The Story of Building the UK Sustainable Agriculture Program

The Sustainable Agriculture (SAG) curriculum is an outgrowth of a lengthy and well-considered process. For years at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture interest in sustainable agriculture education, research, and outreach grew among faculty and staff.  On June 6, 2003, this interest led to an ad hoc meeting of 22 faculty and staff from eight different academic units.  A core group then wrote and submitted a proposal to the USDA-CSREES (Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service) Higher Education Challenge Grant program aimed at developing an undergraduate curriculum in sustainable agriculture.  In September 2005, a few months after receiving funding, the COA Associate Dean of Instruction established the Sustainable Agriculture Curriculum Committee (SACC), composed of faculty from a diverse array of backgrounds and expertise.  The basic charge of the SACC was to develop an integrative undergraduate curriculum and associated minor in Sustainable Agriculture with four principle goals.

  • To provide students with fundamental knowledge, practical field experience, integrative skills and an understanding of agriculture in the broader society; 
  • To prepare students for careers in production agriculture, allied industries, and other public and private sector employment opportunities including land management and natural resource conservation; 
  • To engage non-agricultural students through a new Sustainable Agriculture Minor so that agriculture enjoys a broader societal support base; and
  • To create within the Commonwealth of Kentucky an academically rigorous program that has the potential to enhance farm profitability, reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture, and strengthen the social connections between farmers and consumers.

Throughout the latter portion of Fall 2005 and Spring 2006, the SACC regularly met and discussed the philosophical goals of a sustainable agriculture program and the practical logistics of creating a rigorous, comprehensive, and viable curriculum.  Part of this process included evaluating similar existing curricula from across the United States, and collecting web-based feedback from stakeholders in response to a solicitation for comments. 

The new program was intended to expand opportunities for existing and new entry farmers by providing comprehensive training in alternative production and marketing practices.  Additionally, the program was designed to prepare students including those from non-agricultural backgrounds for a variety of careers in which they would work to preserve farming’s vital role in the state’s economic and cultural life.  The faculty team worked with the model of sustainability pioneered by the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) that works by strengthening the connections between agricultural productivity, economic development and environmental protection.  As a result the curriculum was developed around a series of classes are grounded in a framework that integrates these three conceptual “pillars”: environmental stewardship, economic profitability, and social responsibility. These three pillars are generally regarded as the underpinnings of sustainable agriculture, and the curriculum utilizes existing and new courses to provide students with training in each of the conceptual areas. Specifically, we established a portfolio of classes consisting of multiple courses in biology, economics, and sociology that synergistically complement each other to provide an integrated and holistic education. The faculty team developed the curriculum for a broadly interdisciplinary major and minor in Sustainable Agriculture, which included a requirement for students to complete a semester apprenticeship on the University’s organically managed farm.  On May 1, 2007, the UK University Senate approved the new Sustainable Agriculture core courses as well as the Sustainable Agriculture minor.  Approval of the courses enabled students to receive a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture through the Individualized Curriculum opportunity beginning in the Fall 2007 semester.