Sustaining Agricultural Education – Where does Secondary Education Stand?

In the 1990s the Bachelor of Agricultural Science course I studied had one lecture on organic farming and a tour of a permaculture property. For one subject I delivered a presentation on biodynamics, for which I received an award for ‘bravery’. Sustainable agriculture at that time was presented as little more than the stubble retention and direct drilling technologies of conservation farming. Disheartened by this lack of consideration of ecology-based systems my path strayed from ‘conventional’ Agriculture. That was until I decided to undertake formal teaching qualifications after working as a biodynamic gardener at a Steiner school. I was disappointed to find that little had changed in terms of representing ‘alternative’ systems (organic, biodynamic, permaculture, agroforestry, etc.) in mainstream education. There are no explicit references to any of these systems in any of the syllabi that cover agricultural education in NSW high schools.

In theory it is possible for a student to complete HSC Agriculture without ever learning about these systems despite ‘sustainability’ being a core objective. Again disheartened and not wishing to teach a conventional system heavy syllabus I decided to cement my previous independent studies and experience in alternative agriculture with a Master of Sustainable Agriculture through Charles Sturt University. Fortunately Universities are catching up with the need to provide a more holistic view of agriculture with many offering single subjects through to whole degrees and postgraduate courses. My dissertation research topic had been decided before I’d even started. I wanted to know to what extent teachers were using examples from alternative agriculture in their teaching and what influenced the determination of curriculum content.

Download the full dissertation here (1.8mb PDF)

Agricultural education is at a critically important stage given the potential impacts of an unpredictable and changing climate on our ability to produce sufficient food for a burgeoning world population. In Australia, demand for agricultural university graduates is double that of the supply. Enrolments continue to decline, few students continue to postgraduate research, and many academics are reaching retirement age. Once world leaders in agricultural research and development, Australia could be risking our future food security through neglecting the continued development of a sector that was once the backbone of the country.

So how do we address this problem?

Very little research has been conducted on agricultural education at primary and secondary levels in Australia. Fortunately research into curriculum development in sustainable agriculture in the United States was available to inform my research. Shortly into my research I realised that there were more imminent threats to the subject of agriculture itself, let alone the representation of alternative systems in its delivery. Agriculture suffers from image problems, often viewed as an inferior and non-academic subject as well as being influenced by the negative perceptions of agriculture in the wider community. The research then became two-fold, examining the use of examples from alternative agriculture through a survey of teachers, and investigating the role of agriculture in high schools in meeting the future needs of the industry through interviews with stakeholders from primary through to tertiary education.

With the assistance of the NSW Association of Agriculture Teachers, an online survey was promoted to their members. Questions concerned the use of examples from organic, biodynamic, ecological/biological, permaculture, agroforestry, aquaponics and natural sequence farming systems in the different teaching stages (Years 7-8, 9-10 and 11-12) as well as questions regarding recent changes in the HSC syllabus and perceived professional development needs. Results from the 38 respondents indicate that, overall, alternative systems are ‘sometimes’ referred to in their teaching and they perceive that they need ‘a little’ professional development in these systems. Organic agriculture was reported to be most often referred to whereas natural sequence farming and aquaponics the least. Perceived professional development needs reflected this with the most training required in natural sequence farming, aquaponics and biodynamics and least in organic farming. Comments were invited to conclude the survey with one teacher commenting that they would not like to see alternative systems ‘take over’ the teaching of agriculture, another citing financial restraints and lack of access to examples of alternative agriculture, and another suggesting that sustainability and environmental issues already embedded in the syllabus have reduced the time available to teach the interactions and science of agriculture. Another teacher commented that the school farm has an aquaponics unit as a student research enterprise, uses organic farm practices and propagates native plants to sell for local regeneration projects. These results indicate that whilst not explicit in the content requirements of the agriculture syllabi, alternative systems are represented, although much of this depends on the experience and motivations of the teachers delivering the curriculum.

