What is a Horticultural Food System?

In October, our undergraduate recruiter and academic advisor, Erika Olivares, invited me to help her with activities for the IlliniFest, a campus-wide open house for high school students. I began brainstorming how I might describe our degree concentration in “Horticultural Food Systems” to prospective students and, being a somewhat visual person, drafted the figure above as my guide. Looking at it again, I don’t believe it is a sufficient representation of a horticultural food system, but it illustrates the complexity of interactive forces at work. I appreciate our degree which emphasizes food “systems” compared with other commonly offered programs with titles like horticulture, horticultural science, or specialty crop production.

In “Food, Farms, and Community” by Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger (2014), a text we use in our Local Food Systems class, a food system is defined as an “interconnected web of activities, resources and people that extends across all domains involved in providing human nourishment and sustaining health, including production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food.” A horticultural food system, therefore, can be thought of as the science and art of specialty crop production (mainly fruits, vegetables, and nuts) as it relates to the food system. An intentionally broad definition, the importance is that our education encourages a systems-level approach to understanding plant production. It is especially relevant to the industry in Illinois, where much of the specialty crop production happens at smaller, regional, and urban scales, where producers may be necessarily involved in more aspects of the food system than large commodity growers.

We learn about this interactive web of activities at the micro level, through biochemical processes within an individual plant, soil composition, or microenvironment, up to the macro level agroecology and network of pre- and postharvest pipelines required for the crop to reach your plate. In my own classrooms this spring, I’m excited to be teaching the science of Horticultural Plant Propagation which applies principlies of plant anatomy and physiology, alongside Urban Food Production, which is a much about the scientific principles as it is about social, cultural, and political context of the system. A reminder that classes are live so be sure to take a look at all of our offerings (CPSC and HORT), both on and off campus.

Keep growing,

Jack McCoy, Ph. D.

Lecturer of Horticulture

Department of Crop Sciences

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