivity,and integration with crop production will be our focus in week five. Students will consider these topics alongside issues of antibiotic and hormone use, industrial versus small farm production, variant housing including free-range, rotational grazing, egg and meat quality characteristics and their impact on human health, and value-added products such as cheese vs. milk.
Global Issues, such as Trade and Food Sovereignty, Climate Change, and Agricultural Sustainability
The effects of global climate change on agricultural ecosystems will include discussion of biogeochemical cycling, sensitivity and feedbacks to climate change, and the role of agricultural soils in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Globalization and free trade vs. fair trade and food sovereignty are key pieces of the context of agriculture. Students will explore key policy initiatives that affect the livelihood of farmers, including management measures to offset increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, opportunities for biofuel production, and political solutions.
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