About 20 years ago when Anne Schwartz was planning to start a small organic farm in the upper Skagit Valley, she did what most farmers do. She contacted Cooperative Extension for help and information. When we were starting, information about organic farming was basically non-existent, Schwartz said. If you found an extension agent that knew anything about organic techniques, you were lucky, Schwartz said.
Times have changed, and as legislation and market demand press the agricultural community to reduce its use of synthetic chemicals to control pests and fertilize crops, Cooperative Extension is keeping pace by exploring a broader range of options including research on organic farming techniques to help growers.
Last spring, WSU received state organic certification for a 2.1-acre research plot it its Vancouver Research and Extension Unitthe universitys first fully organic research plot. The land is being used for various vegetable growing experiments, according to Cooperative Extension faculty member Carol Miles who, along with colleague Martin Nicholson, led the effort for certification. The research plot will also be used for variety trials and to research organic pest management techniques.
All growers can benefit from the organic research techniques according to Chris Feise, director of WSUs Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR). All farmers are interested in reducing costs and reducing the potential for chemical contamination. Farmers who are using chemicals can gain knowledge from organic research about less toxic approaches that they can apply profitably, he said.
According to Miles, doing research on a certified organic plot will result in more meaningful information about effective organic techniques that will be available to all growers via Cooperative Extension.
This is the first time weve been able to conduct our research within a completely organic system on the station, Miles said. An organic production system will enable us to conduct our studies in a field situation that more closely resembles what organic farmers experience, thus will produce results closer to what farmers would see in their own fields. This makes our research far more relevant to the farmers.
Schwartz, who produces organic small fruits, vegetables and nursery stock on the Blue Heron Farm near the Skagit Valley town of Rockport, is excited that WSU is doing more research on the efficacy of organic techniques.
There is more awareness in the farming community generally in biological pest control, improving water and soil quality, and farm worker safety, and this research is critical to addressing these gaps, Schwartz said. Having a certified organic research plot is significant because the research conditions will be much closer to what growers are dealing with.
The interest among all growers in organic techniques has increased considerably in recent years, driven by increases in market demand and environmental restrictions. According to the USDAs Economic Research Service the amount of certified organic farmland in the United States more than doubled between 1992 and 1997, and the market for organically grown crops continues to expand. USDA figures show that the United States is now exporting an estimated $40$60 million in organic goods to Japan annually, and an additional $40 million yearly to the United Kingdom. U.S. organic exports to Europe are growing by about 15 percent yearly, and exports to Japan are predicted to grow by as much as 50 percent annually.
Domestic markets for organic goods are also growing rapidly, according to Marcy Ostrom, urban and small farm specialist at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center. Were seeing 20 percent growth per year in the organic food market nationally, and its critical that we gather the information and do the research to help this growing segment of our states agricultural industry, she said.
CSANRs Feise agrees. Organic farming is a growing and profitable segment of the agricultural industry and we want to help all farmers, including organic farmers, compete as best they can, Feise said. There is significant consumer interest in organically grown foods, and increasing consumer demand is generating more interest among traditional growers in moving in that direction.
Its crucial for Cooperative Extension to continue to develop and provide a breadth of information to the states entire agricultural community if it is to compete successfully in a changing marketplace, according to Feise. Its important to point out that the things we have learned-and will learn about organic growing will be applicable to conventional growers. The reverse is also true in that there is a lot that organic growers can learn from conventional practices, he said.