Interviews with stakeholders in agricultural education identified a number of concerns: community perceptions and the role of the media, the need for industry, government and university action, agriculture as a cross-curricular theme, the place of agriculture and primary industries in high schools, teacher competency and professional development, and alternative agriculture in curriculum development. Community perceptions of agriculture and the media’s role in perpetuating the stereotypes of farmers as ‘ignorant’ with ‘wheat between the teeth’, doing it tough’, or the ‘poor farmer who can’t look after themselves if things go wrong’ are a far cry from the reality of agriculture as an industry. Agriculture is diverse, innovative, resilient, and much more than farming alone.

With the world’s most urbanised population this issue widens the gap in knowledge between the majority of the population and their food source. Stakeholders all agreed that there is a need to present positive stories and images that represent the diversity of agricultural careers in the media. All stakeholders agreed that the responsibility of promoting agriculture as a viable career option lies with the industry, universities and government. The perception that agriculture is simply farming and therefore low-income manual labour needs to be dispelled and 2012 being the Year of the Farmer presents a perfect opportunity to do so. Universities and industry need to foster connections with schools, educate careers advisors and develop educational resources after consulting teachers, not simply produce another poster for which there is no space on the classroom wall. Governments need to fund the upgrading of school agriculture facilities, and appreciate the need to invest in agricultural research and return it to a position of ‘serving the public good’ rather than corporate interests. The good news is that these needs are being recognised and realised with the formation of the Primary Industries Education Foundation (PIEF).

The inclusion of agriculture as a cross-curricular theme was considered beneficial by most stakeholders, although a few expressed concern that it would be overlooked by teachers who bypass cross-curricular themes and concentrate on syllabus content. Permaculture as a ‘thinking tool’ rather than a farming system is perhaps the best placed of the alternative agricultural systems to be applied across a range of key learning areas and therefore used as a cross-curricular theme. The kitchen garden movement in primary schools was considered as a beneficial step in addressing the disconnection from nature and food supplies in urban environments, however, funding, support for teachers, and the pressure on schools to achieve literacy and numeracy objectives were given as barriers to wider adoption. Stakeholders agreed that continuing the important work of food growing experiences in the primary years into secondary schooling was a challenge that needs addressing.

All stakeholders agree that agriculture and primary industries need to maintain their place as separate specialist subjects in high school, however, low student numbers often result in only one of the subjects being offered. Teacher competency was raised as a concern by several stakeholders with examples of retraining unsuitable candidates as agriculture teachers ‘just to put someone in front of a class’. On-going professional development opportunities are needed to ensure that teachers have contemporary knowledge and experience with the latest technologies. The dynamic and contextual nature of agriculture further complicates the development of suitable syllabi. Unlike other subjects agriculture is written and examined without reference to particulars since different agricultural systems will be studied at different schools. Many stakeholders suggested that alternative systems be explicitly mentioned in the syllabus but more importantly, a balanced view of the industry needs to be presented.

This research was conducted at a pertinent time in Australian education as the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) are in the early stages of developing the Australian Curriculum for Technologies. The position of agriculture within this curriculum will be very important for meeting the needs of the industry. The PIEF and NSW Farmers Association have already advocated need to include sustainable food and fibre production as part of the sustainability cross-curriculum priority in submissions to ACARA. No doubt they will also be active in promoting agricultural education through the technologies curriculum. The questions remain, will the ecological systems of agriculture have a presence in the curriculum and who will be the voice for these systems?

You can download a full copy of this research here (1.8mb PDF). If you have further questions, please comment here so all readers can benefit from the exchange.


  1. I believe that you are absolutely right!!! It is time to change the perception of agriculture in Australia. I am currently on the band wagon to change food security in Australia after completing my masters in environmental policy and economics. I believe in community gardens, culture, sharing, getting out side in the fresh air, natural sources of vitamin D and the list goes on, not to mention the benefits of knowing how fresh and what is actually in your food. All round appreciation in our food sources needs to change… The fact that people are time poor is absolutely ridiculous our bodies are our vessels, they carry us long into our old age…neglecting our body now is the reason for the rising epidemics in cancer and obesity…We need to start at the beginning….There are hundreds of studies around the world where just a simple community garden (not always so simple) can transform derelict neighbourhoods into a proud healthy cultural societies, increase property value and overall health and wellbeing…. For example the Mexican Government experienced overwhelming success of community gardens and opted for policy implementation for even school and prison gardens. This absolutely needs to be implemented in Australian food policy…. It’s a way to ensure sustainability in our economy, society and environment…. I honestly cannot understand why something we spend time doing more than twice a day, enjoy and complain about is one of the least in our modern priorities…. The transition is too slow and the issues importance is far too profound. I’m young and passionate and if you have any ideas in how I can achieve actionable advancement I’d love to hear from you….

