Posted May 12, 2006: Whether being driven
by consumer demand, enlightened administrators, or an auspicious
aligning of the stars, land grant universities across the
country are beginning to embrace organic agriculture. Leading
the charge is Washington State University and its cadre of
Take for example WSU’s new Organic Agricultural Systems
major scheduled for approval this spring and the fact that
the university’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture
and Natural Resources (CSANR) has snagged more than $800,000
in Congressional funding for organic research over the past
three years (this aside from individual program grants). The
funds are being used in part to train grad students, the up-and-coming
leaders in the finally blossoming field of organic research
and education. These future professors of sustainability have
some worthy mentors, groundbreakers who first dared speak
the “O word” in public.
John Reganold, PhD
Dr. Reganold’s pioneering six-year study comparing
conventional, IPM (integrated pest management) and organic
apple growing systems made national headlines when it was
published in 2003. Aside from all the environmental and health
benefits attributed to organic farming, Dr. Reganold found
that consumers thought the fruit tasted better and that organic
farming was more profitable. For the study, Reganold interviewed
more than 300 farmers, commenting that each and every organic
farmer he questioned picked up the soil and talked about it
while none of the conventional farmers did. Reganold is also
a champion of local food systems, going so far as to suggest
that “local” is equally as important as “organic”
where sustainability is concerned.
Has promulgating such research and opinion in an arena traditionally
funded by Big Agriculture made him the victim of any academic
witch hunts? Hardly. A few weeks before the writing of this
article, Reganold received the title of Regents Professor,
“a real big deal here,” explains colleague and
pioneering perennial wheat breeder Stephen Jones. Reganold
was also selected to give the annual Distinguished Professor’s
Address to campus this year. “I think it really shows
how WSU is not afraid to mention the word ‘organic,’”
says Jones, whose own research has avoided the corporate dole.
“Things are really cooking here.”
A few of Reganold’s other accomplishments:
- Played a lead role in developing an organic ag major
at WSU. The major is being developed in response to the
rapidly growing interest in organics and to recruit new
students into the field of agriculture.
- More than 20 years of farming systems research measuring
the effects of organic and conventional farming on sustainability
indicators—soil health, crop yield and quality, financial
performance, environmental quality and energy efficiency—to
determine if organic farming systems can be as or more sustainable
than their conventional counterparts. The team’s conclusion:
organic farming systems are not only more sustainable, their
practices can mitigate some of the hazardous effects of
conventional agriculture on the environment.
- Published studies on organic agriculture in Nature, Science,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, and
Scientific American (more than 110 publications in total,
most with an organic focus).
- Co-editor of Organic Agriculture: A Global Perspective
(due out in June 2006 and published by Australia’s
CSIRO). Scheduled to write a book for University of California
Press on biodynamic and organic wine-grape growing.
- With grad student Kathi Peck, developed WSU’s first
organic gardening and farming class (Soils 101). With farm
manager Brad Jaeckel, developed a summer field course in
organic farming (Soils 480), which is taught on a newly
certified 3-acre organic farm that supports itself by selling
CSA shares in the sister communities of Pullman, Washington,
and Moscow, Idaho, and produce at the Moscow Farmer’s
David Granatstein, who holds a masters degree in soil management,
has had his hands in healthy soil for more than a quarter
century as an organic farmer, researcher and educator in the
U.S. and abroad. He’s a founding member and statewide
coordinator for the Food Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes
sustainable agriculture by recognizing farmers who produce
food in environmentally friendly and socially responsible
ways, and that educates consumers and other key players in
the food system about why they should support these practices.
Granatstein has been instrumental in securing funding for
organic cropping research in the state’s apple-growing
region as CSANR’s statewide coordinator. Based at WSU’s
Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, he’s
situated in the heart of apple country and a consumer/urban
center that’s a portal of sorts between two vastly different
worlds. Granatstein’s research and farmer outreach encompasses
both the wet western side of the state and the dry eastern
His stated priorities for the region include organic seed
and variety development, organic weed and pest control, studying
orchard understories, and exploring the economics of marketing
organic apples to a national and international clientele.
Granatstein touts CSANR’s annual statistical overview
of organic agriculture in Washington and Oregon as having
helped growers and industry leaders track current trends and
impart positive change. This includes food giant Wal-Mart’s
growing demand for organic apples—which will virtually
all be sourced out of Washington—and the birth of Oregon
State University’s organic program, which he said was
clinched when administrators saw the numbers for the growing
organic sector in the marketplace.
Some of Granatstein’s other accomplishments include:
- Project manager for Northwest Dryland Cereal/legume Cropping
Systems Project, one of the of first USDA SARE projects
in the West.
- Research utilizing compost as a soil amendment in tree-fruit
- Research into the use of cover crops as beneficial insect
habitat in tree-fruit production.
- Fostering participatory on-farm testing by growers in
order to accelerate advancements in stewardship farming.
- Publishes the Compost Connection newsletter.
- Author of Reshaping the Bottom Line (Land Stewardship
Project, 1988), an early sustainable ag book for farmers.
“WSU worked with industry and the Washington Tree Fruit
Research Commission to sponsor the 3rd national organic tree
fruit research symposium in June 2005,” Granatstein
says. “We received excellent support from the mainstream
fruit business, of which organic agriculture is an increasingly
Granatstein says it’s good to see old walls come tumbling
“We’re seeing more crossover of research from
organic to conventional and from conventional to organic.
This is helping to break down the organic versus conventional
mindset and moving many growers in a more sustainable direction
where they adopt certain practices used by organic growers—e.g.
compost—but do not intend to become certified organic.
This is amplifying the impacts on many more acres.”
