Sustainable agriculture has come to MiraCosta College.
Responding to a combination of industry demand for skilled workers and increased interest among area residents taking up a new interest, MiraCosta College’s Horticulture Department has launched a new Sustainable Agriculture degree and certificate program that can be completed in as little as a year.
The program comes as North County’s agritourism industry grows more popular and attracts city folk interested in visiting working farms, ranches and wineries to buy fresh produce, harvest organically grown crops or enjoy a true farm-to-table meal is gathering strength.
“Sustainable agriculture is becoming more popular, and that’s resulting in a need for people with the skills and knowledge about the industry,” said Horticulture Professor and Department Chair Claire Ehrlinger. “We’ve created a first-class program, and we’re pleased with the results.”
Sustainable agriculture isn’t the only new program offered by the MiraCosta College Horticulture Department. Also new this year is a Viticulture and Enology certificate and degree program, along with a Pest Control Advisor program. The trio complement previous Horticulture Department programs in Sustainable Landscape and Turf Management, Nursery/Horticulture Crop Management, Landscape Architecture, and Irrigation Technology.
The Sustainable Agriculture program offers training in the concepts and practices of organic gardening and small-scale farming, and it is aimed at preparing students for immediate employment or ownership of farms growing sustainably raised crops.
“It’s important to note that a lot of people who are entering this field do not have agricultural backgrounds,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau who sits on a MiraCosta College industry advisory board. “A lot of people are coming into this as a second career, or they may be looking at it as a hobby. This program is a perfect fit for them.”
Courses range from Horticulture Laws and Regulations to Integrated Pest Management, Organic Crop Production: Cool Season, Organic Crop Production: Warm Season, and Organic Crop Production: Specialty Crops.
Abigail Ferreiri, an associate faculty member who teaches an Organic Crop Production course, said plans call for students to grow hydroponic herbs and produce for the college café next semester.
The program is the only one of its kind in North County, which is the center of San Diego County’s agriculture industry and which yields more than $1.77 billion in crops annually. Most farms are small family enterprises, 68 percent of which comprise nine or fewer acres in size, according to the San Diego County Farm Bureau.
The program’s curriculum was crafted by working with the Farm Bureau and an advisory board. Only one other community college in the county – San Diego City College some 40 miles to the south – offers a similar program. The nearest four-year sustainable agriculture program is 100 miles away in Los Angeles County.
A MiraCosta College labor analysis found that one-tenth of San Diego County’s 4,200 square miles is devoted to agriculture. Of the 5732 farms in the region, 363 are certified organic, the largest number of certified organic farms of any county in the United States.
“Employers in this area of agriculture are experiencing a significant shortage of employees educated in sustainable principles and practices,” Ehrlinger said.
MiraCosta’s Horticulture Department completed a survey of regional employers between May of 2015 and November of 2016 in the sustainable agriculture sector and found that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said they were likely or very likely will likely to hire between one and six new employees over the next six years, and up to 18 new employees over the next 10 years.