  2. Thanks for your article, it’s an important issue to address. Just wondering, in your studies did you come across many private educators where sustainable and organic farming methods were taught to people of a school age or later. Also did you touch on TAFE provision of alternative ag science in your analysis?

    Furthermore is it worth exploring the demand for this (apart from the important need for recognising the relationship between ‘healthy’ ecology and food production)? An opportunity to develop accredited course material perhaps? I wonder, does the permaculture community want to see (or oversee) such a development?


  3. Kirra, thanks for your comment. There is a National Food Plan in the works. The consultation process, however, has been questionable in terms of representation, particularly from the community. See the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance site
    for more details.

    I would certainly like to see more action on food security. For too long Australia has simply relied on the export/import figures to say that ‘we’re alright Jack’and yet we are not. Food security is a very real issue here and I feel that empowering people to produce at least some of their own food will address many social issues as well as nutritional problems. We don’t want to be forced into extensive urban and peri-urban agriculture the way Cuba was. A sensible country would empower it’s people BEFORE things become a problem. If you’re not already involved in a community garden or a food co-operative then perhaps that’s a good starting point?

    Andrea, thanks also for your comment. I did not look into independent education providers in my research project, however, I know there are many out there doing some really great work. TAFE certainly have courses on offer in Permaculture and Organic Farming which is a great start, but again not a focus of this particular project. There really is very little research into school level agricultural education in Australia. In the US, the introduction of ‘sustainability’ to some curricula and modification of agriculture courses to include more science content has resulted in increases in College enrolments. The Primary Industries Education Foundation are finalising a national benchmarking survey of student and teacher understanding in relation to primary industries education and the careers available within the industry. It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this research.

    The organic and biodynamic industry has had to be self-reliant in their education provision as limited funding (compared to conventional agriculture) has been given to organic/biodynamic R&D. I haven’t done an extensive study of Universities in Australia offering ecologically based subjects but Charles Sturt University offers the Master of Sustainable Agriculture and Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture courses. Other universities are involved in research into Natural Sequence Farming although I don’t know if any specific subjects have been written for this relatively new technique. I am involved with the Ecological Agriculture Australia Association and we have an education pillar that is looking into other future possibilities.

    I certainly welcome some form of Permaculture representation to the process of developing the National Curriculum.


  4. Thanks for the article and for all the comments that have followed. This is one of the most significant issues facing all Australians today. Are we going to be “useless consumers” or “self reliant producers”?

    How can we move from the predominant view of agriculture to a new one of sustainable practices and the development of a consciousness that allows abundance and a right livelihood for farmers?

    As a nation we need to get it right before we lose our farmland to development, mining or to farsighted countries buying up productive land all over the globe to ensure their own food security in the future.

    As Joanne makes so clear in her article, there needs to be a shift and that shift will come with Education, not only of our children but the parents of our children, farmers, communities, many government departments and their legislation.

    I believe there is the beginning of change and that it is possible we could overcome the economic drivers to move to a different view of farming, better practices and greater real wealth for Australia. I would like to offer an article that outlines some of my findings when working with schools, farmers, consumers and those seeking alternatives to the established distribution systems which I believe results in much of what Joanne and others are so rightly concerned about.

    1. Hi Janet,
      I’m commencing my PhD looking to investigate agricultural education in schools in Australia (tasmania) I would like to read the article you mentioned that you would like to put forward.

      Elya Richardson
      PhD Candidate
      School of Land & Food – University of Tasmania

  5. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m very interested in your findings, please consider submitting an article to the PRI. I think there are some great changes happening and that consumers are realising the power of their choices in terms of supporting farmers and building resilience. There’s still plenty that can be done though and as you say education is the key. Peas don’t actually come from the freezer, I hate that ad! There’s so many more steps before they get there and each step away from the farm means less returns for the grower.


