In a move that highlights the growing influence of organic agriculture in the state, the Oregon non-profit that issues USDA certification will help fund an organic Extension program at Oregon State University.
In academic circles, at least, the decision is significant. Oregon Tilth will provide $100,000 over four years to a new organic program within OSU’s Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems. The contribution matches OSU’s support for the program. A Dutch company, Vitalis Organic Seeds, also plans to provide financial support. Details of the company’s involvement were not immediately available.
Oregon State professors say multiple campus researchers are involved in organic crop trials or other projects, but the work is largely the result of individual professors pursuing their own interests. Conferring program status on organic work will bring all that research under the same umbrella, said Garry Stephenson, director of OSU’s small farms center.
“It also a recognition that some kinds of research need to be more specialized,” Stephenson said. “We have a lot of disciplines that are production-system neutral, but when it comes to other areas we need people who are more specialized in what are called biological approaches.”
Oregon Tilth Executive Director Chris Schreiner said the non-profit’s investment in the OSU program is a statement about the rising impact of organic agriculture.
“I think it absolutely is,” Schreiner said. “We wanted to send a message to the OSU administration that the organic sector wants and values an organic Extension program.”
The investment means Oregon Tilth “puts some skin in the game,” he said, and it may encourage involvement by for-profit businesses such as Vitalis.
The investment is recognition by organic producers that “land-grant universities, and Extension programs and Extension agents are really seen as a credible, valued source of expertise,” Schreiner said.
With demand for organic products outstripping supply, Oregon Tilth and other organizations are focused on helping more farmers transition to organic production and recognize the importance of a partnership with a land-grant university, he said.
Oregon Tilth, which has been around since 1979 and like OSU is based on Corvallis, has been informally involved and has provided funding to the university since 2009. The group certifies organic producers for the USDA.
The money primarily will support the salary of Nick Andrews, a small farms Extension agent based out of OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center.
Andrews said an advisory committee will guide the program’s development. He envisions four or five more faculty members eventually working on organic annual and perennial crop production, organic livestock, organic food systems and other specialties.
The joint venture comes as a new survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) showed farmers and ranchers sold $6.2 billion in organic products in 2015, a 13 percent increase over 2014.
California’s organic producers had sales of $2.4 billion in 2015, nearly 40 percent of the national total. Washington and Oregon were second and fourth in organic production, with sales of $626 million and $269 million, respectively. Pennsylvania was third.
Oregon State joins other land-grant universities that are putting increased emphasis on organic agriculture. North Carolina State has a Center for Environmental Farming Systems; the University of Minnesota established an Institute for Sustainable Agriculture; and U.C. Davis uses an Organic Farming Research Workgroup to coordinate its research and Extension work, according to the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Private universities also embrace organic agriculture. The Evergreen State College, an offbeat institution in Olympia, Wash., has had an organic farm since 1972 and produces food for the campus cafeteria. Evergreen students can enroll in a Practice of Organic Farming program.