By Renee Ciulla
“Organic agriculture in Norway? Isn’t it a bit cold there for farming? Do the Vikings eat reindeer?” These are the types of comments I heard as I told friends and family I was enrolling in the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) for a Master of Science Degree in Agroecology. Yes, it is colder here in August than where I come from in New Hampshire, but it is an amazing program that I would like to share with people interested in sustainable farming education. I will be writing a monthly travelogue during my two years of study outlining the educational and travel highlights while hopefully stimulating some discussions back home and inspiring potential students to pursue agroecology.
My personal interest in studying within the European system has been growing for the past five years since I graduated from Saint Lawrence University in New York. I have been actively following and contributing to the local food and organic farming movement in the United States while also finding myself continually impressed with various policies adopted by European governments as well as the general mentality of Europeans regarding food consumption and production. After various trips to Europe and then farming in Italy in 2006, I was further convinced that I had much to learn from Europeans; not
When I began the graduate school search, I had been living the “mountain life” in Bozeman, Montana, for two years. The thought of attending school closer to family on the East Coast was appealing, so it is still a shock to me that I am writing this from Planet Scandinavia!
For those of you interested in sustainable-food-and-farming graduate programs within the United States, here is a preliminary list of schools to save you research time: University of Vermont, University of Massachusetts, Tufts University (School of Nutrition-Agriculture, Food and the Environment), University of Wisconsin, Iowa State, University of Nebraska, University of California at Santa Cruz and Davis, University of Washington, Ohio State and Cornell University. Many of these programs were relatively young, extremely expensive, and offered far less international exposure than the European programs I discovered.
Although I am a “be local” girl at heart, I cannot deny that we live in a globally interconnected world which has infiltrated our food and farming systems. Because of this I felt it was important to immerse myself in a program where I would be in daily contact with perspectives and worldviews that came from all corners of the globe. Financially speaking, although everything in Norway costs ridiculous amounts (Oslo has recently been named the “most expensive city in the world”) there is no tuition for the entire degree.
The Norwegian University of Life Sciences, located in Ås, Norway (30 minutes south of Oslo, on the nation’s southeastern coast) is recognized as a leading international center within environmental and bio sciences. The university's main specialization areas are biology, food, environment, as well as land use and natural resource management. About 180 of the 600 courses at bachelor's and master's level are taught in English, as well as many Ph.D.-level courses.
The Agroecology degree at UMB is open to any students who hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field, which means applicants come from around the world. Additionally, the program encourages students to take advantage of UMB’s connection with dozens of other universities by studying abroad during the second and third semesters in countries such as Italy, Hungary, the United States, Germany, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, France and Denmark. This flexibility allows students to self-direct their degree and explore various agroecosystems and teaching environments before completing their thesis.
The program is designed to develop agroecologists who will be successful contributors to future food systems that must deal with production and economies, environmental impacts and social-equity issues. Experiential learning is strongly emphasized, which involves cooperating with key players in the food-and-farming systems and moves education away from the classroom and into the surrounding community. Several projects are based on oral presentations designed in groups in order to strengthen communication and teamwork skills.
I was pleased to discover that for 23 students in the Agroecology program, there are three core professors who attend all classes; two from Norway and one from the United States. Although they are professional, conversing with them is full of comfort and ease. Potlucks are plenty. The students this year (ages 21-36) come from Italy, Germany, Holland, France, Ethiopia, the United States, China, Sri Lanka and Norway, with a wide array of academic and professional experiences.
Our first day of classes began Aug. 11, with a three-day field trip to one of the largest organic farms in Norway, Fokhol Farm, located north of Oslo. Lectures, plenary sessions and group presentations filled our days and provided a stimulating environment to get to know each other. The food was almost entirely grown on the farm, incredibly delicious and always beautifully displayed. Homemade rhubarb jam drizzled on steaming freshly-baked bread with wheat from the farm was a tasty inspiration for our studies. The main learning objective of the trip was to analyze a local farm, attempting to view the whole farm with a systems approach. In groups of four, we discussed with the farmers the various strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats they encountered, as well as grasping the history of the place and future goals.
I spoke with a sheep farmer who had converted to organic in the past, but, for various financial and social reasons, has decided it is more viable for his farm to operate without the certification. It was a peaceful and enriching experience to begin our semester, and I definitely learned more by tromping through barns, fields and orchards than sitting through structured class time.
Back on campus, we have been assigned a second farm case study where we will bring some of the theories we have discussed in the classroom out in the field again. As we come across key issues that need investigation, we will delve into these topics with more interest and concern because there is a real farmer in need waiting for our response! My farm is owned and operated by a single man of 60 years. He has begun organic conversion of his oat and winter wheat fields but is in real need of some advice about his heavy clay soil and weed problems. The next entry will continue with more agronomic details as well as possible solutions we discover.
Renee Ciulla has always been intrigued by farming, but became seriously dedicated to the world of organics after writing a paper on Bob Rodale in college. Since then her experiences include running her own vegetable garden business in Montana, managing a health-food store, Slow Food and "eating local" campaigns, and freelance writing. She dreams of farming and eating her way though Italy but is currently content with studying agriculture in Europe.