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Hot subjects—Horticulture 375: Organic Agriculture Colloquium

February 15, 2008 By Kristin Czubkowski

After two years of teaching an experimental colloquium on organic
farming, horticulture professor Jim Nienhuis is no longer surprised by
the diversity of majors interested in his class.

"I originally thought that it would be mostly horticulture,
agronomy and agriculture majors, but in fact, we have history majors
and art majors," he says. "Anyone who goes to a farmer’s market and is
intrigued about the offers that are made for organic vegetables — I
think everyone has questions about exactly what that means."

Nienhuis says his goal in the class, which is based on discussion
and guest speakers from academia and local farms, is to "tweak"
students — in other words, challenge their preconceived ideas about
organic food and farming, and sometimes even make them angry. The final
project for the class includes student presentations on controversial
aspects of organic agriculture, such as how much it really appeals to
small farming families and whether organic food is really more
nutritious than non-organic foods.

"There are many, many urban legends about organic agriculture, such
as ‘Oh they’re so much healthier for you,’" he says. "I say to the
students, ‘Is there any truth to that?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well,
everybody knows that, Jim.’ Well, gosh, why don’t you give a
presentation on that and share this information with us?"

While the colloquium itself is only a one-credit class, Nienhuis
adds that students have the option to gain three credits by performing
a research internship at either a university-run or local organic farm
over the summer, balancing real-world experience with the material
discussed in class.