Awards and Honors: Mark Van Horn selected as on-farm educator

UC Davis Student Farm Director Mark Van Horn (center) in August 2015 talks about corn pests with students (left to right) Michael Bancroft, Alexis Fujii, Abraham Cazares, and Mary Laurie. Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis
UC Davis Student Farm Director Mark Van Horn (center) in August 2015 talks about corn pests with students (left to right) Michael Bancroft, Alexis Fujii, Abraham Cazares, and Mary Laurie. Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Student Farm director receives namesake award from Sustainable Agriculture Education Association

Mark Van Horn, director of the UC Davis Student Farm, was awarded the inaugural Mark Van Horn On-Farm Educator Award, established by the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association and presented during the association’s recent biennial conference. 


Van Horn has worked at the Student Farm for 30 of the farm’s 39 years. He helped turn the farm into an experiential learning facility that educates more than 300 UC Davis students each year, engages elementary school students and teachers from throughout the region in garden-based learning, and provides produce to on-campus eateries. Van Horn was instrumental in starting the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems major, now in its fifth year. Each year, he teaches three courses and sponsors dozens of interns in this and other majors.


Ryan Galt, a faculty member in Human Ecology who teaches a core course in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, said of Van Horn, “He has a service leadership model that holds up others as fully capable of understanding their own values and goals, and he facilitates their empowerment to help meet those goals. If we were to add it up, there have been thousands of lives that have been touched by Mark’s work.”


But Van Horn is quick to recognize that his success has been a group effort. “The award doesn’t really belong to me, it belongs to the whole community,” he said. “Without the community, I wouldn’t have gotten anything done.”


By students, for students 

The Student Farm began in 1977 by students eager to develop their own research and programs in sustainable agriculture. With support from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, students work on projects—from testing organic farming methods to aquaculture, plant breeding, and understanding local farm worker well-being and needs. The staff position Van Horn now holds came to be when students saw the need for a staff member to manage the administration of the farm and bring continuity to an ever-changing student body. Since the beginning, his goal has been to keep the Student Farm run as a partnership between students and staff. The staff is there to facilitate students’ collective efforts and to empower them to build the farm into a program that meets their interests and needs.


“I think most of the problems that we face in society around sustainability are present because weactually haven’t had enough people at the table making decisions, and people have been disempowered to be able to make decisions,” Van Horn said. “Part of helping students learn about sustainability is being involved in group decision-making processes. They need to learn how to listen to other people so that all voices are heard.” 


In recent years, increasing numbers of UC Davis students have built the farm’s Market Garden into a

significant supplier of fresh produce for on-campus dining and The Pantry, an organization that provides food for students in need. Students have also taken on increasing roles in managing the farm and teaching and supervising their peers.


Building a community of learners and teachers

The same principles guiding the Student Farm led to the creation of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA), a nationwide effort to bolster sustainable agriculture education and focus on how educators teach, not just what they teach. Van Horn was one of the founding members of the SAEA, and helped plan its early conferences. Whereas there was no organization like it 10 years ago, this year’s SAEA conference was attended by 350 people from throughout the U.S. 


Krista Jacobsen, professor of Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Kentucky and a steering committee member of SAEA, says the committee chose to honor Van Horn because of his long-term commitment to experiential education, his quiet leadership, and ability to translate theories of education and teaching into practice. 


“He’s a steady hand,” Jacobsen says. “He’s a long-term educator who thinks critically about his approaches and has the experience to know how to make those approaches workable in reality.”

In choosing future recipients, the association will look for them to share Van Horn’s passion for teaching sustainable agriculture and engaging students in the learning process.


Nothing in isolation

Following receipt of the award, Van Horn sent a thank-you letter to the Student Farm community.

“I deeply appreciate and have been profoundly humbled by the honor given to me,” he said. “I also want to articulate not only how much I have learned from students and other colleagues over the years, but how much I respect, and am inspired by, so many young people today. You continually amaze —and motivate—me.”

Van Horn will retire from UC Davis in 2017, leaving behind a Student Farm program with strong student and campus support and a large number of student and alumni leaders in sustainable agriculture who have been involved in the farm.


Laura Tourte, an alumna of the Student Farm, remembers her first introduction to the farm as an undergraduate student at in the1980s. “I was a little intimidated by the place,” she said. “But there was never any question about my knowledge of agriculture—or lack thereof. Mark lined me up with opportunities, gave me the space to explore, and challenged me to think more broadly and develop new skills.”

Today, Tourte is a UC Cooperative Extension Advisor in Santa Cruz County working on economic and marketing issues with area farmers.


“Mark’s work persists, and he has given the world a lot,” Tourte added. “He’d probably say he’s gotten a lot in return, and that may be true. But his impact is enormous. Academics often want to focus on metrics and numbers to measure impact, but other aspects are important, too. We all leave imprints on other peoples’ lives, some that last forever. The positive imprints Mark has left surely extend throughout California, the U.S., and the world.”