“That’s why the things we do stick… they come out of students’ own motivation. They are things they want to learn, changes they want to see happen in what they are learning or learning about. A lot of what they want to learn about is how to create a better food system. Our job is to create the physical and social space where students can do that. As staff, we play an important role, but we let them largely decide the priorities about what is going to be pursued.”


– Mark Van Horn, Director, UC Davis Student Farm 


College farms hold an important place in the history of American higher education and are an integral and highly relevant part of the contemporary curriculum and campus culture. Students are increasingly interested in the food system, sustainability…and farming. In 2015 Best College Reviews surveyed over 50 American colleges with farms to devise a top twenty list. California colleges and universities earning top spots included the Student Farm at UC Davis. (UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems – CASFS – also earned a top spot. You can learn more about their work by reading our interview with Mark Lipson, a CASFS researcher and leader in the organic movement.)

The work at UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis is part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to harness the institution’s resources to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to nutritiously and sustainably feed a growing world population. #GlobalFood


A little about the history of student farming at UC Davis

Before it became a full-fledged UC campus in 1959, Davis (originally “Davisville”) played a vital role in UC’s agricultural research and education mission. A 778-acre site purchased in 1906 in Davisville was used to teach farming to UC students and for agricultural research. It was referred to as the University Farm School. We know it today as the UC Davis campus.

The Student Farm at UC Davis was founded in 1977 by a group of students who were interested in learning about “alternative farming” and gardening. The effort at Davis was part of a larger movement, detailed in the 2011 book, Fields of Learning: The Student Farm Movement in North America. (Learn more about the book here). Mark Van Horn authored a chapter of that book – University of California, Davis, 1977: Moving from the Margins toward the Center – describing the student farm experience at the Davis campus.

You can also learn more about the history of the Student Farm by reading “Development of Organic and Sustainable Agricultural Education at the University of California, Davis: A Closer Look at Practice and Theory.”


About Mark Van Horn

Mark Van Horn working with students.

The UC Davis Student Farm started nearly forty years ago…and for three decades, Mark Van Horn has worked there. He currently serves as the director of the Student Farm at UC Davis, in a role that involves teaching (three courses a year), mentoring (student interns) and all the logistics involved in running a multi-purposed farming operation. The farm serves as a classroom and living laboratory for more than 300 UC Davis students each year. It’s a working farm that provides produce for a CSA, Dining Services and the campus food pantry. In addition, the farm is a critical resource hub for a strong region-wide garden-based learning effort involving elementary school students and teachers.

Mark played an important role in organizing the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems major at UC Davis, now in its fifth year. To learn more about that program, read our Q&A with UC Davis professor and sustainability expert Tom Tomich.

I first met Mark a couple of decades ago, when the Student Farm staff played a key and valued role in a UC garden-based learning workgroup that I co-chaired. It was wonderful to have an opportunity to catch up with him recently to learn more about the growth at the Student Farm.


Q: What is your educational background?

I grew up in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College. I transferred to UC Davis and completed a B.S. in plant science with an emphasis in agronomy. And then I took a year off and worked. I went to the University of Minnesota and earned an M.S. in plant breeding and then did a second M.S. at UC Davis called Plant Protection and Plant Management (the major no longer exists). That’s my academic training.


Q: Interest in student farms seems somewhat cyclical. Are you seeing a renewed enthusiasm for farming?

It is cyclical…but there is also another thing going on. What we know is that nationally enrollment in agricultural majors was declining for a long time. The number of farms and farmers has also been declining. And we defined that socially as a success, with a narrative that “fewer farmers are feeding more people, isn’t that wonderful?” But if you live in those communities and your neighbors are moving away, it may not be so wonderful.

I think things bottomed out and are coming back up. If you look at agriculture majors in Davis and at other land grants, enrollment declined for a long period, but enrollment is going back up.

I don’t know why interest is growing, but I have a suspicion that some of the students I work with confirm. Much of the increased interest is from young people who didn’t grow up in agriculture. Some are coming from a point of view that there are a lot of problems in the world. Many of the problems they see are related to the fact that many of the things they rely on are produced in ways that are harmful to the environment and to people. They want to break out of buying things that are produced that way. They think, “I can’t make things: I can’t make my own car, can’t make my own shoes…but maybe I can grow my own food.”

This is sometimes the spark. They then might think, “I can learn to grow food in a better way, not only for myself, but as a career,” or, “I don’t actually want to farm, but I can have a career that somehow contributes to making a better food system.”

Certainly many students hold the view that there are problems associated with agriculture, but lots of those young people are now seeing the potential for making a better food system. And they see the need for improvement and are making improvements.

One of the examples I hold up to them about how things have already changed and improved is integrated pest management (IPM). IPM took hold and we’ve seen a tremendous reduction in pesticide use in California due to IPM.

There are some problems with agriculture, but people are making progress and I want to be part of that. I think the growing interest is related to biofilia. Students get turned on to the natural world and want to work in areas related to that. That’s certainly part of my story. When I was in high school I realized I loved plants and studied plant science in college. I loved plants and the biological world.

And I was really lucky because it became easy for me to see how I could develop knowledge that was fascinating to me and use it in a way to make positive contributions to society, which was also important to me. And I’ve been fortunate to be able to have this kind of career.

Editor’s NoteBiofilia is a hypothesis that it is a human trait or tendency to interact with or be drawn to other forms of life, to be connected to nature. The hypothesis was popularized by evolutionary biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in a 1984 collection of essays entitled Biofilia.)


Q: We live in era that seems to elevate farmers and farming…what are you observing?

