Organic agriculture production has expanded to 4.8 million acres in the United States, with 2,643,221 acres of organic cropland and 156,615 acres of vegetable crops [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2008]. The market for organic food continues to grow, with sales experiencing a 7.7% increase from 2009 to 2010, up from a 5.1% increase from 2008 to 2009 [Organic Trade Association (OTA), 2011]. This growth rate vastly outpaces the 0.6% growth rate of total food sales during the similar time period, bringing organic to 4% of total food sales (OTA, 2011). Wisconsin continues to experience growth in the organic sector with respect to both farming and processing operations. As of 2008, Wisconsin ranked second in the nation after California in the number of organic farms, with 1222 certified organic operations, of which 254 grow vegetables (Silva et al., 2012). Wisconsin ranks sixth in the nation for the total organic product sales at $132.8 million (Silva et al., 2012).
With the growth in the organic marketplace, new employment opportunities arise. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for agricultural and food scientists is anticipated to expand 10% in 2010–20, with employment opportunities for agricultural and food science technicians estimated to increase 7% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Within the organic agriculture sector, a 2010 survey by OTA (2011) reported 40% of the organic companies experienced positive full-time employment growth. Forty-six percent of the survey respondents anticipated a further increase in hiring in the upcoming years and 50% of respondents expected employment to remain steady.
A growing consensus exists among agricultural educators as to the importance of practical experience and hands-on learning to effective agricultural pedagogy. University of California—Davis used the Delphi survey technique to determine, from a subset of agricultural academics at that institution, the type of activities that should be included in an undergraduate sustainable agriculture major (Parr et al., 2007). Using the guiding principles of this technique, the authors anonymously gathered the options of sustainable agriculture curriculum experts through a series of structured questionnaires, with each subsequent questionnaire summarizing the responses of the previous questionnaire through a process of controlled feedback. Respondents emphasized the importance of linking classroom theory to practice, suggesting the adoption of innovative teaching techniques to achieve this goal. Applying classroom knowledge to field settings was specifically highlighted, including on-farm experiences such as internships, student farms, farm and industry visits, and conversations with farmers. At North Carolina State University, Schroeder et al. (2006) summarized student perceptions of the organic and sustainable agriculture programs, with students reporting as the most valuable aspects of the program the engagement in hands-on learning activities, participation in a working farm, interaction with local farmers, and farm visits.
These findings return full-circle to the education philosophies of pedagogical pioneers of the 20th century; in 1916, John Dewey, a prominent educational scholar in the United States, argued that experience and hands-on projects were essential to ensure successful learning outcomes (Giles and Eyler, 1994). Similarly, Liberty Hyde Bailey, the founding dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University, stressed the importance of hands-on learning experiences (Trelstad, 1997). More recently, Knobloch (2003) integrated the philosophies of Dewey, Bailey, and other key scholars into what he refers to as the four pillars of experiential learning in agricultural education: learning by doing, learning in real-life context, learning through projects, and learning by solving problems.
To address the need to increase the number of experiential learning opportunities for students wishing to engage in agricultural education and enter agriculture-related fields, the Farm Links program was initiated in 2007. From its inception, Farm Links was designed as a collaboration between a public kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) school district (La Farge School District, La Farge, WI), a large land-grant university (University of Wisconsin–Madison), a state government and Native American Nation Memorandum of Understanding (Kickapoo Valley Reserve, La Farge, WI), and an organic farmer cooperative [Organic Valley Cooperative Regions Organic Producer Pools (CROPP), La Farge, WI]. The objectives of the program are several-fold: to provide students with an experiential educational opportunity in organic agriculture; to incorporate introductory organic farming principles into school curriculum and lesson plans; to provide students with a meaningful summer employment opportunity; to expose students to career paths intersecting with organic agricultural production, highlighting the viability of this career path and increasing the number of students entering the local agriculture industry; and through the students, to bring organic agriculture principles to the broader community. This article details the development of the Farm Links program over a 4-year period and its continued progress.
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