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MiraCosta preps students for careers in sustainable agriculture

The Horticulture Program at MiraCosta college is growing by leaps and bounds. As it continues to expand to match the needs of a budding industry, it recently began offering a Sustainable Agriculture Degree and Certificate program, and the students and faculty alike are enthusiastic.

One of the newest additions to the Horticulture Program is the Sustainable Agriculture Certificate. Courtesy photo

“When I came on board in 2004, the Horticulture Program was already well established,” Claire Ehrlinger, lead horticulture instructor, said. “In 2007 we built a more permanent building on 10 acres of the campus. It serves as a great hub for the classes. Outside, we have greenhouses, a sales nursery, vineyard, subtropical fruit orchard, market garden, and landscape display areas.”

One of the program’s newest additions is the Sustainable Agriculture Certificate. “The Sustainable Agriculture Certificate can be earned in about 30 units,” Ehrlinger said. “We have some students who just want to earn the certificate and others who combine it with general education classes to earn an associate’s degree. We also have students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees who have decided they want to make a career change. There is a lot of diversity within the program.”

Courses range from Horticulture Laws and Regulations to Integrated Pest Management, Organic Crop Production: Cool Season, Organic Crop Production: Warm Season, and Organic Crop Production: Specialty Crops.

The Sustainable Agriculture certificate prepares students for employment in sustainable or organic agriculture and for the operation of a sustainable farm and/or production of organic ornamental or food crops. Upon completion of this program, students will be able to develop a comprehensive plan for sustainable agriculture production on a given site, including best practices, farm layout, ecological evaluation and community viability.

“It really depends on the goals of the student,” Ehrlinger said. “A lot of students want to start their own operations growing or marketing crops. Or, on a larger scale, they might want to develop a farm for a restaurant or corporation. Many businesses are establishing their own edible gardens and need a farmer. A lot of new housing developments are adding agrihoods. Many school systems are working on agriculture programs aiming to grow enough food to supply their own cafeteria. The options are there.” In addition to their own on-campus garden, the Sustainable Agriculture program has partnered with Community Roots Farm in Oceanside and Coastal Roots Farm in Encinitas for class experiences. Some of our students are currently working with Cyclops Farm in Oceanside, Wonderland Farm in Vista and future plans are to partner with the Encinitas Union School District Farm Lab and other local growers.

San Diego County is a hotbed for small farms, making MiraCosta’s programs especially relevant. Farms within the county yield more than $1.77 billion in crops annually. According to the San Diego County Farm Bureau, most farms are small family enterprises, 68 percent of which are nine or fewer acres.

A MiraCosta College labor analysis found that one-tenth of San Diego County’s 4,200 square miles is devoted to agriculture and is home to the largest number of certified organic farms of any county in the United States.

Due to the explosive growth, Ehrlinger said employers in this area of agriculture are in need of employees. “There is a significant shortage of employees educated in sustainable principles and practices,” Ehrlinger said.

MiraCosta’s Horticulture Department surveyed regional employers between May 2015 and November 2016 in the sustainable agriculture sector and found that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said they were likely or very likely to hire between one and six new employees over the next six years, and up to 18 new employees over the next 10 years.

In addition to the obvious benefits of holding a certificate in Sustainable Agriculture, the program offers a unique, hands-on and enjoyable experience. “The students are really thrilled with this program,” Ehrlinger said. “It gives them a chance to get out of the classroom and get their hands in the soil and see the fruits of their labor. We have been able to produce enough food to bring to our school’s farmers market and food bank, which helps students needing food. We are in talks with the college cafeteria to be able to grow food for them and take their green waste and compost it. It is such a great experience for the students.”

To learn more about the Sustainable Certificate Program and others in the Horticulture Department, visit or email Claire Ehrlinger [email protected].