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"The earth is the Lord's" guides ag program

By Sally Jongsma

The Agriculture Stewardship Center raised ten acres of flax this summer as part of a cooperative research project with Iowa State University.  The organic flaxseed was processed at an organically certified facility operated by Spectrum Organic Produc

The Agriculture Stewardship Center raised ten acres of flax this summer as part of a cooperative research project with Iowa State University. The organic flaxseed was processed at an organically certified facility operated by Spectrum Organic Produc

For years we talked about ourselves as a young department, says Dr. Ron Vos, chair of the agriculture department. Following recent celebrations of their twenty-fifth anniversary, Vos and his colleagues in the department realize that they have come of age.

“It’s been a time of change, growth, and maturation,” Vos says.

Dr. Duane Bajema, who was the first faculty member in a department that has grown to include five Ph.D.s, cites the department’s expansion into plant and animal science as well as a recently added emphasis in agricultural missions as evidence of the growth. The program began with only a general agriculture and an agri-business major.

Bajema also points to the growing diversity of the department’s majors. “We’re probably more diverse than any other department on campus,” he says. The list of more than eighty majors includes the names of students from a variety of ethnic groups, denominations, and countries.

“That’s because we are unique,” says Vos. Dordt College is one of less than a handful of Christian colleges that offer a comprehensive agriculture program within a strong general education program. Recent graduate and French horn player Carolyn Langley, for example, was looking for a Christian college that had an agriculture program and a strong music program. She found Dordt online. After doing an internship at ECHO in Florida, she is now working as seed bank coordinator at ECHO.

Raymond Mutava, a third-year student from Kenya, is enrolled at Dordt this year after attending an agricultural conference in his country last year at which Vos spoke. He was originally thinking about going to a school in Minnesota, but after he heard about Dordt’s agriculture program, he asked why he would go to a state school when there was a Christian program he could attend.

The Dordt College agriculture program is unabashedly direct in its approach to agriculture: “The earth is the Lord’s, and we are its caretakers,” says Vos. That means that agricultural practices must show respect for the land and for creation’s resources first of all. The word they (and many others) use is “sustainable.” For department members, that means practices must be economically viable and environmentally sound, socially just, and promoting the health of both human and non-human life.

Vos and Bajema say that students will get a very strong education in agriculture—even if they can’t choose specialized upper-level courses in areas like forestry or salmon-raising that they might find at a state school. The Dordt College agriculture department has worked cooperatively and has earned the respect of faculty in other agriculture departments at places like Iowa State University who realize that Dordt College can do things they can’t because of its size and its program. In contrast to large land grant universities, students at Dordt College get individual attention from their teachers who are professors with Ph.D.s rather than graduate students.

Presently the Dordt agriculture major offers emphases in animal science, plant science, general agriculture, agri-business, and ag missions. The department is investigating the possibility of offering an emphasis in agricultural education. Two of the faculty members also lead cross-cultural courses in South America and Eastern Europe.

Dordt agriculture students live in a thriving agricultural community that leads the nation in swine production and ranks high in dairy and beef production, and they are challenged to think about issues in agriculture through the eyes of faith as they live and as they learn with other Christians. The large number of veterinarians, beef, hog, and sheep processing facilities, and agricultural businesses that cooperate and contribute to the Dordt ag program provide additional opportunities for students.

Just as the department has grown and changed since it began over twenty-five years ago, it continues to do so as knowledge about farming increases and as practices change.

A major change happened this fall with the sale of the land housing the dairy operation to Trans Ova Genetics. The current facilities needed major and costly renovations to update them. Selling the property to Trans Ova opens up opportunities for cooperation that will benefit students. Proceeds of the sale can be reallocated to provide new facilities on other parts of the Agriculture Stewardship Center property. And in place of the current outdated facilities, the department will enter into agreements with area farmers to give students direct exposure to and experience with a range of farming methods and operations.

“The ASC was started as a production facility,” says Vos. “The sale partly recognizes our emphasis on training rather than producing.”

Dr. Charles Adams, dean of the natural sciences, adds, “We’re losing some infrastructure—most of which we didn’t need and which was costing us a lot of money. What we do need we’ll replace.” The college is currently looking at renovating a farm adjoining the ASC property that the college received in a bequest last year.

“We need a farm ‘classroom’ in addition to the land we work,” Adams says. The college is reevaluating what equipment it needs to own and how it can cooperate with local farmers to give students a rich learning experience.

Change will continue to knock at the department’s door, but its basic premise remains clear: training students to be stewardly caretakers of God’s world. That commitment forces the department and the college to question both traditional ways of doing things and new practices and technologies. One of the big issues today is how stewardship and sustainability can be compatible with biotechnology.

Asking that question shows something about Dordt’s program, says Dr. Wes Jamison, director of the Agriculture Stewardship Center and member of the agriculture department. It demonstrates a principled concern to be living what they believe. Jamison believes that “responsible/sustainable/Christian” agriculture and biotechnology are not incompatible with one another, although he is quick to acknowledge that the way they are often practiced is.

Adams believes that an emphasis on sustainability grows out of a general sense of stewardship—don’t waste but care for, enable the non-human creation to be what God created it to be. Although sustainable biotechnology seems like an oxymoron, Adams says “No, it is not.” He believes we should not just preserve creation but develop and sustain it.

Vos and Bajema agree that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture can coexist, but believe there are many questions to ask and answer. These issues will continue to be prominent in the years ahead, and the department will continue to wrestle with them. They’ll have their students do likewise.