  6. Joanne, thanks for your article on agricultural education. As a graduate from an agricultural college in the 1980’s where there was very little if any reference to organic production, I am disappointed to hear that there still isn’t a lot being taught about ‘organics’ in our education systems. In addition to the questions asked in your online survey the following would be very useful inclusions: P.A. Yeoman’s Keyline, Allan Savory’s Holistic Management, Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, and Colin Seis’s Pasture Cropping. All of these have the ability to spark some interest and passion in most students, and particulary those interested in agriculture as a profession. As Joel Salatin said in one of his recent presentations, we know that agriculture is back to being a profession students want to participate in, when soccer mums,talking together state with pride that their children want to be farmers!!

  7. Hi Allen, thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that useful additions would be using the examples you have listed and I hope some teachers do. They certainly are inspiring examples of innovative and intelligent ecological farming practices. It’s a matter of finding somewhere in the syllabus that these examples fit. Unfortunately soils don’t really feature in the syllabi until the HSC year and the physical and chemical properties are the focus at that. Soil biology and ecology, surely the basis of any sustainable system, is not given the same emphasis.

    I’m sure the course I would teach would be quite different to the majority of ag teachers. Here’s the irony….the Department of Education does not accredit me to teach agriculture! I have taught it in an independent school but the majority of my teaching experience has been in science. I always throw lots of examples from agriculture into my teaching to demonstrate to the students the application of science in agriculture and the career potential of agriculture.

    Hi Kirsten, thanks for your comment and yes please do share this information. I feel that this is such an important issue that if all I did was write a scientific journal article that would only be read by academics or students, then the research wouldn’t have been worth doing. Please share far and wide!


  8. Just wondered if any schools are teaching anything in depth on
    (1) nutrition and (2) cycles of life in particular energy cycles, carbon cycles, nutrient cycles and water cycles. Agriculture needs to be put in context we need agriculture because we need nutrition but what kind of nutrition? eg What are kids being taught about GMO’s? and what will they learn about what’s happening with water, energy, nutrients and carbon in Australia ? Will they learn about the real need to practise conservation agriculture in Australia ? Will they learn how old style farming has destroyed the nutrients from millions of hectares in Australia has created saltation over vast areas : But also learn how we can farm and improve soils at the same time. Will they be given practical classes that let them see these things happening in reality ?

  9. Hi Joanne and others. On reading your (excellent) article and discussions above, it strengthens the importance of having an optimal strategy to achieve some systemic change in the agriculture education system. I can see that focus group sessions would be useful to 1) identify where the tipping points may exist across the education system, 2) identify what type of actions are needed, and 3) develop a language that “speaks to” the existing agricultural education industry (where the ones we are seeking to convince will UNDERSTAND what we are endeavouring to say).

    When communicating ecological farming to conventional thinkers, the language and delivery of the arguments will need to be well crafted (I think your article above is heading in a great direction already).

    Whilst I also understand that the main obstacles to change may include things such as the existing corporate drivers of education funding and curriculum programs (agricultural chemical providers, etc) – there may be some alternative (and as yet unclear) options available to create change. There may also be less obvious, but key, parts of the education and funding system that might be more responsive to change.

    I’m sure you are already pursuing these things now. I just hope that you go well in finding the optimum strategy – given that there are still so few people available to help achieve these critical changes.


  10. Hi Joanne

    You raise important issues and quite rightly point out the lack of study of systems like permaculture in secondary education. (Not that many schools even offer ag and hort). Possibly because of its holistic nature compared with the ‘subjects in boxes’ approach? However at least one secondary school is doing great stuff -Eltham College in Victoria. Look them up and contact the permie teacher Virginia Solomon. Or read her chapter on this called ‘ethical decision-making for secondary school students’ in the recently published ‘Permaculture Pioneers’ (Dawborn and Smith -eds)

    Good luck,

  11. Hi Warren,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that communicating ecological farming to conventional thinkers is a challenge to the reductionist scientific thinking so entrenched as the basis for agricultural research (and therefore education). Whilst the syllabi are written in reference to ‘systems’ there is a high focus on technology not ecology.

