March 25, 2007
Consumers often pay a premium for organic food.
The University of California is designating 10 acres at the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center near Parlier for organic research. The three-year transition period needed to meet organic standards began this winter.
“We are committed to serving the research needs of all segments of agriculture,” said Fred Swanson, director of the Kearney REC. “Organic agriculture is an area of increasing interest and economic value to California agriculture, and we are there to provide science-based information to help growers make important production decisions.”
Organic agriculture is essentially the production of crops without using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In 2002, the USDA created the National Organic Program, which governs all aspects of organic production, processing, delivery and sale. Farmers who wish to use the term “organic” must follow regulations that meet the federal organic standards, and the farm must be certified by a designated agency, such as California Certified Organic Farmers. Among the standards are the usage of environmentally friendly farming techniques defined by the program and the prohibition of genetically modified plants.
California organic farmers have enjoyed steady sales growth in recent years, according to Karen Klonsky, UC Cooperative Extension agricultural economist at UC Davis. In 2005, organic farmers took in $530 million, an increase of nearly 200 percent since 1998.
An economic driver of organic production is the price premium often paid by consumers for organic food. The premium is especially attractive to small-scale farmers who need a lucrative market niche to compete with the state’s larger farms.
The opportunity for small farmers to transition to organic agriculture prompted UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Richard Molinar to request that land at Kearney be designated for organic research. Molinar has maintained a one-acre plot at the research center for specialty crop field trials since 1996, and three years ago he and his research assistant Michael Yang began using organic production methods to study capers, jujube trees, lemongrass, mini watermelons, cherry tomatoes, medicinal herbs and other unusual crops. Later this year they will register the original one-acre plot as organic. (Because the crops are not sold, it doesn’t require certification as organic.)
For the organic farmer, long-term planning, patience and access to practical, science-based data are important for success.
“In organic production, your objective is to build up more productive and healthy soil,” Molinar said. “Some people believe organic matter and the diversity of microorganisms in soil maintained organically result in healthier plants that can more effectively fight diseases, fend off insects and out-compete weeds.”
Undertaking the organic transition on the one-acre research plot helped Molinar to see that researchers needed ready access to organically maintained land to study organic production.
“To accurately compare specific organic and conventional practices, you need to first have the ground that organic growers would use,” Molinar said. “Then we can say with validity that yes, it does work or no it doesn’t.”
Molinar requested the designation of land for organic registration from the Kearney Research Advisory Committee, a group of scientists, farmers and administrators who make decisions about how Kearney’s 261 acres of cultivated land is used. After a thorough survey to gauge the level of interest in organic research, the board approved Molinar’s request.
“Organic production is going mainstream,” said UC Davis pomologist Louise Ferguson, the chair of the Research Advisory Committee. “We see the value in giving people choices of what they buy and helping growers decide whether it makes economic sense to transition to organic production.”
The Research Advisory Committee will entertain proposals from UC farm advisors, specialists and campus-based scientists who wish to conduct research on the organic farmland at Kearney. Ferguson said the committee believes the organic research at the center might also benefit the state’s conventional growers.
“The information that is generated will also be available to those who choose not to be totally organic, but may wish to implement the research results into their production practices” she said.
Designation of the new 10-acre organic research plot at Kearney is part of an ongoing effort by the university to develop science-based information on sustainable agricultural practices and make it available to the state’s farmers and ranchers. Programs in UC with a focus on agricultural sustainability and organic farming include the statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, the newly established Agricultural Sustainability Institute and the Long-Term Research on Agricultural Systems Project at UC Davis, and the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. In addition, county-based UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors with the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources conduct field trials and extend research results on organic and sustainable practices to growers throughout the state.
The chair of UC’s Organic Farming Workgroup, Mendocino and Lake counties farm advisor Glenn McGourty, said he was enthused to see the university dedicate more land resources to alternative farming systems.
“We have a tremendous investment in conventional innovations, such as biotechnology, which potentially will have a great payoff,” McGourty said. “But we shouldn’t overlook the little things either. We need to be involved in organic agriculture.”
Links to UC sustainable and organic agriculture research programs:
- Agricultural Sustainability Institute: http://asi.ucdavis.edu/
- Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems: http://zzyx.ucsc.edu/casfs/
- Long-Term Research on Agricultural Systems Project: http://ltras.ucdavis.edu/
- Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program: http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/