2011 21.1 WSU Sustainable Ag Program Immerses Students In Farming While Participating Farms Gain Valuable Case Study

The Field Analysis for Sustainable Agriculture course is part of WSU’s Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture. It is a unique, experiential learning course designed to engage students in thinking about food systems in Washington State.

Through readings, online discussions, and a week-long field immersion, students develop and enhance understanding of the factors that contribute to greater sustainability of agriculture and food systems.

Learning What Makes Agriculture Sustainable

The first part of the course is spent analyzing the four components of sustainable agriculture: production, economics, environment, and social.

Students are assigned a range of course readings and participate in class discussions on the internet. An interdisciplinary approach is taken, which is essential to understanding the far-reaching impacts of our food production system on other aspects of society.

Farmers As Teachers

However, what makes this course unique is a week-long field immersion experience. In 2010, the class traveled to the Dayton/Walla Walla region of southeast Washington to visit various food production enterprises.

In this part of the course, the class meets with farmers, warehouse managers, and retail sellers to hear about the intricacies of the respective operations.

Students come with many questions and later discuss the role of food producers in the regional food system. Ultimately, the culmination of course work and farm visits gives the students a realistic look at the sustainability of our current food system and the challenges of changing that paradigm.

The field immersion is essential to the overall effectiveness of the class. It is designed to tie in themes from the earlier readings, which give students a foundation for analysis. The range and scope of visits is specific to the region, and therefore makes each class unique.

For instance, this year we focused on ‘sustainable staples,’ an overview of grain and legume research programs, farms, food processing, shipping and marketing facilities in the region.

We also visited a variety of small vegetable and meat production farms. The actual region and facilities visited is not significant. More importantly, through the field immersion, students develop a critical lens to conceptualize issues of sustainability in food production and distribution.


As part of the coursework, each student focuses on one farm or farm business, and then prepares a written essay, or ‘case study’, with professional-looking layout and photos. While the student’s focus is on relating what they’ve learned from the farm enterprise, the end result is often a beautiful marketing piece the farm can subsequently use when promoting themselves and their products.

An example (pictured here), written by Tilth Producers’ board member Taya Brown when she took the course, does an excellent job of conveying the passion and hard work the Thundering Hooves family puts into the farm and farm products.

Overall, this course is part of a broader effort by WSU to give students the opportunity to study sustainable agriculture in more depth. It provides students with an interdisciplinary understanding of the practices and current issues in food production, and some of the science that goes along with it. Students can take these skills and understanding into various facets of the food systems to affect production and processing practices, and to deliver policy, regulation, and education.

A special Thank You to Dr. Kevin Murphy for his dedication to the education of young farmers.

Tags: Case Study, Class, Education, Field Immersion, Food Producers, Sustainable Agriculture, WSU