Published on 01/08/09

UGA’s organic program graduates first students

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Kate Smith has had lots of dirt under her fingernails as a horticulture graduate from the University of Georgia. And some of that soil has been certified organic.

She and Kelly Broderick stepped across UGA’s graduation stage in December as the first students to complete UGA’s new certificate program in organic agriculture.

“It’s made me realize that having my hands in the dirt is something I need in life,” Smith said of the program. “It was an incredibly rewarding experience.”

Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture in December. She’s moving to Washington, D.C. this month to hunt for a job in agriculture policy.

Broderick, an ecology graduate, plans to get a master’s degree that focuses on sustainable agriculture. But right now she’d really “love to get a job on a farm working,” she said. Broderick eventually wants to go into education and develop a science curriculum based around agriculture.

Organic at UGA

Organic agriculture is farming with minimal chemical inputs. It emphasizes management practices that restore, maintain or enhance farmland. And before UGA’s program started a year and a half ago, the scientific study of organic agriculture was something missing from Georgia’s college curriculum. The program has grown to include 20 students, approved classes and an organic farm and greenhouses.

Smith said the program helped her “see through the romanticism of agriculture.” And that’s one of UGA horticulture professor Marc van Iersel’s goals in teaching organic agriculture.

“There are a lot of myths surrounding organic agriculture. I hope this program gives them a more science-based approach,” said van Iersel, who is based in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

One of his students is already testing his organic agriculture knowledge. Economics major James Hamilton is starting a two-acre organic farm in Cleveland, Ga. This year, he’ll set up a small CSA – community supported agriculture – and provide produce to paying subscribers.

“Hopefully what I’ll grow will be a lot of heirloom” plants, he said. “They taste better, and they’re more interesting to grow. I’m not so concerned with yields. I’m just seeing what will grow.”

UGA’s certificate program in organic agriculture has four required courses and six hours of electives. The certificate is similar to a minor for undergraduates, with faculty from various departments and colleges teaching in the program.

Van Iersel would like to see 25 to 30 students enroll in the program each year or a total of 50 students in the program. “If we consistently attract that many students, it would be time to start thinking about an organic major,” he said. He’d like to see the program springboard into both a minor and a major in organic agriculture.

Using the program

UGA students in the organic certificate program apply their knowledge in a variety of ways. “This program could benefit anybody who has an interest in growing of any kind,” said Dain Goedeke, a UGA landscape architecture major. He plans to apply the soils knowledge he gained in his future design projects. “I don’t think a lot of landscape architects do that.”

Horticulture major Jacob Adams’ master plan is to have “a micro farm with my family and an integrated restaurant and grocery store.”

But not all of van Iersel’s students are pursing careers in organic agriculture.

French graduate Rick Power took a job with a charitable organization. He took several organic classes but didn’t formally complete the certificate program. Now living in Massachusetts, Power works for Heifer International, a non-profit organization that’s goal is to help end world hunger and poverty through self-reliance and sustainability.

For more information on UGA’s organic certificate program, visit

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.