WSU Receives $5 Million Investment to Support Organic Ag, Model Farm
Washington State University took another giant step in becoming the world’s model for research, teaching and extension in organic and sustainable agriculture, thanks to a $5 million donor investment by alumni and natural foods pioneers Chuck and Louanna Eggert and their family. Their gift will help expand the WSU Organic Farm from 4 acres to nearly 30 acres. The expansion provides WSU with the largest organic teaching farm on a university campus in the United States.
“With deep roots in the natural and organic foods industry that go back to our time at WSU, our family sees the critical role organic and sustainable agriculture plays in our food system day in and day out,” said Chuck Eggert, who with Louanna founded Pacific Natural Foods in 1987. “We greatly appreciate WSU’s efforts in preparing the future leaders in agriculture, and in particular, those focused on organic agriculture, as they are vital to the continued innovation needed to advance the industry.”
The couple, who met while attending WSU, have grown Pacific Natural Foods from a small soy milk production company to a global leader in natural foods development and sustainable and organic farming and land stewardship that supports farmers and ranchers. Founded in 1987 in Tualatin, Oregon, Pacific Natural Foods offers a wide variety of all natural and organic food and beverages including soups, broths, non-dairy beverages, and pot pies. The company’s products are sold throughout the United States and Canada in mainstream grocery and natural food stores.
“This is a game-changer for the program,” said John Reganold, WSU Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology who leads the university’s organic agriculture major. “This investment by the Eggert family greatly expands the opportunities provided by the organic farm and major for students at WSU.”
Eggert and his family started farming operations in 2001 and, to date, they have converted over 1,800 acres to organic land. In 2006, they began incorporating organic dairies with high regard for animal welfare into their farming operations. In 2010, the Eggert Family Farms dairies received Animal Welfare Approved status, which is considered to be the “gold standard” of animal welfare certifications, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Riding the Nitrogen Cycle by Managing Soil Fertility with Reliable Testing Methods
Got nitrogen? If plants asked questions, that might be one farmers would hear frequently. For plants, nitrogen is food. By talking to the region’s small farmers about the challenges they face, Washington State University researchers learned that understanding soil fertility–the availability of food for plants-–is a top priority. Based on that need, soil scientist Doug Collins is leading a team to develop practical soil fertility management strategies.
Plants require nitrogen to grow and reproduce–but not just any nitrogen. The Earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, but nitrogen in the air is in a form that plants cannot use directly. The nitrogen plants want must be available in the soil so that their roots can absorb it.
Moving nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil is part of a complex process called the nitrogen cycle. That process starts when atmospheric nitrogen is “fixed” by soil bacteria that have the ability to convert gaseous nitrogen into compounds, such as ammonium, that are useful to plants. The plants convert those nitrogen compounds into amino acids, chlorophyll and other organic compounds essential to life. All nitrogen in animals can be traced back to the organic nitrogen in plants.
When plants die, the organic nitrogen they contain is converted by bacteria back into ammonium in a process called mineralization. Mineralization once again makes nitrogen available for absorption by plant roots.
Most farmers add nitrogen in the form of fertilizers so that their crops have plenty of nitrogen without having to rely so heavily on the nitrogen cycle. Organic farmers, though, are interested in reducing the input of artificial fertilizers and in relying more on increased organic matter in their soils, so that their plants can be fertilized by the nitrogen cycle more directly.
The nitrogen cycle, however, while continuous, is not consistent. A large number of variables are at work influencing the fluctuation of the cycle. Soil temperature and moisture, for instance, are major factors controlling the activity of soil bacteria. When conditions are cold and dry, bacteria are less active, and so there is less nitrogen being fixed or mineralized.
For organic farmers, understanding the fluctuations in the cycling of nitrogen through their farm soils is critical for several reasons. If they don’t apply a little extra fertilizer at the proper time, their plants may not produce an economically viable yield. If they apply too much, they are simply wasting money, because fertilizer is expensive and if the plants don’t need it, they’ll just ignore it. And if the plants don’t take up the nitrogen in the soil, there is a chance it will get washed by rain or other means into streams, rivers, and oceans, where it can toxify the water.
