March 10th, 2020 Business

Can agriculture be taught through online education? A look at the market.

I grew up next to neighbors who had a small barnyard of animals, including horses, (what felt like) several dozen cats, and a full coop of chickens. Every summer, I could earn a few bucks from feeding their animals while they were gone on vacation, and my mom frequently sent me over to buy eggs whenever we ran out.

I thought this was unusual growing up, but actually, small agriculture has a large following in the United States, as in many other countries. Practitioners range from home gardeners who want to plant a modest vegetable garden, to budding agrarians, conservation activists, apiarists, and wine makers.

In fact, a quick search of popular online agriculture courses brought up:

  • Sustainable farming.
  • Managing environmental resources.
  • Finding your market.
  • Mushroom cultivation.
  • Beekeeping
  • Tree Fruit production.
  • Grazing management.
  • Understanding global food systems.

There’s your proof of concept if you needed one! Online agriculture courses have a robust market. Your next step is finding your place within it.

1. Choose your market and find your focus.

As you might have noticed from the above list, there is both a huge range of possible courses, as well as a market for very niche subjects. In planning your own courses, it is helpful to understand where they would fall within a larger context of farming agriculture courses so that you can specialize without leaving out any key details.

For instance, if you want to cover free range poultry farming, you don’t have to run an entire course on global food systems. However, you will want to cover local ordinances about keeping chickens, as well as lessons on free range grazing and sustainability.

From my own research, it seems that courses fall into a few broad categories:

Raising crops and livestock.

This is probably the first thing to spring to mind, and what draws most instructors to create courses. Obviously these cover a huge range, from orchards and vineyards, to urban gardening, to raising chickens like my childhood neighbors. Finding your specialty within this group will be easier, in that you probably already know your expertise.

However, think carefully about the subtends you want to attract. Are they hobbyists or will this be a source of income for them? Are they running a small or large operation? What are their values when it comes to topics such as organic gardening or the treatment of animals? And how can your course address those concerns?

Ecology, food systems, and the environment.

Next up are broader courses that have less to do with growing and selling crops, and more to do with understanding the environment, and what impact various farming methods have on the soil, water conditions, and local wildlife.

These courses appeal to agriculturalists who are intending to grow larger crops, as well as apiarists, and those raising livestock. However, they’re especially important for conservationists and environmentalists, who may be interested in working with farming communities to improve land use.

Business for agriculturalists.

Finally, there are the business courses—including accounting, food regulations, and marketing. Bookkeeping for small famers can be a complicated business, involving plenty of business expenses, as well as a confusing array of taxes and subsidies. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of regulations in place to protect the public from food-borne illness, and that’s before we even get to the part about selling produce and turning a profit.

Accordingly, there are many business courses designed specifically for small farmers to help them not just stay in the green (financially and legally), but to thrive as a healthy business.

2. Determine how to deliver content and what course projects you want to assign.

After all this discussion about various types of courses, this is where the most labor-intensive part begins. We’ve covered setting up a course and the best practices of instructional design before, so if you’re not sure where to begin, reviewing those posts would be a great place to start.

However, depending on what type of course you’re teaching, there are some great opportunities here for creative and high-value assignments.

For instance, if you’re running a business course, you could have your students write and submit a business plan, and then give each of them feedback based on your knowledge of agricultural markets in the region. Or, if you’re teaching a course on raising chickens, you could have each student submit a report on local ordinances so that you can help them make sure they’re not about to run into any legal problems with their new poultry business.

These projects are likely to take up more of your time, but they’ll also be the biggest draw for learners. Thinking about them creatively can be a major differentiator for your course.

3. Create a support network to help address local concerns.

Networking and community are more important in agriculture than in many other courses. To start, local soil and land conditions have a significant influence over what crops and animals can be raised in an area. The decisions made by one farmer can affect the surrounding properties in both good and bad ways, such as the beekeeper down the road who rents out their colony to help pollinate the neighboring orchard, or the organic farmer whose property is downwind of someone who wants to dust their field with an insecticide.

An online community can also alert farmers to business opportunities, such as a local farmer’s market, a country fair, or general store that might be open to selling their goods.

4. Include information about government policies and regulations.

If you’re in the United States, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the United States Department of Agriculture has an agriculture education toolkit for students and teachers. The American Farm Bureau for Agriculture also offers a broad resource catalog, National Agriculture in the Classroom.

These websites include good general information including lesson plans, fact sheets, recommended publications, and details about upcoming conferences, and are a great place to start as you plan your course. If you’re from outside the U.S., I recommend checking your government’s website for similar information, especially regarding legal matters.

Niche courses often have devoted followings, so do the research before you discount your idea.

The idea that a course idea might be too narrow or specific can dissuade many educators from moving forward with their idea. However, almost any hobby or interest will have a network of devoted practitioners who are not only looking for quality resources, but are excited to share them around once they find them.

So, instead of writing your idea off, take a minute to explore the territory. You may find that your idea is in greater demand than you think.

Your course could already be online!

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