STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking

How to Enroll

Satisfies the IE-GenEd for Sustainable Food and Farming Majors in the UMass Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Instructor: John M. Gerber;

 Introduction: The naturalist and university professor Aldo Leopold’s suggestion that “only a mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain.”  If you’ve never heard this quote, it’s time to read A Sand County Almanac!  Leopold was a well-published and respected scientist, who was also able to say things like….


Industrial agriculture violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term profitability at the expense of people and the land.  Leopold was tough on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”  Today, we might add that we have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicide-resistant weeds, floods and drought, and on and on….. because we fail to think like a mountain.

We must do better!

Systems thinking offers a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in food-related, farming and other environmental careers.  Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional discipline-focused scientific approaches when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making.  This course will introduce you to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating your learning from previous courses and experiences.  In short, we will learn to think like a mountain.

For more information on Ag Systems, see:

Probable Systems Thinking Topics for this Class

  1. Introduction to Systems Thinking
  2. Farming Systems
  3. The Five Disciplines
  4. Mind Mapping & Root Causes
  5. Mental Models & Paradigms
  6. Causal Loop Diagrams
  7. System Dynamics Modeling
  8. Personal Mastery & Shared Vision
  9. Team Learning & Collaboration
  10. Reframing and Persuasive Communication
  11. The Commodity Systems Challenge
  12. Learning Style Inventory and Team Success
  13. Applying Systems Thinking to Sustainable Agriculture
  14. Seeing Nature

WARNING:  We will make adjustments to the syllabus as we go along.  Topics will be selected from the “systems thinking toolbox” below and other resources based on your interest throughout the semester.   That is we will “build the road while walking.”   If this won’t work for you, please drop the class now.

Systems Thinking Toolbox


General Education Requirement:  This class satisfies the Integrated Experience (IE) GenED requirement for students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major.

Grading: Grading will be based on successful completion of homework assignments and projects, active participation in discussions, and attendance.  You cannot learn this stuff if you don’t show up and practice! Regular participation is necessary!

Readings – Selections from:

  1. Capra, F. 1996. The Web of Life. Anchor Press.
  2. Krafel, P. 1999. Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Vermont.
  3. Meadows, D.H. 2008. Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Press
  4. Senge, P. et al. 1994. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. Doubleday Publishing Group.
  1. Wilson, K. and G.E.B Morren Jr. 1990. Systems Approaches for Improvement in Agriculture and Resource Management
  2. And more…..


This class is part of the Sustainable Food and Farming Online Certificate Program and will count toward the Associate of Science degree as well as the Online B.S. degree.  Online classes cost $482/credit.

To begin planning for the future, see….

Annual Class Schedule

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.

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