3 Sustainable Farming Majors & What To Expect From Them

Sustainable ag education has never been more accessible, thanks in part to college and university programs.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: Sterling College/Flickr

Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic have nothing on no-till, nutrition and native plants—at least not in sustainable-agriculture degree programs. College programs that teach real-life, hands-on sustainable ag skills coupled with science, communication and business classes are being offered at colleges and universities across the country. They range from certificate programs to associate degrees, bachelor’s programs and graduate studies.

When I went to college—more than a few years ago—sustainable ag degrees weren’t a thing. Now, there are general sustainable ag programs, and you’ll even find more specialized sustainable ag studies, too.

Sustainable ag degree programs don’t happen solely in a classroom, though that’s where classic science and required liberal-arts classes will likely take place. Colleges and universities offering sustainable agriculture degree programs have their own farms where classes take place and students will work and most often require students to gain work-study hours in farm settings.

While it’s true that you don’t need a college degree to be a farmer, having one doesn’t hurt. Take it from someone who has a bachelor’s degree in animal science: The life and business skills that a college degree can offer will take you far beyond the field. And more people who can advance this industry is just what sustainable ag needs right now.

Here’s quick rundown of various majors in our field and what you might expect to gain from them.

Sustainable Agriculture

As the name of this major implies, a sustainable agriculture major gets an overview of the whole sustainable ag picture. This is the broadest of the broad as far as sustainable farming-related degree programs go. There’s often the opportunity to keep this program broad or to choose classes so that you can narrow down your field of study to what captures your attention most—perhaps livestock, crop management or farm management.

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Your classes:

  • animal science
  • soil science
  • farm machinery
  • whole-farm planning
  • restoration agriculture
  • agroecology

Your career: The point behind this program is to produce students that are equipped with the knowledge needed to go into sustainable-farm management, sustainable/organic agriculture consulting, sustainable livestock production, cooperative-extension work, food production and marketing, sustainable ag research, and more.

From The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences: “The courses will focus on viewing the farm as a holistic agro-ecosystem where the economic, environmental and social needs are met through the production of crops and animals. Students will learn skills and knowledge to prepare them for the important role [of] providing healthy food to the community while protecting natural resources for future generations to use and enjoy.”

AKA: You’ll also find this degree program called sustainable agriculture systems, sustainable agriculture and food systems, organic agriculture systems, and ecological agriculture.

Find this degree: The Ohio State University, Delaware Valley University and University of California, Davis are just three of many institutions that offer this program.

Sustainable Food Systems

A degree in sustainable food systems is more often found at the graduate level or as a concentration in a broader sustainable ag degree.

Your classes:

  • plant biology
  • livestock
  • human health
  • field crops
  • culinary studies
  • community studies

Your career: One of the great things about food is that people come into this subject from all aspects of life—food production, social justice, human health, environmental health … and the career options for sustainable-food-systems degree holders are just as great. You might use your degree as a social worker, nonprofit administrator, nutrition-policy analyst or educator.

From the Yale Sustainable Food Program: “The challenges to food systems around the world are neither straightforward nor simple, and their solutions are equally complex. In order to enact successful change, we can not study pieces of the food system from a single field or discipline. New solutions demand interdisciplinary collaboration and conversation,” and many degree programs are not offered by any single college within a university but by many academic programs collaborating.

Find this degree: You can study sustainable food and bioenergy systems at Montana State University, UC Davis and Yale University, among others.


Agroecology is a farming system based on ecological principles. This largely focuses on crop and vegetable farming, but livestock play into this as a part of the overall, holistic system.

Your classes:

  • basic horticulture
  • pest management
  • crop genetics
  • soil science
  • permaculture

Your career: If you’d like to produce crops in a sustainable system, go on to study environmental law, or work on plant production and breeding, an agroecology degree could be for you.

From Penn State University: “This option applies an ecological approach to understanding and managing cropping systems to meet societies’ needs while enhancing environmental protection and resource conservation.”

Find this degree: Penn State, North Carolina State University and The University of Vermont have various options for this degree program.

Find Your Program

Making the decision to go to school and sorting out your options for higher education are not easy. You don’t necessarily need a sustainable ag degree to go on and do good work in sustainable ag. Studying something you’re passionate about, though, never hurts, and the facets of your program of study could awaken an interest or open up a career path you hadn’t considered before.

The colleges and universities mentioned here are a fraction of the institutions that can put a sustainable ag degree in your hands. Also check out the listings from the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association and the USDA National Agricultural Library Sustainable Ag Education and Training Directory.

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