A Climate of Faith

Joan McGuire

Corban University’s new agricultural program will teach creation science — but also how to adapt farming practices to a changing climate.

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Corban University, a private Christian college in Salem, announced this month that it will open a new four-year agricultural science degree program in the fall of 2022, contributing to a growing agricultural sector in the Willamette Valley.

Susie Nelson, the director of the new agricultural program at Corban University, says the program is timely because of the world’s coming farming needs. Food demand is expected to double by 2050, according to a report published in The Journal of the International Association of Agriculture Economists. According to Nelson, the agriculture field is also expected to grow 6% through 2029, creating 59,400 new jobs yearly.

“Starting an ag program has been talked about for quite a while now,” says Nelson. “Our location is right in the heart of farm country. Our board just voted and said it’s time to finally do it.” 

Corban is not the only Oregon institution to recognize the growing agricultural need. Chemeketa Community College in Salem completed work on an agricultural complex this year. 

The Oregon Department of Agriculture and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Foundation recently selected 24 Oregon women for its Farm2Food Accelerator program, a business accelerator that trains female farmers to grow and market specialty crops. 

Apart from anticipated job growth in the ag sector, another reason for a small, private Christian school to teach farming is to offer a different curriculum than other schools. For example, Oregon State University — which started teaching agriculture in 1873 and was the first school on the west coast to do so — teaches evolutionary biology as part of its ag curriculum. So do other accredited ag programs in the state.

But students at Corban are taught creationism alongside agricultural techniques.

The school is not shying away from discussions of climate change, however.   

For example, Nelson says, the program is putting focus on soil biology and soil health to counteract increasing aridification — the drying out of soil as the climate gets hotter.

“We’re really focusing on soil biology and soil health. Sort of a ‘ground up’ approach,’” jokes Nelson.

“Soil biology isn’t something that was really talked about back in the day, but it’s becoming a more and more important topic of conversation as we’re finding more depleted soils, which take more minerals and more water to produce even smaller production than they used to,” Nelson says.   

To that end, promoting sustainability practices will be front-and-center at the agriculture school. The agriculture program will frame sustainability and environmental stewardship as a matter of spiritual responsibility. 

“We want our students to be able to think critically about what is happening. Soil is getting more tired. We are going to continue to work towards creating solutions to those problems in the same way as everyone else who is interested in ag,” says Nelson. “Whether global warming gets solved or not, we still have to keep producing the same amount of food as we’re growing and then some.”

More than half of students at Corban identify as conservatives and nearly half as Republicans, according to Niche, a site that collects demographic data on college students. And polls show that self-identified Republicans are less likely to say they believe climate change is happening — or that it is being caused by humans.

But Corban is a liberal arts college as well as a Christian university, and Nelson says that teaching critical thinking, and exposing students to differing points of view, is part of the school’s educational mission. And that means having discussions about sustainability and climate change.  

“Being able to have open and honest conversations has been really easy. We have a lot of traditional farmers on our advisory board, but they want their land to produce and be as healthy as it can be. I haven’t had to be careful about how I phrase things.” 

Biblically, Christian theology teaches that God promised Noah there would not be another world-ending flood — which has steered some conservative Christians to be unconcerned with climate change issues. 

For those students who don’t believe in climate change disasters for spiritual reasons, she has a response in mind.

“It also says in the Bible we are to be good stewards of the land,” says Nelson. “I would say to them, ‘There might not be another flood, there’s going to be something.’”

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