Public Affairs

Ag Fields See Organic Growth

Feb. 9, 2012
By Elizabeth Chapin

Cal Poly Pomona student Andrew Esterson with organic lettuce varieties grown on campus.Last summer, Cal Poly Pomona students Joanne O’Sullivan and Andrew Esterson devoted five acres of the campus farm to growing organic produce.

They have experienced the struggles and the successes that come with growing all-natural crops. Getting perfect vegetables with minimal use of resources is tough, but the students’ dedication is paying off. In addition to organic produce, which is sold at Cal Poly’s farm store and other farmer’s markets, they are also reaping the rewards of hands-on learning.

For the first time in decades, increasing numbers of young people are pursuing careers in farming. The National Center on Education Statistics reports that agriculture degrees granted from 2004-2009 grew by 9.4 percent—following decades of decline. Many have attributed the turnaround to the economy. Others say it’s fueled by a more interesting phenomenon: the increased interest and demand for organic and locally-grown foods and products. It is a demand so high that many aspiring farmers feel confident they can successfully sell their products.

Organic farming has been one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture. The USDA reports that 12,941 certified organic pasture and cropland operations existed in 2008—an increase of 361 percent since 1992. Almost one-quarter (22 percent) of these operations are California-based. With over 430,000 acres largely used for fruit and vegetable production, the state leads the nation in certified organic cropland.

Given California’s role in the trend, it’s important that its agriculture students know a thing or two about organics. CSU Chico, Fresno State, Cal Poly Pomona and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo give students the opportunity to explore this growing practice. They are also educating students, farmers, and the public about growing food sustainably.

According to the USDA’s National Organic Program, any food or product labeled “organic” indicates that it has been produced through approved methods that foster sustainable use of resources and conserve biodiversity and ecological balance. To become certified organic, the land and produce must go through intensive inspections, which often take years before full certification is granted.

It’s important to note that the tried-and-true or conventional farming practices also taught at the CSU and used by a majority of today’s farmers are also sustainable. The overall adoption level of organic farming is low compared to modern methods. However, many U.S. producers embrace the farming of certified organic products in order to capture high-value markets and boost farm income.

This new value in organics is one of the reasons research is appropriate to investigate more practical applications. For example, the 15-acre organic plot Fresno State’s university farm lab established with a USDA grant has been used for both hands-on student learning and several research projects in areas such as irrigation and weed management. One of these projects tested computer-operated sprinkler systems, which adjust the amount of water based on data collected from sensors. They minimized the amount of excess water used, helping to keep weed growth down—often an issue when growing organic crops.

Faculty also led a USDA-funded nutrition study at Chico State, which focused on growing organic vegetables for local school lunches. The project’s objective was to grow, evaluate, and identify the most promising new vegetable varieties for the local area.

“The research served to provide local organic growers with information to help them become more competitive,” said Chico State Agriculture Dean Jennifer Ryder Fox. “More knowledge about the different varieties suited for the Northern part of the state leads to more informed and productive farmers in our community.”

Dr. Sajeemas Pasakdee, adviser for Fresno State’s student-operated organic farm, notes the importance of such grant funding for expansion of organic agriculture curriculum offerings as well. Fresno State’s initial USDA grant led to the expansion of its plot, as well as the creation and continuation of an organic farming class where students take part in hands-on learning.

“Interest in the class has increased over the past few years,” Pasakdee said. “The students have been excited to get out in the field and learn what it takes to grow organic produce.”

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has also introduced organic and sustainable farming classes such as cropping systems, alternative energy, holistic management, and soil and water conservation. Learn-by-doing has been a way of life at Cal Poly, which also has an 11-acre certified organic production unit and a herd of grass-fed cattle that are raised for organic beef.

Feeding calves at the Chico State organic dairy unit.Chico State’s organic dairy is one of the more notable organic programs in the CSU. The dairy is the first of its kind in the Western United States, and the only one that is primarily managed by students. The dairy unit of 80 milking cows is managed by a team of 10 students.

“The students are responsible for milking the cows, formulating rations based on grass quality and availability, calf management, the breeding process, just about everything involved in milk production,” said Dr. Cindy Daley, head of the Chico State organic dairy. “It’s a great exercise. This program gives students the hands-on experiences they need to go out into the industry with a set of skills that are quite marketable.”

The students are also learning about business. Since the dairy has decreased the amount of grain used in the milk production process, it has significantly improved the net profit per cow. Daley says the dairy unit is currently working on a business plan to close the food loop by providing dairy products to the local community.

“Demand for organic milk continues to grow even in these tough economic times,” Daley said. “Consumers find value in an organic product, especially one that’s produced and processed at the same farm.”

It’s one of the reasons why the CSU’s colleges of agriculture want to give students the opportunity to learn how to grow organic products. As Cal Poly Pomona students O’Sullivan and Esterson can attest, behind its wholesome image, organic farming has an entrepreneurial spirit.

But another reason is that knowledge of such practices can lead to better, more sustainable, conventional farming.

“Organic farming is a tool used to expose our students to alternative methods while they are still learning the tried-and-true conventional farming practices,” said Chico State Agriculture Dean Fox. “All farming is sustainable as long as it takes three things into consideration: short- and long-term consequences of the action, fulfilling society’s need for the product, and reasonable economics. We know our students will become successful farmers if they keep that in mind.”