July 12, 2006 | By: Terri McLean

It’s been called agriculture with social context – an approach to farming that emphasizes environmental health, economic profitability and community responsibility all at the same time. It’s sustainable agriculture, and it’s gaining acceptance among Kentucky farmers and consumers.

“What we’re talking about is a farming system where we value local, environmentally friendly food production,” said Mark Williams, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. “It’s where people say it’s important to us to be able to get our food locally produced and to support the economy in this state and protect our valuable natural resources.” 

The sustainable approach is also garnering increased support from educators, policymakers and others who not only see it as a way to reinvigorate small, family farming in Kentucky but to ensure its survival in the face of great change. Among those leading the charge is the UK College of Agriculture. 

“We’re proposing that a sustainable approach to farming is what we would like to see people move into,” said Williams, a longtime proponent of sustainable agriculture. “What we’re trying to do is help develop farms that support the community and communities that support the farm.”

In addition to enhanced research and outreach efforts, the college will “put an educational face” on its sustainable agriculture work by offering its first course on the subject this fall, said Mike Mullen, associate dean for academic programs. Next year, a full slate of courses should be available through a new undergraduate degree program in sustainable agriculture – one of growing number of such programs in the nation.

UK embarked on efforts to develop the program after several students “showed up on our doorstep” asking for it, Mullen said. 

“Certainly, there is a lot of interest,” he said. “If you look at a definition of sustainable agriculture, it has at its core the idea of environmental stewardship, economic sustainability and social responsibility. And all that tends to imply, if you will, more attention to agriculture on a local scale, which has started to become a focus point in this college, especially when you talk about the tobacco buyout and family farms looking for alternative niches. …So, that’s where this all comes into place.”

At the heart of the new sustainable agriculture program is an innovative curriculum developed by a committee representing not only the UK College of Agriculture but other areas of the university as well, including the sociology and English departments. 

“We’re trying to create a multidisciplinary curriculum so students from a wide variety of backgrounds … could be involved,” said Williams, who chairs the committee. “So it’s not like a vocational, teach-people-how-to-farm thing. That’s a component of it, but not the sole focus.”

Just as the concept of sustainable agriculture revolves around the three “pillars” of sustainability – environmental stewardship, economic profitability and social responsibility – so, too, does the curriculum. Students who major in sustainable agriculture will take classes in all three areas. 

“This isn’t all window dressing for how we define sustainable agriculture. We not only define it that way but we developed the curriculum that way to reflect what our views are. Ours is really unique because there are no other curricula I’m aware of in the country that is set up in this way,” Williams said.

As part of the degree program, students majoring in sustainable agriculture will be required to work at the college’s horticulture research farm at UK’s South Farm, where 11 acres already are in use for organic crop research. Organic farming, which is a fast-growing sustainable agriculture system, will be a major component of the program.

“We thought that was a nice twist to put a practical spin on this and have them involved on this farm,” Mullen said.

Courses will have a holistic slant that uses scientific principles to enhance traditional farm management practices. Complementary classes in sociology, economics, philosophy and other social sciences will instill an appreciation of the cultural connections between farmers and consumers. The end result, Mullen said, will be students with a foundation in agricultural, natural and social sciences that opens up a variety of employment opportunities in sustainable agriculture or in related professional fields. 

“I think when this is done, we may actually be looked at as a creative leader in these types of curricula,” Mullen said.

The Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture course offered this fall will be available to students through the college’s Individualized Degree Program while the new sustainable agriculture program is going through a formalized review process. Once that’s complete, five core courses in sustainable agriculture will be available for students wanting to major or minor in that field.


Mike Mullen, 859-257-3468, Mark Williams, 859-257-2638