    I think also that Universities offering Agriculture degrees need to value the subject in their selection criteria. There is often no pre-requisite for agriculture, rather Universities prefer that students have done Chemistry and Biology. I’ve noted that the more academic students are doing Agriculture because they want to be large animal vets rather than wanting to work in other areas of agriculture.

    Agriculture as a High School subject is most studied in NSW and South Australia. The Hurlstone Inquiry conducted in 2009 was not even prompted by a concern for the schools functioning as a specialist Agricultural High School, rather it was conducted because the Department of Education wanted to raise some funds by selling some land! There is a lack of policy and direction from the DET on Agricultural Education in NSW. It was suggested in 1996 that this lack of interest could eventually lead to the demise of the subject to the point at which it could be removed from the curriculum. The process of sylabus writing has also changed in recent years to a more streamlined (read cheaper) approach with less input from industry. Such is the status of Agriculture, undervalued and under-resourced.

    Whilst I have identified many other research needs for this important issue I have no plans to further this research. I’m certainly going to keep in touch with the Primary Industries Education Foundation and the consultation stages of the Australian Curriculum for Technology, however, my priorities now are finding paid work. I just hope that putting my research out in the public domain prompts some action from the ecological agricultural community to also have some input into the process of curriculum development.

    Hi Caroline,

    Thanks for your comment and reference to Virginia at Eltham College. I’ve been meaning to get a copy of that book! You are correct in that many schools don’t offer Agriculture or Horticulture as subjects. This is where Permaculture has an advantage over other systems of food production. It can be (and is being) applied in a range of subjects and acts as a connecting theme between them. Permaculture Partners in the Illawarra region of NSW is a great example where it is also being used as a bridging theme between Primary and Secondary schools. There are now Permaculture projects in various stages of evolution in the five feeder schools for Warrawong High School. This is helping students make the transition from Primary to High School, a process that can be really difficult for some children. It also gives students in urban areas the skills and knowledge to apply in their own yards. Vital skills in building resilience and improving food security.


  12. Dear Joanne

    When I was working for the Victorian Department of Primary Industries we tried out an idea of mine called ‘The DPI Student Project Shop’. The Student Project Shop linked tertiary students to work integrated learning opportunities within DPI. The trial was for only a few months but the idea really took off. The students were interested in agricultural research and the DPI researchers were keen to host students. It was very successful, but there was one key research leader who did not like the idea, so DPI did not proceed with the idea.

    The above is a good model for engaging tertiary student in agriculture, I believe. I mention it in the context of your article as I found that, even though there is a shortage of agricultural students, there are students who will take up opportunities, when they are offered. For example, there are many students who are doing a general science degree but are not really sure where they will work at the end of their course. If you give them the opportunity to work and learn in a practical sense in the sector, you can engage them and draw them in.

    The academic research into work integrated learning clearly shows that students, particularly country students, are more likely to complete their courses if they are given a work integrated learning placement. Sure, get young people excited about agriculture at primary and secondary levels, but students at tertiary level can move into the opportunities on offer too … they just need the opportunity to be facilitated like we did at the Student Project Shop. The natural enthusiasm for learning does the rest.

    Kind regards
    Dr David Low
    The Weed’s News Project
    School of Biological Sciences
    Monash University
    Clayton VIC 3800

  13. Dear David,

    Thank you for your comment. I agree, there are plenty of opportunities for tertiary students to engage in agricultural careers and vacancies are often filled by general science and environmental science/NRM graduates. One participant in my research commented, however, that often these graduates don’t have enough understanding of agricultural systems both on-farm and post-production. This is where the program you mention has great benefits. Such a shame that it was shot down by one person! I hope you can manage to get it up and running again.

    Many of the tertiary programs in agroecology that I looked into for another assignment that also informed this research included such work integrated placements. They’re fantastic for developing problem-solving skills, collaborative research skills with farmers and Government agencies, and giving students the level of confidence and understanding they need to move into employment in agricultural research and extension. They do, however, present a pedagogical challenge to the dominant ‘chalk and talk’ lecture and examination paradigm of most Universities. These experiential learning strategies are a challenge to assess but it can be done!

