Research to improve farming practices is only effective if it acknowledges farmers’ realities on the ground. That’s why organizations such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center work closely with farmers to test and create new crops and systems that address their everyday needs. Still, when it comes to training the agricultural researchers of the future, most universities focus on abstract technical skills, not actual application. EARTH University in Costa Rica is different. Its undergraduate program in Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resource Management equally emphasizes technical knowledge and hands-on experience, and trains students to be entrepreneurial and to address environmental and social needs.

EARTH University only offers one program, which gives students rigorous hands-on training in integrated farming and natural resource management techniques. In addition to typical coursework, first- and second-year students spend time every other week working on EARTH’s crop, livestock, and forestry production farms. In their first year, all students also join six-person groups to start and run their own company for three years, evaluating their successes and failures before starting their graduation projects. Other coursework includes community engagement with individual family farmers, a seven-week internship and homestay in Costa Rica’s dry tropics, and a 15-week independent internship that can be held anywhere in the world.

In addition to their undergraduate program, which accepts students of any age from around the world, EARTH University also runs the Open School for Farmers, which trains farming families to incorporate sustainable practices into their own business structure. Other projects include the widely successful bio-digester program, which has installed more than 500 bio-digesters on small-scale family farms, converting organic waste into methane gas for cooking. EARTH has also trained hundreds more alumni, communities, and organizations to install bio-digesters around the world. Most recently, EARTH University has begun developing an Educating Entrepreneurs Tool-Kit specifically targeting partner institutions in Africa. The goal is to help these institutions revolutionize African family farming so that it is more economically competitive, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable.