Sustainable Food Systems at DCTC
New Landscape Horticulture certificate creates more career opportunities
While teaching a new course in Sustainable Landscape Practices several years ago, Matt Brooks, a Landscape Horticulture instructor at Dakota County Technical College, discovered that his students were hungry to delve deeper into the sketchy dynamic between food and health in the United States and around the world. Brooks’ students knew their future careers in the green industry were somehow linked to the fate of food–they just didn’t know how.
They devoured several illuminating books by Michael Pollan, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, including Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Second Nature and Botany of Desire, all centered on bettering humankind’s often precarious relationship with nature, plants and food.
Students also viewed a number of documentaries profiling today’s globalized food systems and their direct and indirect effects on our environment. Poisoned Waters, a Frontline documentary, poured dark light on the grim state of our nation’s waterways and the degradation caused by industrialized agriculture, urban runoff, and the toxic soup of pharmaceuticals, household products and personal hygiene items flushed into septic systems every day.
Food, Inc., took an unnerving peek at the nation’s corporate-dominated food industry, where modern agribusinesses seem fixated on plopping cheap, expedient food-like portions on the pie-chart parcels of MyPlate (formerly the food guide pyramid). Other documentaries focused on the urban and suburban obsession with ultragreen, weed-free lawns and their hidden costs. Still others reminded the class of the natural landscapes that once thrived across the country and how a return to that more pristine state could help restore fragile ecosystems.
Both the reading list and films alarmed and awakened Brooks’ students, leading to lively class discussions and thoughtful essays. His students shared connections they made between the abysmal state of society’s collective health, a health care system addicted to prescribing pills and removing body parts, unsustainable health care costs, and the nutrient-deficient substances people are resigned to calling “food.”
Early on, student reactions fluctuated between anger and despondency. Many saw little hope for change. A landscape architect with a passion for health food and sustainable landscapes, Brooks saw things differently. He told his students to look on the greener side. Problems are opportunities in disguise. And the state of the nation’s food system was one big problem knocking on their door.
After viewing the documentary, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, students perked up and became more hopeful. The film tells the story of Cuba’s “Special Period,” which is the traumatic space in the island nation’s history when the Soviet Union imploded. The year 1990 infused desperation in the Cuban people. Imports from the Soviet Union were slashed, oil by 50 percent, food by 80 percent. Cuba’s industrial-style agricultural machine, once sustained by petroleum and mass-production pesticides and fertilizers, returned to a system of old, one based on organic food grown in nearby urban locations using a local labor force.
The “new” farming methods emphasized healthy soils and nutrition. The success of the urban farming revolution catapulted horticulturists and farmers to a loftier status as the benefactors of their produce began to recognize and appreciate their creativity and resolve. More jaded consumers in developed countries like the U.S. typically overlook the hard work of their farmers, sealing off their connection to food at supermarkets and big-box grocers, where price and convenience trump nutrition and taste.
After completing the Sustainable Landscape Practices course, Brooks’ students were making brighter connections between concerns for their own health, the bizarre state of planetary food systems and the disturbing corruptions of the world’s ecosystems. They wanted to do something about it. Matt Brooks wanted to do more, too.
Knowing it was time to take the next step, Brooks decided to create new courses for the college’s Landscape Horticulture program, courses that could be offered as part of a new certificate called Sustainable Food Systems. Through this new offering, students could explore their interests in becoming part of the food-health crisis solution by expanding their knowledge base to include sustainable methods of growing nutritious food. They could also learn how to translate this tastier aspect of horticulture into meaningful, influential and rewarding careers.
Equipped with a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s in landscape architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Brooks has more than 25 years of experience working in the landscape industry. His core philosophy is built on designing landscapes that are both aesthetically compelling and wholly protective of people and the environment. His expertise in the essential ornamental facets of horticulture has served him well during his career, but as time went on he experienced a professional yearning that was going unfulfilled.
Inspired by the enthusiasm his students showed for sustainable landscapes, including their connections to the labyrinth of healthy soil-healthy food-healthy body, Brooks’ own interest in more ecological, food-based landscapes increased to the point where he resolved to augment his knowledge base. He needed to know more about how horticulture best practices can work together to satisfy the human desire for beauty, healthier minds and bodies, and elemental nutrition.
Over the last two years, he earned certifications in urban farming from the Permaculture Research Institute-Cold Climate in Minneapolis and Permaculture Design from Whole Systems Design in Mad River, Vt.
He also took a one-year sabbatical to research different methods of sustainable agriculture along with the smartest ways to teach those methods. As part of his sabbatical, Brooks participated in the Land Stewardship Project’s Beginning Farmers program 2013. He attended the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES) conference in La Crosse, Wis. He visited with numerous smaller scale food-growing enterprises throughout the Upper Midwest.
“It’s amazing and encouraging to see all of the exciting things going on out there,” Brooks said. “Every day, people empowered by the desire to eat and live well are taking charge of their own destiny rather than waiting around for someone else to do it for them.”
