By MATTHEW WEAVER
A $1 million grant will help researchers explore organic dryland cropping systems.
A research project in Pullman, Wash., began in 2003 to compare cropping systems in search of one that's environmentally and economically sustainable, said E. Patrick Fuerst, Washington State University assistant research professor and principal investigator.
The project recently received a $1 million grant from the USDA's Integrated Organic Program. The grant began Oct. 1.
Rich Koenig, chairman of the university's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, said the grant aims at dryland organic crops, but the techniques have application in conventional systems outside organic production.
"There's a small but growing demand for organic wheat and grain legumes," he said. "It would be fairly easy to overwhelm that market right now. We see this as an opportunity to fill a niche to meet a growing market."
Research includes weed control, soil fertility and the economics of growing wheat organically. Primary tools include the use of seven rotation crops, including alfalfa. Organic alfalfa is a "highly prized" commodity that would help growers' bottom lines when using the dryland cropping system, according to a WSU press release.
The focus has always involved a conservation tillage system, which is different from much organic farming, Fuerst said.
"We feel we have to minimize how much we disturb the soil, or it's just unsustainable in this area," he said.
Farm trials are planned in Washington, Oregon and Idaho for a four-year study in which extension service representatives assist growers in answering their questions, Fuerst said.
The grant is geared toward traditional Eastern Washington and Palouse dryland cropping systems, so it is heavily weighted toward wheat, winter and spring barley and grain legumes, Koenig said. Winter peas are being evaluated more as a green manure crop than a grain crop, he said.
Alternative crops like alfalfa are being examined for weed suppression and control.
"Part of it is understanding the ecology of the weeds -- why they grow where they grow and how different crops compete with them," Koenig said.
"This will really allow us to expand the project," he said. "We're learning a number of things along the way I think will help conventional production as well."
Principal investigators in the organic dryland cropping system research:
* Washington State University: E. Patrick Fuerst, Ian Burke, Byung-Kee Baik, Rich Koenig, Ann-Marie Fortuna and Jessica Goldberger
* University of Idaho: Kate Painter, Jodi Johnson-Maynard
* WSU Extension, Spokane County: Diana Roberts
* USDA-Agricultural Research Service: Dave Huggins
* Oregon State University: Stephen Machado