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Seed of learning planted organically
Seattle Times staff reporter
Julie Sullivan loves to eat — especially organic food. Growing up in Olympia, though, she never thought much about where that food came from.
Now she's a pioneer in a Washington State University effort to train students about organic agriculture. She's the assistant manager of WSU's community-supported organic farm just outside Pullman, where she — along with a small class of WSU students — spends about 40 hours each week tending vegetables. Sullivan has had her eye on WSU's developing organic agriculture major for the last several semesters. This December she expects to graduate with the nation's first undergraduate degree in the subject.
"It's the one way I spend my time that makes so much sense for me," said Sullivan, who wants to start her own small organic farm. "It's amazing, to be able to be outside and get dirty and grow good food."
WSU has high hopes for its new organic-agriculture major, both to attract new students and meet a growing demand for experts in organic farming. In the new Organic Agriculture Systems major, students will study subjects like weed science and entomology, work on the organic farm and can specialize further in areas such as organic farm economics.
The major, announced last month, drew a handful of students immediately; a university study predicts the program eventually will have about 40 people enrolled at any one time.
John Reganold, the program's director and founder, is a widely published specialist in organic farming. A professor of soil science, Reganold came up with the idea for the program nearly four years ago. After he prepared a curriculum, the university worked on the idea for a year and conducted a study to see whether the major would attract enough students. It received final approval from the Higher Education Coordinating Board in early June.
Two other universities — Colorado State and Michigan State — have organic-agriculture programs but do not award degrees.
"There are so many areas of organic agriculture where we cannot keep up" with demand, Reganold said. "There is a demand by the organic industry for students coming out of college and having some experience with organic agriculture."
Bob Scowcroft, the executive director of the California-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, agrees.
"Growers and especially the bigger companies are looking for experienced organic farm managers [and] sales forces with some credentials," Scowcroft said, noting that the best-qualified graduates with organic expertise can now command six-figure salaries as farm managers or consultants.
Generally speaking, organic crops are grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals, and many believe organic food is more healthful. Many organic farms are small and privately owned, though agricultural businesses are increasingly growing organic food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets standards for food to be certified organic.
Organic agriculture is similar to but not identical to sustainable agriculture, which is not quite as stringent about synthetic chemicals but still focused on environmentally sensitive farming.
According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, in 2002, more than 15 million acres in Washington were devoted to farming — about 35 percent of the state. Of that, just under 12,000 acres were used to farm organic crops, though growth in the industry is believed to have boosted that number since then.
Reganold and others in the field have another hope for organic-farming programs — that they will persuade students who wouldn't ordinarily consider agriculture. This is important for agriculture professors — they say enrollment is sharply dropping, due largely to fewer students from farming backgrounds.
The future of farming
American agriculture is facing a demographic problem, said Rick Routh, interim director of the sustainable agriculture program at the University of California, Davis. The average farmer is around 55 years old.
"At the level of family-owned and -operated farms, we're getting to the level where people are getting close to retirement and aren't going to be replaced," Routh said.
Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU's College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, believes agriculture schools need to innovate in order to respond to those trends. He's championed programs to appeal to urban and suburban students — urban horticulture and landscaping.
"We are facing a consumer-driven agriculture," Bernardo said. "What this means is we're not just training farmers, we're training people to work at all levels of the food system. ... That's what this organic thing is about. The organic sector is the fastest-growing sector in the agricultural economy."
WSU student Will Hollingbery is another Organic Agriculture Systems major. Hollingbery grew up on an apple and pear orchard near Yakima, Wash., and went halfheartedly through three different majors before settling in organic agriculture. Something about organic farming grabbed him.
"I've seen how everyone farms around Yakima — no one pays attention to ... soil health. To me, that's what organic farming is," Hollingbery said. "It's not so much on yield, or money, but what's good for the land and good for the people who eat the food."
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