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Giving PEAS another chance

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A program at the University of Montana that teaches students how to raise their own produce through a combination of traditional academics and hands-on farming will live on for at least one more season, thanks to a successful student enrollment campaign by students and faculty.

Since the fall of 1996, the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) has been teaching students the fundamentals of organic and small-scale, sustainable agriculture, as well as some of the basics of our country’s food production and distribution system. In the process, PEAS students have raised fresh vegetables and flowers on four acres of land at Fort Missoula, much of which was donated to area food banks and pantries.

“I advise a lot of the undergrads, many of whom over the last three years of this program have told me [PEAS] has been a real life-changing experience for them and that it was the best thing to happen to them in college,” says Vicki Watson, professor of environmental studies at UM. “It took some students … who just barely eked along and didn’t seem very motivated and turned them into totally different people after taking that class.”

Despite PEAS’ huge popularity and success, its three-year USDA grant ran out this fall and with UM’s $2.4 million budget shortfall this year, the PEAS class was in jeopardy of being discontinued in mid-semester. It was only after the program’s instructor, Josh Slotnick, managed to get the course transferred into the Continuing Education program that it was kept alive.

Unlike most UM classes, in which students registered for at least 12 credits are free to take additional credits at no additional cost, Continuing Education courses must be self-sustaining through enrollment fees in order to survive.

The Continuing Education Program had a Dec. 17 deadline for students to register for the spring semester PEAS class and internship. As of Dec. 21, the program has 37 students registered for the one-credit class and 27 students registered for the two-credit internship, according to Sandy Willcox, director of Extended Studies for UM’s Continuing Education Program. And while PEAS has enough students to continue the program through the spring, space is still available for more students to register when they return in January.

“That’s a tough time of year for students to come up with additional dollars that they weren’t expecting to pay,” Watson admits. She points out that although some students have promised to pay for PEAS in the spring, some may not be able to come up with the money. As a result, Watson and others has already begun recruiting members of the community who might be willing to sponsor students who cannot afford the registration fees on their own.

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