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Sustainable Agriculture in the Midwest

Linda Barnes, Ph.D., founder of the first associate degree program in sustainable agriculture in the Midwest, emphasizes preparing new farmers to grow and market diverse crops locally, especially in a changing world of food and farming.

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

It was a privilege to be among the Champions of Change for Rural America. What an amazing group of people. I was heartened to meet my fellow champions, to hear their stories and to witness their passion.

In rural Iowa we grow a good deal of the nation’s corn and soybeans. We have the richest soil in the U.S. and yet we import more than 85% of food we eat from outside our state. Our farmers are aging; the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is about 58. Few young people have aspirations to become farmers. Our rural landscape is littered with small towns devoid of businesses, shrinking schools, and for some, a sense of hopelessness. It astounded me, this rural decay in the midst of such rich land.

I am a professor of biology at Marshalltown Community College. I am also a small organic farmer who along with my family raises fruit, vegetables and some livestock. I knew what the land could produce. I knew that our community could feed and employ itself far better if we grew their own produce. To that end I proposed that we develop the Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture program at the community college. This a two year degree program preparing new farmers to grow and market diverse crops locally.

Community colleges are ideal for this kind of venture. We understand our communities; we are part of the community. At Marshalltown Community College we demonstrate crop production on the 140 acre college farm, offer internships, and help launch entrepreneurial and agricultural enterprises. We offer courses in marketing, sustainable production, and business planning. We have served our immigrant community as well by developing the “Start Your Own Diversified Farm” weekend course in both Spanish and English. We offer land on the college farm for new farmers to learn and attain a cropping history that will allow them to qualify for agricultural loans.

The world of food and farming is changing and I am thrilled to be just a little part of that. I am proud to be counted among the Champions of Change.

Linda J. Barnes, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at the Marshalltown Community College in Iowa and an organic farmer. She founded the Sustainable and Entrepreneurial Agriculture Program at MCC, which is the first associate degree program in sustainable agriculture in the Midwest.