Food & Farming

New Degree at CCRI is the Region’s First to Offer Courses in Blue, Green Economy Trades

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Students in the Community College of Rhode Island's new environment, sustainability and management degree program will learn about shellfish farming, among other blue economy trades. (Rhode Island Food Policy Council photo)

A new associate’s degree in environment, sustainability and management at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) is the region’s first interdisciplinary program at the intersection of environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

The degree, which covers agriculture, food and ecological systems; entrepreneurial thinking and processes; land and resource management; and the impacts of climate change on ecologies, businesses and industries, targets the $2.5 billion industries that are in demand across the state yet struggle to fill their workforce pipelines.

This approach to workforce development unifies education and industry, said Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA) executive director Shannon Brawley. RINLA partnered with CCRI, as well as the Rhode Island Food Policy Council (RIFPC) to curate the program with input from local businesses.

“There was not a strong pipeline into the University of Rhode Island (URI), no two-year degree or pathway within CCRI. This was a huge missing link,” Brawley said. “This is the first interdisciplinary degree at CCRI. And with our research across the country, this is the first one that really brings business together with science and land management, and recognizes that systems piece, whether it’s food systems or ecological systems.”

She said the program “also recognizes that everything is interconnected. You can’t do business without understanding science, and vice versa. We want to be socially responsible good business practitioners who care for the land. So this degree begins to look at that, from the very soil we need to protect, to the fact that everything that happens on land happens to water, and that we all impact the whole environmental system,” she added.

Christine Turenius-Bell, Ph.D., chair of CCRI’s science department, said CCRI worked with existing faculty to develop new programming based on what they already taught, and collaborated with URI to ensure students could easily navigate through courses across the two colleges. New courses, including the biology of trees, biology of insects, soil science, and food from the sea, complement existing coursework in accounting, entrepreneurship, oceanography, and principles of management, among others.

Students in the CCRI degree program can also learn about farming. (Rhode Island Food Policy Council photo)

Turenius-Bell said the college is working on creating additional water-based and food-focused tracks in the coming years.

All 64 credits for the two-year associate in science degree transfer to Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, Plant Sciences, and other programs in URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, if students want to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Turenius-Bell said 40 students already enrolled.

“It’s huge exponential growth for our department, a new way of thinking,” Turenius-Bell said. “There are people out there who want to put together a new career, maybe want to go back to a natural lifestyle, or transition from a career in health care or education or hospitality, and they like the outdoors. We want to serve those people and have the resources to do it.”

The program also offers course credit for cooperative work experience, like a traditional internship. Students apprentice at local businesses in the green and blue employment sectors, from landscapers to commercial fisheries, and connect directly with employers who are hiring. It also requires a fourth semester capstone project, which focuses on human environmental impacts and ethical business practices, allowing students to learn about past environmental incidences and the business approaches that helped remediate them.

“Students are tasked with identifying a problem that is two-fold – science and business – and will work to create their own solution that they will present to the class, which will include employer mentors,” Turenius-Bell said.

The program could have far-reaching impacts to the region’s ecological industries, said Paul Fletcher, vice president and division manager of Bartlett Tree Experts.

“This program and the work that went into it fills an enormous need for us,” Fletcher said. “Knowing that there are great jobs in our industry, whether you want to be a business person or plant health technician or climber, there is a place for anyone. So this will be good for the URIs of the world, but also UMass and other schools, to generate more interest from folks who want to work with their hands and want to become good business people.”

Nessa Richman, executive director of the food policy council, said the significance of a workforce pipeline across the food sector is equally deep. A RIFPC survey of its entire network of businesses, farmers, food justice advocates, and concerned consumers in May identified more than 500 local businesses who need more people to seek employment in agriculture and green industries.

Richman collaborated with Brawley to secure a grant from the Agriculture Workforce Development Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funded the CCRI degree’s development. The three-year grant allowed RINLA and RIFPC to be in a better position to work with CCRI to build out the degree’s sustainability pathway, Richman said.

“This is so exciting. This program is for anyone who is interested in moving into work in social, environmental and management careers working with the land and on the land. It also meets seafood and water-based needs. They will enter the workforce with a set of flexible skills that will serve them whether they focus on business or science within the sector,” Richman said. “It has been designed all the way with employers’ input. They were the ones who said they need people who know how to work the land, who know the environmental challenges, and who know how to run a business.”

Shayna Cohen of KK&P, a food-system focused consulting firm, who worked with all the groups to provide support, research, and facilitation, said this program was custom crafted for the Rhode Island student and Rhode Island industries.

“The character of agriculture in Rhode Island is particular. It’s an economy of agriculture that is less than 50 percent food-based. There is a lot of horticulture and turf and non-edible agriculture in our economy, and there is an entire service supply chain around land management. There are all kinds of opportunities that exist,” Cohen said. “This program has really struck a nerve in a good way.”

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