Organic U
Washington State University introduces organic ag major, a sign that this school is leading the pack as land-grant universities begin “greening up.”

By Dan Sullivan

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 earth-friendly professors.

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 Market.

David Granatstein

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 region.

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 production.
  • 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 important part.”

Granatstein says it’s good to see old walls come tumbling down.

“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 program.

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 seed treatments.”

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 Systems major.

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 choice.

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’ market.

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, at http://organicfarming.wsu.edu).

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.”