Dispatch from Germany: An agroecology student dives deep into organic

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By Renee Ciulla

Although many days I would prefer to just pick up a shovel and start farming, I am forging ahead with a Master of Science degree in Agroecology.

I am currently studying for a year in Germany, and the more I learn about organic farming and local-food initiatives, the more I see how they can ameliorate some of the problems associated with our global food system. I hope that by learning more about the factors related to ethical and environmental food production, I can ultimately inspire others to feel proud about the food they swallow. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in organic or biodynamic farming, renewable energy; soil biology; plant nutrition; organic food quality, processing and marketing check out the International Organic Agriculture program at the University of Kassel, where I am.

Seeds of a passion

Raised on America's East Coast in rural New Hampshire, I've always been intrigued by farmers and the idea of living off the land. I can remember visiting the Amish communities of Pennsylvania as a 6-year-old and knowing immediately that this was the life for me. Despite these instincts, I have since joined the fast-paced, car-cruising, cyber-connected world, but I do manage to keep my hands in the dirt as much as possible.

dscn3667_resizeAfter getting my undergraduate degree  (BS in Environmental Studies, Geology and Psychology) from Saint Lawrence University in Canton, NY, I helped manage an organic fast-food restaurant and tried my hand at landscaping for two years in Portsmouth, NH. During this time I couldn't shake my constant thoughts about our twisted, backward global-food system.

"Would it be possible for more people to sustain themselves on a local food system?" I kept wondering. I started to realize, like many other Americans, that "certified organic" isn't always the golden environmental answer, especially when it involved New Englanders eating California lettuce and crispy New Zealand apples in January, while New Hampshire apple trees were laden with their own fruit. With these thoughts painting the backdrop of my mind, I moved out West to the Rocky Mountains of Bozeman, MT, where I started my own business creating home vegetable and herb gardens for residential families and teaching people to grow their own food. Surprisingly, my customers were very receptive to these ideas: before long there was a waiting list of people eager to grow their own salad greens, zucchini, and tomatoes. During my two years in Montana, I was also able to work on an organic farm, where I grew peas and beans for the local co-op and  managed the farm greenhouse, and to comanaged a health food store that actively supported local farmers.

In the fall of 2006 I traveled to Italy for three months to work on organic farms, and when I returned to the U.S., I decided I wanted to go back to school and learn as much as possible about organic farming and food systems in a more structured environment. After applying to several American and European graduate schools, I decided on a two-year Master of Science degree in Agroecology, based in Norway at the University of Life Sciences in Aas.

Magical kingdom

The Organic Agriculture Department building

The Organic Agriculture Department building

My first few days in Witzenhausen, Germany as an exchange student at the University of Kassel's International Organic Agriculture program kept bringing memories into my head about childhood fairy tales. The perfectly painted half-timbered homes, meticulously groomed trails through surrounding thick, mystical forests, and castles dotting the rolling farmland outside the town create an enchanting experience. Set in the Werra River Valley in central Germany, Witzenhausen is the smallest university town in the country. This means that after a few weeks you can't leave your room without seeing someone you know, and it seems to have resulted in a close-knit community of very friendly, down-to-earth people.

A bike path in Witzen

A bike path in Witzen

The rolling farmland surrounding the University is full of cherry trees that blossomed into brilliant white flowers in early April and have now become loaded with delectable deep red bursts of sweet cherries. I'm looking forward to helping some local farms harvest cherries in late June, but until then I'm distracted by the dozens of incredible types of sourdough wholegrain breads from the small bakeries throughout town. There's a plethora of organic food in all the supermarkets, a wonderful health food store, many community garden plots, a large student garden and a weekly farmers market. There are also several local, organic farms producing honey, meat, vegetables, grain, dairy, berries and fruit where it is easy to grab a shovel, get dirty and attempt the tongue-twisting German language.

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Student windmills

One of my favorite things about this program is the diversity of "organic themes" offered through the 23 different academic faculties. The departments include Soil Biology & Plant Nutrition, Organic Farming & Cropping Systems, Ecological Plant Protection, Agricultural Engineering, Biodynamic Agriculture, Economics & Agricultural Policy, and Organic Food Quality & Food Culture.

Solar herb dryer

Solar herb dryer

Although I hadn't planned on studying renewable energy here, once I visited the outdoor lab for Agricultural Engineering and saw the student windmills (which generate some of the electricity for the university), solar distillation and solar herb-drying experiments and several of the solar panels being utilized, I was intrigued to try following a German course in this subject. (The program is taught entirely in English, students always have the option to join the German-taught courses as well.) Classes are generally small and professors are easy to approach with research ideas or questions such as how to bike to a nearby farm for a weekend festival.

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Student garden

Those interested in a career in international agricultural work will find this program particularly fitting because it brings you in contact with students from every corner of the globe. Much of the research is being conducted in tropical and subtropical areas as well as arid regions such as Africa. There is a tropical greenhouse on campus as well as a research farm located near Kassel, where students are welcome to visit and contribute to ongoing projects, such as the integration of nature conservation and organic farming (increasing local varieties, field feed for birds, rehabilitating the river system), the optimization of organic cultivation of potatoes for processing, alternative soil management systems in organic farming and intercropping of cereals and grain legumes for increased production, weed control, improved product quality, and prevention of nitrogen losses. Furthermore, professors have contacts with countless numbers of influential international agricultural organizations (such as the FAO in Rome and FiBL in Switzerland) and countless other universities in Europe. The worldwide umbrella organization for organic farming, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), is located in Western Germany, and BioFach (the largest annual World Organic Trade Fair and lectures) takes place in Southern Germany.

reneeciullaAs I continue my exploration into the complexities and dramas of our planet's food supply, I hope someday I can teach others about the importance of sustainably managing our soil, growing food for themselves and others, and eating as local and organic as possible. Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding studying in Witzenhausen or general European organic agriculture inquiries (especially related to Italy).

One Responseto “Dispatch from Germany: An agroecology student dives deep into organic”

  1. “Would it be possible for more people to sustain themselves on a local food system?” I kept wondering. I started to realize, like many other Americans, that “certified organic” isn’t always the golden environmental answer, especially when it involved New Englanders eating California lettuce and crispy New Zealand apples in January, while New Hampshire apple trees were laden with their own fruit.

    That is a very important issue. It seems odd to me when some people focus on Organic (certified or not) but ignore the fact that the food was transported such huge distances or came from such large processors that aren't really adding to their local economy or sustainable.

    Some things, like microchips and LCD displays, do make sense to manufacture in a few places in the world and then ship great distances to achieve saves of volume production or even make them possible. The value density is high. Food doesn't fall into that category, especially not staples like apples, potatoes, meat, etc. We really need to be producing those locally for all the obvious reasons as well as simply maintaining the ability to do so which could be come critical in a crisis.

    Along those lines, what we really need is people to connect more with their food by actually producing some, even if it is just a kitchen herb garden, so that they maintain skills for dealing with such things. It is all incremental.