What does sustainable agriculture look like in higher education? How are campuses moving from a global, conventional agriculture system that relies on increasing inputs of fossil fuels to a system that is increasingly organic and local? What role are universities and colleges playing in the sustainable-food movement?

I spent the better part of last week working and listening to speakers and sessions at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s 2008 conference, and it had me asking these questions and discovering some new answers. Vandana Shiva, a keynote speaker, laid out her ideas of what campuses can do, and at least 20 different presenters held sessions on issues related to campus food and agriculture.

It’s clear from the AASHE conference that many institutions, including many prominent land-grant universities, have begun adding “sustainable agriculture” degrees and programs to their curriculums. AASHE currently maintains lists of nearly a dozen academic centers and research programs related to sustainable agriculture, 36 undergraduate degree programs, and 10 graduate-level degree programs in sustainable agriculture. There is also a growing demand and desire to bring local, organic, fair-trade foods into dining facilities on campuses. Supported in part by the Real Food Challenge, at least 300 institutions already have college farms, farm-to-cafeteria programs, or Fair Trade programs underway.

One new sustainable-agriculture program is at the University of Kentucky, just a few miles from the AASHE office. Bringing the inspiration I received at AASHE 2008 back home, I spent last Friday at the university’s organic farm learning about some of the new partnerships that are being developed. This year, the university has begun offering an undergraduate degree program and minor in sustainable agriculture. The university also offers a community-supported agriculture share to 85 interested faculty and staff members and students. Each receives a weekly basket of produce for 25 weeks.

What I found particularly interesting about this program is the synergies it has fostered with students in the College of Architecture. While I was at the farm Friday, it was not students in the sustainable-agriculture program who were working, but architecture students getting hands-on experience designing and building structures to support the organic-agriculture program. The architecture students have built sheds for storing tools and equipment and are building facilities for washing, storing, and packing produce. There is even discussion of building a residential facility for people working on the farm. All these structures employ reclaimed materials and take advantage of straw-bale construction and other sustainable building techniques.

It is not new for architecture and agriculture to interact with one another — obviously we need both shelter and food to live. What is new is how, under the auspices of sustainability, two disciplines that have not previously interacted with each other at the university are now directly engaged and supporting one another to help create new methods of farming and designing buildings. —Niles Barnes

Niles Barnes, November’s Buildings & Grounds guest blogger, is projects coordinator for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. While he was a student at the University of Kentucky, he worked with both the university’s residence-life sustainability program and with its environmental club, UK Greenthumb. You can read his previous post here.