    It is worth noting also at the Secondary level the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education is running some great programs to generate interest in Agricultural science careers. It’s a collaborate approach between several Universities with support from Government and industry. Perhaps PICSE could be potential collaborators on the DPI Project Shop?


  14. Hi Joanne
    The 3 Pillars Network holds its 2nd National Sustainable Food Summit on 2-4th April 2012, and is looking for speakers. Although you’ve moved into other arenas now, I thought you might have a presentation already prepared, that would go well at this one and other events. You and your research findings do need to be out there on the speaking circuit, don’t you think!
    Register here for speaker places. If anyone knows of organisations who would be appropriate sponsers for this event, please also refer them to this site ASAP.


  15. Just wondered if any schools are teaching anything in depth on
    (1) nutrition and (2) cycles of life in particular energy cycles, carbon cycles, nutrient cycles and water cycles. Agriculture needs to be put in context we need agriculture because we need nutrition but what kind of nutrition? eg What are kids being taught about GMO’s? and what will they learn about what’s happening with water, energy, nutrients and carbon in Australia ? Will they learn about the real need to practise conservation agriculture in Australia ? Will they learn how old style farming has destroyed the nutrients from millions of hectares in Australia has created saltation over vast areas : But also learn how we can farm and improve soils at the same time. Will they be given practical classes that let them see these things happening in reality ?

    Comment by Abrahim — October 25, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    Hi Abrahim,

    My apologies for not replying to this earlier, I did not see it until now. Students in High School learn about nutrition in Science, PDHPE, and Food technology. The extent to which this is linked back to agriculture and the decline in nutritional value of foods as a result of the industrialisation of agriculture is unknown. The Carbon, Nitrogen and water cycle are studied in science through ecology. I am unsure about the extent to which teachers use examples from agriculture in their teaching of these topics. These cycles are certainly included in teaching Agriculture subjects as well but perhaps not as in depth as they could be. Most certainly more could be added to the curriculum about the role of soil biology and soil ecology in these processes. The role of past agricultural practices in causing erosion and the decline of soil fertility is also included in the curriculum but not really in depth until Years 11 and 12. Likewise GMO’s are there but in the later years. The benefits as well as the issues with GMO’s are written into the syllabus so students should be being presented a balanced view of the issues around the biotechnology. There is a large practical component in the syllabi but the extent to which ecologically based examples are used in these lessons really depends on the teacher and resources available to the school. Excursions too are limited by time and funding but they can be very valuable experiences for students provided there is a reflective activity following the excursion. I hope this answers some of your questions.


  16. Hi Warren,

    Unfortunately that link is not working? I have found some information on the National Sustainable Food Summit here…..

    ….but again the link for further information is not working. If you have an updated link that would be great.

    I do not have any presentations prepared from my research, or plans for a speaking circuit, but it’s certainly possible. I was interviewed on ABC Radio Canberra but haven’t promoted the research any further, at least not to mainstream media. If you have any suggestions for further promotion of the research please let me know. As for moving on to other arenas….I’m looking for work and casual teaching in the meantime. I’m certainly looking to stick with agricultural education but not necessarily in High Schools.


  17. Agricultural Education in Australia is at an advanced stage. How I wished such kind of research activities were also done in the least developed countries that fully depend on Agriculture.

    Rabton Fukafuka Lungu from Malawi in Central Africa.

    Qualification: Diploma (Agriculture), BSc(Agriculture), Master of Education in Testing, Measurement and Evaluation. Working as a Subject Officer at the examining Board (MANEB, Malawi) as a Measurement expert in Agricultural Education.

