Experiencing agriculture firsthand

Three WSU students stand in a field listening to a farmer who is holding a carrot flower.
Graduate students in plant pathology professor Lindsey du Toit's class tour various aspects of Washington agriculture in person every other summer. Photo by WSU student Ninh Khuu.

During college in her native South Africa, Lindsey du Toit had a plant pathology professor who took her class out to talk with the farmers doing the work she was studying.

“I was terrified to talk with farmers because I was intimidated,” said du Toit, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology. “I grew up in a city and didn’t know anything about farming. But it was a life-changing experience that drew me to my field and to helping farmers feed people.”

Now du Toit, who is based out of WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon, teaches a field plant pathology course that involves taking graduate students on a bus tour to see various aspects of Washington agriculture in person every other summer.

Tours have included wheat farms on the Palouse, tree fruit orchards in the Yakima Valley, vegetable seed farms in western and central Washington, and USDA inspection facilities at SeaTac. The course has been taught by du Toit every other year since 2012 and now has a few former students telling current ones about the course’s value.

A WSU student stands near a field examining carrot flowers.
Photo by WSU student Ninh Khuu.

“Some of them took the course, got hired by the companies we visited, and now talk with current students about their work and how they got there,” du Toit said. “The former students have told me how much they appreciate helping other students.”

Students in the class are graded on conversation participation during the long bus rides between stops and while visiting each site. They also keep a journal of their experiences on the tour and prepare a report after interviewing a grower who is battling plant diseases.

“They’re much more nervous about the farmer reading their report than me grading it,” du Toit said. “They quickly realize that you don’t tell a farmer what to do. Instead, you talk about your expertise and how you can work together to solve problems.”

The two-week class is expensive for the department since it involves hiring a bus and driver and staying in hotels. But du Toit says that the cost is worth the opportunity to show students just how varied agricultural careers are.

“I read each student’s journal entries,” she said. “They regularly talk about how much it transformed their view on working in agriculture or opened their eyes to a job they find fascinating. Having that kind of impact is a privilege, and I’m excited to continue hosting the course.”

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