Agroecology Online

STOCKSCH 378 – Agroecology

January 22 – May 1, 2018

Register Here

Instructor: Dr. Roland Ebel

NOTE:  A botany or biology class is generally as a pre-requisite for this class however if you do not have the pre-requisites to take this class, ask permission from the instructor.

Credits: 3

Traditionel Mesoamerican milpa farming in Guatemala
Traditional Mesoamerica milpa farming in Guatemala

Course Description: This introductory course explains agriculture by its fundament: the ecological principles and interactions that allow us to produce food. In contrast to similar courses, we do not start with conceptual basics and end up with a criticism of modern, resource-demanding farming; we trace humanity from the moment it started to modify ecosystems for seeding plants (in short, when humans first did agriculture) and finish with contemporary farming with all its meanders and opportunities. Through the achievements humans have made and the mistakes we have committed, we learn how nature is modified to become an agroecosystem, what distinguishes an agroecosystem from its environment, what consequences diverse interventions have, and how these consequences can be measured. The course links universal concepts with the environment of each student. Compliant with the transdisciplinary nature of agroecology, we avoid a strictly natural scientific approach, but put the very actor and beneficiary of agriculture into the spotlight: the farmer.

Course Objectives:  By the end of this course, students will understand how the organisms that compose an agroecosystem interact with each other and with their environment; how human interventions affect these interactions and vice versa; what sustainable farming means; and how this sustainability can be measured. In this context, the term sustainability (which is commonly used but scarcely defined) will be related with its significance for the historically most relevant agroecosystem models. The facilitated concepts will be supported by discussions, movie clips, experiential learning (miniature experiments), and outdoor research. This will allow the students to connect the course content with their socio-economic and environmental reality. Therefore, students who successfully complete this course, will not only understand what agroecology is about and why it has evolved; they will also be able to apply this knowledge in their community agroecosystems.

Traditional polycropping in Austria
Traditional Polyculture Farming in Austria

Specific Learning Outcomes: students completing the Agroecology course will:

  •  feel familiar with the term “agroecology” in its most transdisciplinary meaning;
  • obtain an in-depth comprehension of the interactions between humans, the other organisms of an agroecosystem, and their abiotic environment;
  • understand the relevance of these interactions for agricultural production and for the conservation of the environment;
  • understand the resource and energy inputs and outputs in agricultural systems and their meaning for nutrient cycling, energy flows, and population dynamics; as well as how to intervene in those processes for sustainably producing food and other agricultural goods;
  • recognize the significance of determined historic developments for the (un-)sustainability of farming systems;
  • comprehend why agroecology has arisen as discipline and why it is related to sustainable farming;
  • understand how the sustainability of an agroecosystem is measured;
  • count with the principal tools to detect unsustainable farming practices;
  • have a principal comprehension of how politic and socio-economic developments affect the design and the management of agroecosystems;
  • relate universal agroecological concepts with their own environment;
  • are able to derive locally applicable agricultural practices from scientific principles;
  • will have interacted collaboratively with their peers;
  • and will have participated effectively in discussions and assignments with people of varying knowledge and points of view, constructing arguments cooperatively.

Recommended text book 

Gliagroecoessman, S.R. 2014. Agroecology – The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems. Third Edition. Boca Raton: CRC Press LLC, Taylor and Francis Group.

Selected chapters of this standard work of agroecology are embedded in the course content. The possession of the book is not mandatory but highly recommendable. It is available at relevant online stores.


Students with Disabilities

 If you anticipate barriers related to the format or requirements of this course, please discuss this with your instructor so that joint solutions can be found to ensure your full participation. If you are on campus and require disability-related accommodations, please register at:

 Course format:  The course is split in ten units, each of which last one or two weeks. Every unit concludes with a quiz (exam). Successfully completing the quiz is the requirement for advancing to the subsequent unit. Every second unit, there will be a discussion, where students are encouraged to participate actively. While each student can do the quizzes at her/his own pace, discussions are held simultaneously. Additionally, there will be an experiential assignment midst the course. At the end of the course, students should present the outcomes of a research project they will conduct during the course.

 Quizzes:  Students are required to complete a quiz (exam) before moving on to the next unit of study. They are only allowed to make three attempts at each quiz. Class notes and the textbook may be used during each quiz. Yet, each quiz is timed, and the quiz will automatically close and submit your answers once time expires. Quizzes will remain open until the last day of class. Consequently, there is no set exam date for the ten quizzes for this course. The total value of all quizzes is 500 (out of 1000) points.

Discussions:   There will be a forum when every second unit is finished, the respective topics are related to a concrete situation (farm management or socio-economic issues). Students are encouraged to participate actively and with at least two posts in each of these discussions. There is no minimum size requirement for each post, but it has to be pertinent, thoughtful and directly related to the topic being discussed as well as to the arguments of other students. Each discussion will take place during a determined period. The total value of the discussions is 200 points.

Experiential assignments:  Several low-stakes experiential assignments will be released throughout the semester. They help to apply the learned information to living organisms and local agroecosystems. They are also a useful preparation for the exams. The participation and presentation of results will not be graded, except for one experiment scheduled in the mid of the course. This assignment is worth 100 points.

