Bring organic ag degree here

The demand for healthy food is not a fad; it is an ever-growing consumer mandate. The New York Times reported this month about how the country’s big food manufacturers, with their processed, packaged and frozen foods, are struggling to keep up with Americans’ evolving eating habits.

Sales of fresh prepared foods have grown nearly 30 percent since 2009, while sales of packaged goods have started to fall, the NYT reported. Sales of raw fruits and vegetables are growing. Per capita consumption of vegetables is up 10 percent over the past five years. Additionally, a recent survey shows 42 percent of millenials, ages 20 to 37, don’t trust large food companies.

In direct contrast to the slothlike response by gigantic food companies to changing times are the small companies, food co-ops, farmers, and educators who were, and remain, ahead of the curve, driving the change, and providing the organic and locally sourced food people want.

For example, Washington State University in Pullman offered the country’s first degree in organic agriculture in 2008, along with an option for an 18-credit organic ag certificate, which can be earned online, as part of a major, or on its own. Dozens of universities followed suit and now offer courses, certificates or degree programs in organic and sustainable agriculture.

A few years later, the Legislature put WSU in charge of the University Center at Everett Community College. Part of the agreement to have WSU run the center was to offer its mechanical engineering degree by 2012 in direct response to a stated need by Boeing. WSU now also offers degrees in electrical engineering, hospitality business management and integrated communication at the center. (The center also offers degrees from Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, The Evergreen State College, Hope International University (online and hybrid) the University of Washington Bothell and Western Washington University.)

The state now has the chance, or really, the obligation, to allow WSU to expand its respected organic farming program on the west side of the state at the University Center. WSU officials are seeking $832,000 in state funds to launch four agriculture-related degree programs at the center, The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reported. In 2017, in addition the organic agriculture systems degree, it would also offer a degree in agriculture and food safety. Students will study ways to protect crops from pests, diseases and other external influences that are harmful to the health of humans or the environment. Given all outbreaks of food-borne illnesses each year, this is another smart program. (And it coincides with the FDA’s announcement last week that it is finalizing rules to implement the bipartisan Food Safety Modernization Act that, which will, for the first time, establish enforceable safety standards for produce farms and make importers accountable for verifying that imported food meets U.S. safety standards.)

Degrees in sustainable food systems and urban horticulture would be phased in later, Cornfield reported.

In 2011, The Herald Editorial Board advocated for adding the university’s organic farming program to the center’s offerings because it would be such a natural fit and meet demand, like the engineering degrees. Consider that Washington is second only to California in sales of organic farm products, and when it comes to fruit, out state is the No. 1 conventional and organic producer of apples, pears and cherries in the country. It’s our responsibility, not to mention in our best interest, to educate our future farmers, on both sides of the state, with the best agriculture education available.

We strongly encourage Gov. Jay Inslee to include the $832,000 request in his 2016 supplemental budget proposal due in December. WSU officials tried to get the funding this year, and had support in the House but not the Senate. Try again.

Plant the seeds, fund the farming program, and keep WSU, and therefore the state, in the forefront of the new agriculture.

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