Long before UC Berkeley author Michael Pollan told us omnivores had a dilemma in books that questioned the industrial food complex, college students were at the forefront of a movement to rethink what we eat.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when organic was a foreign word to most Americans, students at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz were part of a wave of environmental activism that sought alternatives to agricultural methods that distanced people from farms and relied on heavy use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

In 1971, student enthusiasm for a garden at UC Santa Cruz that used natural cultivation methods grew so much so that 14 acres were set aside for the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden to create more opportunities to research and teach organic farming. Meanwhile, a student-led seminar at UC Davis on alternative agriculture mushroomed into a group that lobbied campus administration for land to create a farm that would explore sustainable agriculture. With support from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science, the UC Davis Student Farm formed in 1977 on 20 acres of what was then a remote corner of campus. (See below, "A morning at the Student Farm," slideshow and interviews with students, staff and volunteers at UC Davis.)

In the decades that followed, these student-led movements helped spur the growth of organic farming and formed the foundations for innovative sustainable agriculture research and education programs at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz that have served as models for other universities.

 “UC Santa Cruz was on the ground floor of this, thanks to students,” said Jonathon Landeck, assistant director of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems. “It’s a natural evolution and maturation of consciousness born in the ’60s out of the environmental movement.”

The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems is a research, education and public service program that operates the campus farm and garden. Its nationally acclaimed Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture trains people in small-scale farming and organic gardening methods. Among its more than 1,300 graduates are some of the driving forces behind the organic farming industry.

UC Davis’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute is part of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. It conducts research, serves as a living lab and offers hands-on educational programs for UC Davis students and Sacramento-area high schools through the student farm. The institute and the student farm also are an integral part of the curriculum for a new bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture and food systems that began enrolling students this fall.

The farms allowed the programs at both campuses to pioneer experiential learning — a chance for people to get their hands dirty — in addition to classroom education. Combining the theoretical with the practical enhances learning and the quality of knowledge produced, said Damian Parr, a UC Santa Cruz apprenticeship graduate who also researched learning methods for his doctorate in agricultural and environmental education from UC Davis.

“After having had some experience in the field, when I go back to the classroom and talk about soil ecology, I have something concrete to relate to these concepts,” said Parr. “I’d seen it. I’d wrestled with these things with my hands.”

There are 46 degree programs related to sustainable agriculture or food and 43 student farms at colleges and universities across the country, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association.

The farms and related programs at Davis and Santa Cruz were among the first in sustainable agriculture. When other universities start to develop their own, they look to the UC campuses as the prototypes, according to Parr, who is a co-founder of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association and also has a bachelor’s in environmental studies-agroecology from UC Santa Cruz and a master’s in international agriculture development from UC Davis.

The Center for Agroecology publishes training manuals for the teaching of organic gardening and direct marketing for small farms. Among the universities that have used the materials are Harvard, Oregon State, Michigan State, Stanford and Washington State. Nearly 2,000 printed editions of the manuals have been sold and more than 3,000 downloaded from UC’s eScholarship website; they’ve been viewed more than 23,000 times on the center’s website.

“They’ve led by example and have been available to share how they work,” Parr said.

Apprenticeship alumni have gone on to help develop sustainable agriculture programs at Michigan State, University of Vermont, Washington State, Montana State, Colorado State, San Diego State, Prescott College and Stanford.

The programs that evolved from the farm in Santa Cruz focused on developing organic agriculture methods. The Center for Agroecology has become one of the leading research institutes for organics and social justice issues relating to sustainable food systems in the country. The center is closely affiliated with, though independent from, the environmental studies and social science departments. Faculty and students from the departments utilize the farm as a lab. UC Santa Cruz doesn’t have an agriculture school. The apprenticeship, which predates the center, is not linked to an academic program and developed as an extension program that is open to anyone.

Davis’s farm and the institute are part of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science. This close alignment with the department’s academic curriculum ultimately has spawned the sustainable agriculture and food systems degree.

“In my mind (the degree) speaks to the arrival of sustainable agriculture and its legitimacy as an academic field,” said Albie Miles, a graduate and former staff member of the apprenticeship program, a doctoral candidate in agroecology at UC Berkeley and a co-founder of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. “I think it will serve as a model for many of other programs across the United States.”

The farms at Davis and Santa Cruz also were early adopters of Community Supported Agriculture, which promotes small-scale farming and locally sourced produce. Many urbanites may know CSAs through the vegetable box that is delivered to homes each week.

Pollan’s books helped to popularized CSAs and the acceptance of organic food while raising awareness in the general public about environmental and social relationships to food.

“My sister read ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and said to me, ‘Now I know what you do.’ (Pollan) put it in language that I guess I couldn’t. It helped frame the issues for us,” said Mark Van Horn, director of the UC Davis Student Farm and another co-founder of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association.

This greater awareness is what encourages some students to pursue sustainable agriculture as a field of study.

“Students see an issue that’s global and feel there’s something tangible they can do about it,” Van Horn said. “That’s an entry point for a lot of students.”

UC Davis third-year student Kase Wheatley is part of the first class enrolled in the sustainable agriculture and food systems bachelor’s program. The new major allows him to pursue a degree that fits his interests in social issues surrounding food production, one of the tracks of the program.

“I had been taking agriculture sustainability classes and trying to see how to fit them into other potential majors,” Wheatley said. “I’m grateful (the new degree) has happened. In my first two years, I was taking all these classes and saying, ‘What am I doing; my major’s not real.’ Now it is.”