Recently, UC Santa Cruz’s environmental studies department received a sizable opportunity to invest in more extensive research and broaden their academic horizons.

This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded UC Santa Cruz’s environmental studies department a three-year $730,000 grant to expand the curriculum for undergraduates interested in studying agroecology and sustainable agriculture.

“Right now, sustainable agriculture is a sector of our economy that has continued to grow even during the recession,” said environmental studies associate professor and director Stacy Philpott. “We need to train young people so that they can get those jobs.”

Agroecology is the “science of applying ecological concepts” through an interdisciplinary framework combining both natural and social sciences to the “design, development and management of sustainable agricultural systems,” according to UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) website.

In addition to the economic necessity, Philpott emphasized the grant comes at a time when investing in sustainable agriculture education has become socially and environmentally crucial.

“It’s even more critical to [invest in it] because conventional agriculture is one of the largest consumers of energy in the U.S.,” Philpott said. “Changing to sustainable practices could reduce our energy consumption and would allow us to move towards techniques with fewer or no chemicals.”

If every country consumed resources at the rate the U.S. currently does, four additional earths would be necessary to sustain our consumption, according to the Environment for Beginners website, which is dedicated to educating the public about pollution and its global consequences.

The grant is part of the USDA’s Higher Education Challenge program, which funds initiatives to improve agricultural education in the nation.

The money from the grant will also recruit junior college and high school students in the Central Coast region who might not have otherwise considered a career in sustainable agriculture.

Martha Brown, the principal editor of the CASFS website, spoke on behalf of UCSC’s 25-acre organic farm, which provides field work opportunities for students. She emphasized that she was looking forward to the new enhancements for both current and prospective Slugs.

“We are excited about being able to offer more learning opportunities centered at the farm for current UCSC students and students in the Central Coast region,” Brown said, “and in building interest in the agricultural sciences for people who don’t necessarily think that they want to study it.”

Damian Parr, grant co-author and research and education coordinator for CASFS, is eager to continue enhancing the experiential learning that has served as an innovative campus component for over four decades. Parr holds a doctorate in agriculture and environmental education from UC Davis, and like Philpott, he feels an urgent need to prepare students for a changing present.

“The environmental studies major offers various experiential learning opportunities,” Parr said, “including heavy use of field labs and natural reserves, both on and off campus, and opportunities with the UCSC farm. The grant money [should also] give students a clearer pathway and support through a curriculum that has a focus on agroecology.”

There will be various ways in the short-term in which students will begin to see enhanced experiential opportunities in agroecology and sustainable agriculture.

For example, three sections of the Agroecology Practicum (ENVS 133), an existing class offering a “broad-field based experience for students,” will be offered this year, Philpott said.

An internship coordinator will also be present at the farm full time as some of the funding from the grant will be used for paying staff salaries.

In the long term, students may see some of the grant money going towards “developing international agricultural classes on Central America,” Philpott said.

In addition to these aspirations, Parr wants to eventually have a separate sustainable agriculture major at UCSC.

“We are facing unprecedented challenges with human health and social well-being related to food distribution and nutrition,” Parr said. “The environmental studies department has always been ahead of the curve, and there has never been a time when sustainable agriculture is more in demand in society than it is now.”