Brooks is excited about the new Sustainable Food Systems certificate, which will be offered for the first time fall semester 2013. He knows the coursework will fill a gap for students wishing to expand their horticultural knowledge to include proven sustainable methods of growing nutritious (and better tasting) food. The certificate option provides affordable access to this vital information, giving students the ability to broaden their horticultural skill range while opening doors to new opportunities.
DCTC Sustainability Demonstration Garden
To provide the hands-on experience of growing nutritious food, Landscape Horticulture faculty are breaking ground on a new sustainability Demonstration Garden on the DCTC Rosemount campus. Located just south of the program’s state-of-the-art greenhouse, the Demo Garden will create an active learning environment for teaching sustainable and productive landscape practices. Preliminary work took place fall semester 2012, allowing the garden to enter early phases of production by spring and summer 2013. The garden has the potential to earn up to $20,000 annually in plant and food sales in the next three to five years.
“The Sustainability Demo Garden will serve as food-systems lab area for demonstrating sustainable food production techniques while providing space for student-led research and testing of new and upcoming methodologies, including season extension, soil building with bio-char and cover-cropping,” Brooks said. “We hope that the garden will draw as much excitement and participation from the entire DCTC campus and surrounding community as it does from students in our own program. We really see this as a community asset that will pay off in ever-greater dividends as more and more campus and community members become involved.”
Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) certification key goal of new Demo Garden
The Sustainable Sites Initiative, or SITES, also provides excellent avenues to pursue in the quest to achieve campus sustainability goals. As a technical college with a robust stake in a greener economy with more green jobs, SITES certification offers a powerful support system based on “voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices.”
From the SITES website: “The Sustainable Sites Initiative is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanic Garden in conjunction with a diverse group of stakeholder organizations to establish and encourage sustainable practices in landscape design, construction, operations, and maintenance.
“The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES™) was created to promote sustainable land development and management practices that can apply to sites with and without buildings including, but not limited to the following:
- Open spaces such as local, state and national parks, conservation easements and buffer zones and transportation rights-of-way.
- Sites with buildings including industrial, retail and office parks, military complexes, airports, botanical gardens, streetscapes and plazas, residential and commercial developments and public and private campuses.
“SITES will provide tools for those who influence land development and management practices and can address increasingly urgent global concerns such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and resource depletion. They can be used by those who design, construct, operate and maintain landscapes, including but not limited to planners, landscape architects, engineers, developers, builders, maintenance crews, horticulturists, governments, land stewards and organizations offering building standards.”
Highlights of the Sustainable Food Systems certificate
- 27-credit certificate built upon foundational courses in plant and soil science, pest management, sustainable landscape methods and other courses offered as part of the landscape horticulture diploma and AAS degrees offered at the college
- Courses taught on campus utilizing traditional classroom lectures, outdoor labs in the new DCTC Sustainability Demonstration Garden and state-of-the-art greenhouse, and off-campus field trips to local sustainable farming enterprises
New courses offered as part of SFS certificate
Sustainable Food Systems
This course explores agricultural systems from early history through current practices and beyond with an emphasis on emergent trends in urban agriculture and local food production. Students will gain an historical perspective in the development of agricultural systems, the socioeconomic influences driving our modern day food systems and its impact on human health and the environment. The emphasis of this course will be on the exploration and investigation of current methodologies in urban agriculture through research of case studies allowing students the opportunity to sharpen research skills while focusing on areas of particular interest.
Permaculture-based Food Systems Design
This course explores permaculture-based design principles and their application to the small-scale homestead or urban farm. Through research and hands-on design studio exercises students will learn how to small-scale food systems in urban environments that mimic the resiliency and abundance of natural ecosystems. Students will learn techniques for gathering and organizing critical site information in preparation of the site analysis, program development and a successful design solution. Information and skills learned in this course will be synthesized in a final design project for the student’s own homestead or urban farm.
Sustainable Food Crop Production
This course is designed to introduce students to sustainable practices in food crop production including the identification of both annual and perennial species suitable for growing in the upper mid-west, propagation techniques, cultural requirements, harvesting and storage techniques and procedures and regulations involved in bringing food crops to market. Through both lecture and hands-on experiences in the campus greenhouse and demonstration gardens, students will plan their own garden layout, create crop production calendars, and propagate the crops they plan to grow on campus. Students participating in the on-campus internship will also have the opportunity to see their crop production plans through to harvest and sale.
Infrastructure for Sustainable Food Systems
This course introduces students to the multitude of man-made and natural structures essential to the successful production of food crops including composting, soil building and bed preparation, raised beds, trellising and other means of plant support, water catchment and irrigation systems, structures for season extension and protection from garden predators. Through hands-on exercises and projects, students will learn about the materials, tools and techniques used in their construction and upkeep.
Sustainable Food Systems Internship
This course immerses students in the daily routine of operating an urban farmstead through participation in planting, observation, maintenance and harvest of crops on the campus demonstration gardens. Depending on time of season, students may also be involved in the marketing, preparation, and sale of various farm produce as well as off-season activities such as garden cleanups, soil building and other infrastructure maintenance. In addition to the required 64 hours of participation in campus farm operations, students will keep a daily journal of observations and tasks completed, and write a final reflective essay on their practicum experiences.