I think the skill set that farmers need – and have – is phenomenal…and that’s been true for a very long time. Farmers and farming has not been elevated in most societies globally throughout most of history. But farmers are being elevated now. But at the same time, there is still a fair amount of criticism leveled at farmers and agriculture.

The hopeful thing to me is the growing recognition of the importance of farmers. And that importance is not only as producers of food (which used to be the main narrative), but also as community members and stewards of the land and water. There have been competing narratives…is farming good for the land or bad for the land? There are more stories getting out there about positive things farmers are doing. Farmers and scientists are creating new ways – and sometimes rediscovering old ways – to produce food that are better for the environment and the people that work in agriculture.

I do have a concern. Is this elevation of farmers and farming actually translating into improved socioeconomic conditions for the people who are growing our food?

I think that’s what organic certification and fair trade are about. Certification mechanisms are a way to differentiate things in the marketplace. Something we say we value can be translated to a different economic value. So maybe we’re willing to pay a bit more for a product we value. Yet many farmers and farm workers, both in California and globally, work very hard and struggle financially.


Q: In some ways, you’re the campus farmer. Can you tell me a bit about that work?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the life I’ve lived. I think my job is not really to be the campus farmer. I think a more accurate description of my job is to create a space where all the young campus farmers – the student farmers – can work. To help create and maintain a place where they can do their work – learning – through being involved here at the student farm.

Potluck at the Student Farm.

The really amazing thing about the student farm is that all the good ideas have come from students, either solely through students or from students working in collaboration with faculty and staff.

The Student Farm itself was a student idea. So were the Market Garden and the Children’s Garden and just about every single thing we do. We’re now growing food and giving it to the student-run Pantry on campus, which was a student idea. And they are not just ideas…they are ideas that students work really hard to make happen. Two undergraduates worked for over a year to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and create policies so that they could give student-grown produce to students who needed it. If students work this hard for it, it means something to them and they value it.

That’s why the things we do stick… they come out of students’ own motivation. They are things they want to learn, changes they want to see happen in what they are learning or learning about. A lot of what they want to be learning about is how to create a better food system. Our job is to create the physical and social space where students can do that. As staff, we play an important role, but we let them largely decide the priorities about what is going to be pursued.


Q: Why is it important to have these kinds of spaces on college campuses?

I think there are some things that are important and very much at risk in the world we live in. Our program focuses on sustainable agriculture and the concept of sustainability even more broadly than that.

When I look at the issues around sustainability that we’re dealing with – small things on a local scale all the way up to global warming, increasing conflict, human trafficking and slavery in the world – I am struck by how complex the issues are. Sustainability has an environmental component, certainly, but everything comes back to the human component and the decisions we make. I feel that we haven’t been very successful about addressing a lot of these environmental problems because we didn’t do a good job about making decisions as a group.

Out here at the Student Farm, people learn how to work together. We try to model the value that everyone’s voice counts. If I and the staff made all the decisions in a vacuum, this place would have disappeared a long time ago.

Sustainability requires shared decision-making…and democracy. Democracy requires shared decision-making. People who are going to be affected by a decision should have a say in that decision. At the same time, they also have to have enough information to understand the issue. People need knowledge and tools to make informed decisions. That’s part of what we’re trying to get at out here…we’re helping students learn. They need to know how farms work, both from a practical perspective and from a scientific perspective. They also need to understand what’s behind that and how people work together…

Student involvement in our program has grown dramatically in the last few years, but the staff hasn’t, so we use a peer education model and are working to strengthen it all the time. Students help other students. We have a dozen student employees, what we call lead student farmers and gardeners. They receive leadership training…we have a program that enables students to develop technical skills, improve their capacity to teach others and hone their communication and interpersonal skills.

This training enables them to be more effective at working with other students, helping them learn and work together as teams. Many students have never had a job before…so at the farm, they are also learning how to be in the professional world. A big part of success in life is how you work together with others to get something done.

Pretty much everything our students are engaged in is something meaningful to them and others.

Students are part of a community, they are providing food to the community and they have a social contract with parts of the community. As an example, on pick days, students have to harvest and pack the produce. They feel a great responsibility to get it done because people are relying on the food to be ready at a certain time.

It’s a different kind of learning space. They learn that what they do matters, not just to them, but to their co-workers and to other who are counting on them. The consequences are not just a letter on a transcript. Most students actually thrive on this responsibility. They realize that what they do matters, that there are consequences for the community if you do your  job well or if you don’t. That might seem like a burden, but it can actually be very empowering.

What we see over and over is that students almost always meet our expectations. This means that it’s actually a disservice to them when our expectations are not high enough. A big part of our job as staff is believing in the students. When we believe in them it helps them believe in themselves.


Q: You’ve announced your retirement. As you end this phase of your career, any thoughts you’d like to share?

Public support for the University seems to be waning and waning. The reasons for that are complex. I feel it’s really important to have public higher education. I have been incredibly fortunate to work in a place where my job was to serve people…that’s what I wanted to do. It’s important that in society we have lots of jobs where people serve people – and they are valued for doing it. We need public servants. It’s important to somehow help the public realize that many people in the public sphere are working really hard, not just for themselves, but trying to make a positive difference in the world.

Again, I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve had a career where I could serve people and work closely with young people –they are so impressive and inspiring. It’s really gratifying.


Editor’s Note: In a surprise ceremony held recently in Santa Cruz, Mark was awarded the first annual Mark Van Horn On-Farm Educator Award…named in his honor. The award was given by the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. The award will “recognize on-farm educators who share Mark’s passion for teaching sustainable agriculture and engaging students in the learning process.” Learn more about the award here.

We offer thanks to Aubrey Thompson for the photographs used in this post.