Stephen Jones, PhD
Dr. Jones runs the country’s only perennial wheat-breeding
program, picking up in 1999 where plant breeders at UC Davis
left off in the 1960s. That original project was shelved after
yields of the perennial crop reached just 70 percent of what
annual varieties were producing. Now that environmental considerations—such
as conservation of precious water resources and erosion control—have
become so critically important, 70 percent doesn’t seem
like such a bad number. Since perennial wheat can be expected
to yield for five years, it would also cut down on labor,
fuel, fertilizer and equipment costs as well as keep the ground
covered and provide more year-round wildlife habitat. One
of the major challenges is that the abandoned program of the
’60s set perennial wheat back a good 15 years.
The winter wheat breeding program receives funding from The
Organic Farming Research Foundation, The WSU Center for Sustaining
Agriculture and Natural Resources and, in 2006, received a
$680,000 USDA grant for its organic component. The project’s
students have certified 15 state research farm acres as organic.
Dr. Jones currently has four graduate students who are working
on organic and perennial wheat. As well as being the only
perennial wheat breeder in the United States, Dr. Jones runs
the country’s only certified organic public wheat breeding
A champion of public seed breeding, Jones—who sits
on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance (www.seedalliance.org)—enlists
the help of Eastern Washington farmers in his wheat-breeding
program. The approach is called participatory breeding, and
it ruffles the feathers of some academics who consider the
folks in the lab coats to be the experts. The way Dr. Jones
sees it, scientists and farmers are equal partners, each bringing
critical skills and knowledge to the table and field.
Carol Miles, PhD
Dr. Miles heads up WSU’s Agricultural Systems Program
at the university’s Research and Extension Unit in Vancouver,
the site of the school’s first certified organic land
(3 acres of mixed vegetables). The program investigates sustainable
and organic crop production methods, focusing on new crops
for western Washington, variety performance of traditional
vegetable crops and alternative pest-management strategies
for vegetable and small-fruit crops.
Alternative crops being studied for organic production include
edamame, wasabi and bamboo, all high-value crops that can
be grown successfully on small acreages in western Washington’s
cooler and wetter climate (winter lettuce and dense-growing
‘Icebox’ watermelon are also getting some attention).
The program supports growers by providing information regarding
variety performance, soil fertility requirements and pest
management. Traditional vegetable crops under investigation
include onions, winter squash and dry beans; all easy-to-grow
crops that may be profitable for direct-market farmers in
the region. Alternative pest management strategies are especially
necessary for growers whose production fields are in close
proximity to urban centers, says Miles. “Our program
is investigating non-chemical methods of controlling common
crop pests in these areas.”
Recently it has been estimated that only 2 percent of the
seed used on organic farms is organic in origin, says Dr.
Miles. "At WSU, we are developing and screening varieties
for organic production systems as well as investigating organic
Chris Feise, PhD
Dr. Feise became the first permanent director of WSU’s
Center for Sustainable Agriculture & Natural Resources
in October 2000, the same year the Center initiated an organic
agriculture program with the publication of a comprehensive
white paper. This led to an organic crop research grant application
to USDA which was funded in 2003 and in subsequent years.
An agricultural economist, Dr. Feise is responsible for implementing
the legislative mandate that CSANR will provide statewide
leadership in research, extension and resident instruction
programs to sustain agriculture and natural resources. One
of his crowning glories in fulfilling that mission has been
helping to shepherd in the multidisciplinary Organic Agricultural
The organic major
The Organic Agricultural Systems (OAS) undergraduate major,
which should welcome its first class in the fall, is one of
five majors in the Agricultural and Food Systems degree programs
that will prepare students to work across a variety of disciplines.
In addition to introductory and advanced classes is organic
agriculture, OAS majors will take several courses in general
agricultural systems and focus in on a discipline of their
A working organic farm and CSA are part of the OAS program,
offering students hand-on knowledge of both growing and marketing.
This practical approach seems to be catching on as (mostly
organic) student farms across the continent connect book learning
with real-world experience.
Last fall, the University of Guelph (Ontario) opened its
doors to students to pursue a bachelor of science in organic
agriculture (See Canada
marks and organic milestone for more on Guelph's program),
and Michigan State University is developing plans to roll
out its own organic major in January 2007. CSA’s are
a critical component of both programs. Colorado State University
is also introducing an organic agriculture major in the fall
and hosts a student run garden connected to a community farmers’
The University of Kentucky has married an 11-acre organic
CSA to its debuting (fall 2007) sustainable agriculture program.
North Carolina State University’s Center for Farming
Systems, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture
at the University of Minnesota, and the UC Organic Farming
Research workgroup at the University of California, Davis,
all offer examples of organic farming research and practical
training for students at land grant universities. (For an
updated, comprehensive list of organic and sustainable ag
programs and student farms across the country, see our Farming
for Credit Directory.)
David Granatstein and his colleagues hope that WSU’s
organic focus will continue to grow so the baton gets passed
from generation to generation into a more sustainable future
for Washington state agriculture.
“We have certified organic land on five university research
facilities,” Granatstien says. “Part of our goal
is to have some stable organic land for more useful research.”
Organic is now part of many educational events, he says. In
tree fruit, several companies now host an organic-specific
meeting where WSU faculty and students are presenters. WSU
has been organizing a one-day organic research symposium in
conjunction with the Washington Tilth’s (www.tilthproducers.org)
annual conference. And the university has produced two nationally
broadcast trainings, one on the national organic standards
and another on organic livestock production (available, along
with more details about the Organic Agricultural Systems major,
It’s synergies like these that have students and faculty
alike flocking to Washington State University and staying
put. “Perhaps one of the most exciting reasons to be
working in organic at WSU right now is that there are so many
dynamic individuals working on this issue,” offers Dr.
Miles. “It is inspiring and rewarding.”