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   from the issue of July 26, 2007

Agroecosystems analysis course pairs students, farmers for practical learning


Each summer university students in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska work with farmers to learn the business and the tough decisions involved in agriculture.

Through the course, Agroecosystems Analysis, students work with local farmers, visit their operations and learn the goals, long-term strategies and specific practices unique to each farm, said Charles Francis, sustainable agriculture specialist at UNL.

Students are in charge of designing their own approach to interviews, to capturing the essence of each farm and to analyze and summarize the results, Francis said.

"What better teachers are there in agriculture than farmers?" he said. "These practical instructors are the key element in this educational program."

Land-grant universities UNL, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota, along with Dordt College in Iowa, organize the week-long course. This year's course is July 27-Aug. 3. Students will visit two Nebraska farms, both using intensive rotational grazing - one with organic milk production and the other with organic beef production.

One special feature of the course is a broad focus on the production, economics, environmental impact and social dimensions of each farm and how it fits into the fabric of the rural community, Francis said. Students devise their own methods to compare farms and to come up with indicators of sustainability.

"Instructors have learned from experience that students who got this practical education on farms have a strong appreciation of the complexity of farming and how this fits into the rural landscape and community," he said. "In addition, graduates who have this unique experience are especially ready to face reality on the farm when they take a variety of jobs in agriculture."

Students also find experiential learning is a complement to what they learn during the semester in the classroom, Francis said.

"Putting theory into practice is a key element to this type of learning," he said. "Seeing farms first hand and engaging all the senses is found to be meaningful for gaining a wide understanding and appreciation of what goes on in each operation and with the farm family."

This program was developed in part based on a model from the Agroecology Program in the Nordic Region, and has been copied for use in Washington and Idaho using a similar format.



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