What farmers need, then, is a reliable way to test the fertility of their soil. This is exactly what WSU soil scientist Doug Collins and his colleagues are developing. “Our team is working to assist organic farmers in linking fertilizer applications to plant requirements through soil tests that predict nitrogen release from organic matter.”
Collins, a WSU Extension educator charged with helping small farmers in the state and a member of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, said, “Farmers frequently ask us, ‘How much fertilizer should I apply? What type of fertilizer will best meet my needs, and, what are the effects of historical management?’ Because the nitrogen cycle is an ongoing process, the way farmers did things in the past–like the types of fertilizers applied to a field, or the way the field was tilled–affect the future availability of nitrogen.
“What we’ve found is that you really have to know what is going on with a particular piece of ground. You can’t offer generalized advice about fertility management. That’s why we’re developing these tests,” Collins said.
Collins and his colleague are working with eight certified-organic farms in order to fine-tune soil fertility tests for use in western Washington. Last fall, the team surveyed the cooperating farms in order to test their current fertility status. This summer, they’ll be using a variety of methods to periodically check the fertility of test plots on the farms. Once the results are in, Collins said, the team of researchers and farmers will conduct outreach to farmers and other agriculture professionals, as well as soil-testing labs, in order to educate them about fertility management and planning.
Future for Organic Ag Continues to be Bright, in Spite of Market Swings
Certified organic farmgate sales increased 16% to $244.6 million for 2010, the last year for which statistics were available, according to data gathered by the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Certified organic crop acreage and the number of certified organic farms in Washington State, however, decreased for the second consecutive year in 2011.
WSU Extension sustainable agriculture specialist David Granatstein and research associate Elizabeth Kirby co-authored the just-completed profile titled, “Certified Organic Acreage and Sales in Washington State.” Eastern Washington accounted for 76% of certified organic farmgate sales in 2010. Grant County repeated as the state’s leading producer, with $64 million in farmgate sales–more than the next three counties combined. Grant County’s preeminence, according to Kirby, stems from the fact that it has over 25% of the total organic acreage in the state, including 36% of the tree fruit acreage and 47% of the acreage for vegetables.
Counties significantly increasing year-over-year sales included Kittitas, Walla Walla, Skagit, Pierce, and Island. The long-term trend shows that large organic producers are using their production focus to gain an increased share of the sales. Farms with sales over $1 million per year now account for 56% of sales in Washington, versus 51% in 2006. The smallest 30 percent of organic farms, in contrast, contribute only about 1% of the economic output.
The profile shows certified organic acreage decreasing 12% to just over 90,100 acres in 2011, and the number of certified organic farms dropping to 729 from 735 with just two farms transitioning to organic.
Areas seeing decreasing acreage included forage, tree fruit, and grains, pulses, and oilseed crops. Vegetables, mixed horticulture, and small fruits and nuts all saw increases in acreage. Vegetables reversed a downward slide from 2010, while blueberries continued an upward trend. Much of the increase in blueberry acreage, according to Granatstein, is due to the success of the crop under irrigation in central Washington.
Although tree fruit acreage dropped 5% in 2011, it nonetheless continues as one of Washington’s organic success stories, accounting for 20% of all organic acreage in the state. Apples account for nearly 14,300 of the 19,590 acres of organic tree fruit, or 8.5% of Washington’s total apple acreage. Washington still accounts for over half of U.S. organic apple acreage, as other regions, especially the East and Midwest, suffer from a much more challenging disease and pest complex. “Central Washington has low humidity and is irrigated,” said Granatstein. “Growers can control the water, and can thereby reduce the disease potential for many crops.”
Washington lost one organic dairy farm in 2011, bringing the total down to 33. The total number of Washington’s organic dairy cows, however, increased nearly 8%.
Due to the statutory three-year transition from conventional farmland to organic, Granatstein noted that organic growers cannot quickly respond to changes in market demand. But demand continues to grow. In 2010, organic food sales in the U.S. reached 4% of all food sales, up from 3.7% in 2009. The full profile can be found at http://bit.ly/IWPkG4.
2012 Farm Walks
Tilth Producers of Washington and Washington State University’s Small Farms Team offers a series of educational Farm Walks for growers. Farm Walks bring growers and agricultural specialists together to learn on working farms across Washington. The 2012 calendar of farm walks is online at http://bit.ly/tilthfarmwalks2012.
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