Organic change through education

UCC BEES lecturer Eoin Lettice talks to Agriland.ie about the MSc in Organic Horticulture, Europe’s only course in organic horticulture held at the college, entering its second academic year.

The Celtic Tiger saw a surge in demand for organic goods with larger wage packages lending themselves to more discerning tastes. Whilst many of the luxuries enjoyed during the boom have fallen by the wayside the demand for organic goods has remained. Many growers are looking to diversify and branch into organic produce whilst the recession has led to a rise in the uptake of allotment. So the MSc in Organic Horticulture has come at a perfect time.

According to Lettice “the organic sector is worth about €97 million per year in Ireland and although that figure is down on recent years, it’s a sector where significant growth both locally and in terms of exports can happen. The organic vegetable market in Ireland is worth €25 million and the fruit marker €8.5 million. These are areas where we anticipate significant growth in the future as the market size expands”.

It was on the back of these figures that the Carberry Enterprise Group, Liss Ard Estate and Lord David Putnam approached UCC about running the MSc in Organic Horticulture in West Cork.  The School of BEES (Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences) has a history of teaching and research in the areas of plant science and sustainable food production so were keen to come on board. The course has been designed and taught by BEES staff along with some outside input from relevant experts in organic growing.

When asked about the nuances of starting up a new course Lettice is optimistic. “The main opportunity has been that we have had a completely blank canvas and have been able to design a course with the needs of the students at the centre. The key to the design has been to emphasise the scientific background to the area of plant growth and horticulture.

“In addition students are encouraged to offer up new angles and ideas “Instead of just telling people what to spray on their potatoes to control disease, we go back to square one and ask why these potatoes get attacked? What’s the biology of the organism attacking the plant? What are the organic and non-organic options for controlling the pest or pathogen? And how do we decide which control option to go for based on the available scientific evidence”.

From the outset many would imagine that the course attracts mainly rural students with a possible farming background, but according to Lettice the demographic of students is varied: “Some come from a growing background, others are running businesses and involved in organic or conventional horticulture, while others come from more of a scientific background”. The age group also varies greatly with a mix of undergrads and retirees, something which facilitates some lively debate and varied ideas.

The Masters degree does not push an organic agenda it is more about looking at the pros and cons of organic farming, Lettice agrees that there are certain methods and constraints that would be more suited to commercial growing as oppose to organic methods. Students come away armed with the scientific tools to farm and grow sustainably.

The Liss Ard is the perfect location to conduct the course with a 50-acre lake, a mansion built in the 1850s and the Irish Sky Garden. The next coming months will be busy for the MSc team.

“In the coming year, the Centre for Organic Horticulture Research (COHR) will be formally established to coordinate the running of the MSc within the School of BEES but also to coordinate research activities in the whole are of sustainable crop production”. The facility includes research laboratories, three acres of organically certified growing area and a commercial-scale demonstration growing area.

For more information go to http://www.ucc.ie/en/bees//

 Pictured, the The first MSc class (October 2012), with BEES staff.

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