  18. Dear Rabton,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that relative to other countries Agricultural Education in Australia is more advanced. It has, however, been in a steady state of decline for a number of years which is a great concern not only for Australia but other countries. As a country with a challenging climate and depleted soils there is potential here to undertake research and development that can be applied elsewhere. Of course this has to be based on appropriate technology and ecological processes that can be applied at different scales and in different climates. If the limited and dwindling research funding in Australia went to these areas then exporting our skills and knowledge in appropriately implemented overseas extension programs would be of benefit to countries such as yours. I’m not talking about another ‘Green Revolution’, we’ve all seen how inappropriate the ‘expert’ extension programs have been in terms of social and environmental sustainability. Appropriate programs would be participatory, regenerative, and build community resilience and localised food systems. Perhaps more importantly, overseas aid extension programs should empower the people to undertake their own research and then pass on this knowledge to others who will benefit, including the children.


  19. The average age of our farmers is increasing; the number of young farmers entering agriculture is decreasing.

    Is farming as we think of it something parents would want their children to engage in as a career or way of life?

    High schools are not offering Agriculture as a subject because the numbers are just not there to fill classes. One local high school in Cairns is examining that question currently. Parents have given the following reasons for not encouraging their children into Agriculture;
    •There is not enough money in it
    •The work is too hard
    •Farmers are not rewarded in fair proportion for their efforts and most profit goes to transportation and distribution
    •The risk is too high in this continent of erratic climate
    •Working conditions are not good and the use of chemicals is adversely affecting the health of farmers and their families living in agricultural areas
    •Farming land that has been built up over generations can be taken back by government for dams, mining, highways, pipelines with little or no warning.
    •Affordable farm land is now so far from populations that farmers and their families are isolated
    •Farmers are seen as members of the community to be supported with welfare programs and to be pitied in times of bad growing seasons.
    •Why produce food here when we can buy it cheaper from other countries?

    With lists like that coming from parent groups throughout Australia, who can blame parents for wanting something else for their children?

    This list is based on reaction to conventional agriculture approaches which cannot change until we have a change in our approach to food, fuel and fiber production, land use, distribution systems and a change in understanding of the real “cost” of food we are importing and consuming to the detriment of our health of our nation and to eco-systems globally.

    Where do we begin?
    I believe we start where people are and create a multi-pronged approach to get the change we want.

    First we need to work with the educators of our children. If children know what it takes to produce food then they would know the real cost, appreciate it and be willing to pay for it. If our children were taught by people who really knew about and practiced sustainability they would know the value of retaining healthy eco-systems and reducing consumption. If children understand the web of life and their part in it they would have a deeper appreciation of their obligations rather than only assuming rights and having unrealistic expectations. Permaculture Australia owns the Accredited Permaculture Training package, (APT) which is within the Australian Qualifications Training framework and offers Certificates 1-4 and a Diploma in Permaculture. This was written by volunteer Permaculturists to increase the take up of permaculture courses within formal education stream. The classic Permaculture Design Course (PDC) has provided excellent education for decades but was mostly locked out of government training programs which eroded its credibility to the mainstream.

    Many high schools now provide Certificates 1-2 in Permaculture through vocational education programs in their schools. These give students the practical and knowledge based skills to implement sustainable options in many aspects of their lives but particularly around food. Permaculture uses 2 registered training organizations for this training; one for schools and one for adult/community education and these support local practitioners to deliver the programs locally. APT training has also re-opened the option for Aboriginal Communities to access permaculture education after nearly 2 decades.

    Carolyn Nuttall and I wrote “Outdoor Classrooms –a handbook for school gardens” as a response to the requests from parents and teachers to establish and maintain school gardens and permaculture in schools. This has been very successful and to date is supporting nearly 2000 school gardens mainly in Australia. Many of those students are now entering high school and demanding a continuation of that study. Our book caters for learning experiences in lower, middle and upper school and then the APT training can take students further in years 10-12. As part of a whole school approach to sustainability our initiative provides a foundation for organic, biodynamic, natural sequence, keyline and other sustainable approaches in Agriculture and gives a solid base to ethical choices as consumers and producers.

    Bruce Molloy and I have worked through Edible Schoolyards and Edible Landscapes on building teacher skills and confidence in growing and integrating the school garden into the curriculum. This has removed a substantial block to sustainability education for many teachers as although governments and legislation talk sustainability there is no Department OF Sustainability, no one is responsible for providing the skills and knowledge required. The directive is passed down the line….”be sustainable, adapt” but the skills are within the community not within departments. The skills are with Permaculture and those looking at and working within alternative agriculture systems; renegade farmers and visionaries who are battling for recognition and support.

