Half of the Agroecology class planting strawberries at Pitchfork Farms, Petoskey.

UMBS prides itself on offering a variety of engaging field courses, but perhaps none take this designation more literally than Agroecology.

The class, brand new this summer, encourages students to apply ecological principles to agricultural systems, including soil health and conservation, nutrient management, cropping systems, and weed and pest management. They also consider broader issues such as inequality in the food system, social movements that resist these inequalities, and how food producers cope with change in markets and the climate.

Students spend time in the classroom and UMBS garden, and take weekly “field trips” to two local farms: Harvest Thyme Farm in Cheboygan, and Pitchfork Farms in Petoskey. For six weeks this summer, students plant, weed, and gain hands-on experience working alongside the farmers who run the show. They also create participatory maps with the farmers, conduct interviews, and collect soil samples for analysis. At the end of the term, students synthesize all of this information into a final “FarmLab” report, which they present to the farmers at UMBS. In this way, students come away with a complex understanding of agriculture from the ground up.

Macalino poses with a strawberry plant.

Jianella Macalino, a rising senior majoring in PitE and International Studies, most appreciates the interdisciplinary nature of the class content.

“It’s not just about sustainable food systems, but the social movements behind them,” says Macalino. “It’s about science, the livelihood of farmers, and the activism that supports it all.”

This comprehensive approach is no accident. Instructor Katie Goodall, Assistant Dean at The School for Field Studies, brings a rich social and natural science background to UMBS. Goodall did much of her PhD work on coffee farms in Nicaragua, examining how farmers make decisions about land management and how these processes shape environmental outcomes. Now, part of her course requires students to interview farmers about similar decisions and outcomes.

“My hope is that Agroecology students will gain a nuanced understanding of the ways in which food systems can balance production goals with environmental resource conservation, sustainable farmer livelihoods, and food justice among the diverse communities they serve,” says Goodall.

In addition to the social and ecological framework, students enjoy the experience of getting their hands dirty and learning the basics of farming. Each student also designs and maintains a small garden plot at UMBS.

“I love the gardening aspect,” says Macalino. “I was never exposed to it before, and it’s been a great life experience.”

More about the new Agroecology course and instructor Katie Goodall.