From School to Farm: Opportunities for Students at the Annual PASA Conference

Posted: January 17, 2011

Few words make me cringe more than dreaded allusions to the “ivory tower of academia.” Like many graduate students interested in sustainable agriculture, I returned to school to produce practical research that could help farmers and eaters. To produce such useful knowledge, I learned early on how important it was to bridge the gap between research on campus and what is new and exciting in farmers’ fields and on eaters’ plates.

Yet between classes, papers, meetings, and committees, I find myself sitting in the ivory tower all too often.  Graduate students of agriculture have an obligation to seek out forums where they can learn from the farmers they so genuinely want to assist, and in my experience, the annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference is the ideal place to connect research with practice.

This February, I will attend my third PASA conference since returning to graduate school, and once again I am looking forward to opportunities to be re-inspired in my studies.    First of all, a large majority of the over 2000 conference attendees are Pennsylvania farmers, and many of the program’s workshops are geared toward new and exciting farm management techniques to assist these farmers.  For students interested in sustainable agriculture production, the PASA conference offers countless opportunities to not only learn about innovative practices but also hear directly from the farmers who are experimenting with these methods to produce high quality foods in socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable ways.  Annually, the breadth of topics is astounding, including soil health, animal husbandry, horticulture, value-added products, and emergent PA agriculture sectors like nut crops and cut flowers.  For students interested in sustainable agriculture production, the PASA conference offers countless sessions.

Clearly, sustainable agriculture is about more than just food production, and the PASA conference includes valuable sessions on local and regional food systems.  As a rural sociologist interested in consumption patterns, this area of the program has been incredibly useful.  With a commitment to direct marketing strategies, the PASA conference illuminates trends and strategies that help farmers get their products from farm to table.  Similar to workshops on food production, a key benefit for graduate students attending these sessions is hearing farmers share their experiences, both their successes and struggles, as they grow their businesses and contend with changing consumption trends.  In addition, the PASA conference engages innovative marketing and distribution strategies that are areas ripe for timely research.  For example, at the 2009 conference I attended a session on the Common Market Philadelphia, an effort to connect locally farmed food to the larger, broader institutional marketplace.  It was invaluable to hear not only from the project’s leaders but also farmers as they articulate the potential benefits and challenges of such a marketing mechanism.   In 2010, a session on Food Alliance certification described the benefits of this emergent marketing and labeling program as it expands in the Eastern United States, another example of the conference’s connection to food system research.

A third area of focus at the PASA conference focuses on navigating the seemingly ever-changing agricultural policy realm.  For sustainable farmers, changes in Washington and Harrisburg can have monumental impacts at the farm-level.  For example in both 2009 and 2010 I attended workshops on raw milk regulations, and I was amazed at how even within a one-year span, interpretations of the law had changed.  For researchers, policy shifts that affect our state’s small-scale agriculture producers are important areas of study.  As the raw milk sessions showed, farmers can be challenged to navigate contentious policy issues, and scholars can play a key role in helping to interpret this tricky terrain.

The PASA conference also offers opportunities for scholars interested in environmental issues, as the workshop schedule has historically included sessions that connect farm-level decision making with the broader environmental context.  In 2009, I attended a workshop focused on Marcellus Shale gas extraction, and learned that Pennsylvania’s sustainable farmers are challenged by this hot-button issue.  As a graduate student interested in the social and environmental impacts of land use change, this session offered new insights into how farmers must weigh the complex costs and benefits related to Marcellus Shale gas exploration on their individual farms.  Similarly, in 2010, a session on the Chesapeake Bay watershed demonstrated how decision-making at the farm-level can have broad impacts downstream that affect the quality of the environment at much larger scales.  Students seeking to understand the relationship between farm practices and regional environmental impacts will find engaging discussions and workshops throughout the PASA program.

I look forward to the 2011 PASA conference.  Once again, I anticipate hearing directly from farmers what production, marketing, policy, and environmental issues are most pertinent to them at this time.  As in the past, I look forward to taking these insights and applying them to my own graduate study to produce research with practical implications for Pennsylvania’s sustainable farmers, and I encourage other students to do the same.  The excitement and vigor for sustainable agriculture and the spirited dialogue and interactions I’ve had at the PASA conference are a welcome addition to my graduate school experience—a much-needed departure from the confines of the dreaded ivory tower that I, and I hope we all, so desperately wish to avoid.

By John Eshleman, Graduate Student, Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology.

This is the final newsletter article in a series written by Graduate Students at Penn State who attened the 2010 PASA Conference with support from Pennsylvania's Northeast SARE Professional Development Program.