    Community Education is next and that happens now at community gardens and slowly within the farming community with the amazing uptake of the new courses offered by RegenAg. This initiative has come out of those working within Permaculture and who have linked that with other agriculture systems. These courses have Farm Ready approval which make them available and acceptable to farmers. Kim Kruise and Darren Doherty, who are contributors to this site, no doubt can give more detail and explain the initiative and its availability throughout Australia.

    When looking at the list of “why not become a farmer” many of the negatives are directly related to the distribution system. How this locks in farmers, drives the farm gate price down and forces farmers to make agricultural and environmental decisions within a rigid economic framework is obvious. How to break this cycle is not so. There are hard working visionaries in this field and I know the work of just a couple.

    Robert Pekin and his Food Connect aims to connect consumers with farmers and reduce the transport time and distribution costs. This is all about driving the quality of the produce; as in organic production and high nutrient levels. Food Connect started in Brisbane and now is spreading across the country. Realfoods in Cairns has a box system which has similar goals –linking consumers and producers, rewarding farmers for sustainable practices and the nutritional quality of the produce. There are many other systems like these chipping away at the old paradigm.

    Put all these elements together and you have a groundswell of interest in the quality of food, its ethical production and local sovereignty over our food supply. Surely this must increase demand for a new approach to agriculture, the raising of the profile of producers, the need to bring farming close to our communities –or within our communities and a resurgence of Agriculture within our learning institutions. Many of the elements are there we are just waiting on the will of the people. When that comes then our will can drive public policy to make the changes we demand.And our education departments will start to promote “alternative” and truly sustainable agriculture in schools.
    Janet Millington

  20. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for your great post. I agree with everything you’re saying, especially when it comes to the need to value agricultural produce. Most farmers will tell you that they love what they do but it’s not worth it if there aren’t sufficient returns for their hard work. Farmers shouldn’t be pitied and seen as welfare dependent, they are resilient, adaptable, intelligent and valuable members of their communities. The programs such as Food Connect and Realfoods are great examples of how we can lift the profile of farmers by linking them directly with the consumers.

    It’s good to hear that students who’ve come through the ‘Outdoor Classrooms’ experiences are now demanding a continuation into High School. I expect similar will happen with the students involved with the Organic School Gardens and Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Gardens Programs as well as the many independent gardens in other Primary Schools. You are right in saying that we need to address the level of knowledge of the educators. My research only scratched the surface of what we need to know in order to properly address this situation. Whilst I interviewed people from the Primary School level, they were people already involved in gardening programs and their associated messages about food production. Historically, Science is the worst addressed Key Learning Area in Primary Schooling and this is where school gardens can really help with the delivery of science curricula. The challenge is continuing this into High School, especially those that don’t offer Agriculture.

    It will be very interesting to see the results of the research commissioned by the Primary Industries Education Foundation into student and teacher perceptions of careers in agriculture due to be released soon. I’m sure there will be some perceptions that will need addressing and with 2012 being the Year of the Farmer it will be an opportune time to present positive and encouraging stories to the general public.

    I will be keeping an eye on the shaping of the Australian Curriculum for Technology (which includes Agriculture) and will be sure to update this site when they call for comments. The ‘alternative’ paradigm needs to have a say in the education of our children.


  21. Hi Joanne,
    There are possibilities being created by so many programs and people. All addressing different things specifically but making a contribution generally to the way we think about food, how it is produced and distributed and who does these things. As an educator I see it as an education program for a nation and I see that we have to do it through all forms of education from formal qualifications to informal learning. The message has to get out there to the wider public so food and its production is everybody’s business. Each of us can only do what they can in their area of expertise and sphere of influence but we need to motivate or inspire those who can make a difference to do it now. From the choices parents make for and in front of their children to Ministers of Education….time is of the essence.
    Janet Millington

  22. Hi Janet,

    I agree! There is a very real need to address peoples’ knowledge of food and fibre production at all age levels. Only then will the work of farmers and others in agriculture be valued and seen as a viable career option for future generations. Time is definitely of the essence!

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