Research (homework):  There will be one course-accompanying homework. It consists in investigating diverse aspects of agroecosystems of each student’s surrounding environment. There are universal guidelines, but the focus of the research project adapts to the interests of each student. Instructions will be given at the beginning of the course and the final results shall be presented at its end. Throughout the course there will be the opportunity to discuss your progress with the instructor. The research is worth 200 points.

Grading:  A 1000-point system is used to calculate your final grade for the course as follows:

  • Quizzes: 10, each worth 50 points = 500 points
  • Discussions:  5, each worth 40 points = 200 points
  • Experiment: 1, worth 100 points
  • Research: 1, worth 200 points

Table 1: Percentage of totally achievable points, correspondent letter grade and number of points to be earned.


Letter Grading Scale


% of Total Points


Letter Grade


Points Earned


94 -100%




940 – 1000


90 – 93%






87 – 89%




870 – 899


83 – 86%




830 – 869


80 – 82%




800 – 829


77 – 79%




770 – 799


73 – 76%




730 – 769


70 – 72%




700 – 729


67 – 69 %




670 – 699


64 – 66%




640 – 669


< 64 %




< 640


Behavior Expectations: You are held responsible for keeping up with the instructional materials, preparing well for quizzes and discussions, and for a proper on-line class behavior.  The complete formal Code of Student Conduct that is in force at the University of Massachusetts Amherst can be accessed at:

Additionally, a fairness code will be agreed between professor and students in the first lecture.

Academic Honesty:  No form of cheating, plagiarism, fabrication, or facilitating of dishonesty will be condoned in the University community. Academic dishonesty includes but is not limited to:

Cheating – intentional use or attempted use of trickery, artifice, deception, breach of confidence, fraud and/or misrepresentation of one’s academic work

Fabrication – intentional and unauthorized falsification and/or invention of any information or citation in any academic exercise

Plagiarism – knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one’s own work in any academic exercise. This includes submitting without citation, in whole or in part, prewritten term papers of another or the research of another, including but not limited to commercial vendors who sell or distribute such materials

Facilitating dishonesty – knowingly helping or attempting to help another commit an act of academic dishonesty, including substituting for another in an examination, or allowing others to represent as their own one’s papers, reports, or academic works

Sanctions may be imposed on any student who has committed an act of academic dishonesty. Any person who has reason to believe that a student has committed academic dishonesty should bring such information to the attention of the course instructor as soon as possible. Formal definitions of academic dishonesty, examples of various forms of dishonesty, and the procedures which faculty must follow to penalize dishonesty are contained in the Academic Honesty Policy: .

Inclusivity Statement:  The community of students, staff and professors represents a rich diversity of cultural, ideologic, and spiritual backgrounds. Hence, all of us are committed to providing an atmosphere for learning that respects diversity. As a lecturer, I am committed to:

  • be honest;
  • be proactive and critical, sharing my opinions, values and beliefs;
  • appreciate the opportunity to learn from each other in this community;
  • respect everybody’s points of view and beliefs independently from their ethnical, racial, sexual, religious, cultural and political background;
  • communicate in a respectful manner;
  • act according to institutional and governmental laws;
  • and contribute to a positive atmosphere on the online campus.

TOPIC SCHEDULE – Spring 2018

Course week Topic
Unit I

From ecosystems to agroecosystems, the beginning of civilization


Week 1 Definition of an agroecosystem.

Fire: the first agricultural tool.

Week 2 Energy flows.

Unit II

Neolithic, learning how to farm


Week 3 Don’t treat soils like dust, they live!

Unit III

Antiquity, agriculture is becoming studied


Week 4 Domestication and adaptation.

Unit IV

Traditional Asian farming, all about water


Week 5 No rain, no harvest.
Week 6 Do you get stressed? Your plants as well.

Unit V

Mesoamerican agriculture, 1 crop + 1 crop = 3 times harvest


Week 7 Agrobiodiversity.
Unit VI

Medieval agriculture, they liked ham too


Week 8 The three-field system and other crop rotations.

Producing plants AND animals.


Unit VII

Industrialized farming, the field became a factory


Week 9 Mechanization and tillage.

Nutrient cycles.



The green revolution, good intentions and questionable outcomes


Week 10 Population dynamics.

Efficiency is good. Do pesticides help?

Week 11 Modern agriculture and food security.

Unit IX

Organic farming, the answer to the green revolution?


Week 12 Organic farming and agroecology: Common ground and differences.

Why do we need agroecology?


Unit X

Sustainable agriculture, the present?


Week 13 GM seeds: the new green revolution.

Climate change and agrobiodiversity: Grapes from Greenland?

Week 14 Indicators of sustainability.

Food sovereignty… the ultimate goal.

This class is part of the Sustainable Food and Farming Online Certificate Program and will count toward the Associate of Scienceprogram.   Online classes cost $482/credit.  If you would like to register for the Certificate program, you may apply here.


Annual Schedule for Online Classes

NOTE: The UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Certificate has been declared eligible for Veterans Educational Benefits. For instructions see: Veterans Benefits.

If you are not interested in earning college credit, there are many non-credited workshops and short courses you can take outside of the university.  For a list see: non-university workshops and courses.

Organic horticulture in Vermont 2
Organic Farming in Vermont
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