The supermarket is changing. On the shelves next to familiar brands of bread, milk, and coffee, there are new brands of organic milk, organic bread, and organic coffee. Once dismissed as a fad, “organic” has entered the nation’s consciousness and marketplace.
To be sure, organic farming still represents a tiny fraction of the agricultural pie. Organic fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meats represent about $18.5 million per year in Oregon’s agricultural economy, while the whole value of that economy in 2004 was about $4.1 billion. Yet as consumers have become more sophisticated about food and more wary of pesticide residues, the market for certified organic products has grown by 20 percent or more each year since 1990.
The organic market may be a niche, but it is a profitable and growing niche that already has had a large influence on the nation’s agricultural community as a whole. The hard line between “organic” and “conventional” agriculture is getting softer. More and more, conventional farmers are adopting practices advocated by the organic-farming community to improve the health of their soil and cut down on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. And organic growers are developing large-scale, national marketing strategies that rival conventional food markets.
As the market for organic products has grown, so has research in organic methods, and that’s good news for all farmers, says Anita Azarenko, head of Oregon State University’s Department of Horticulture.
Azarenko is a pomologist—a scientist who studies fruit and nuts—and one of several OSU agriculture faculty who are researching ecologically based farming systems. The goal of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences has always been to bring rigorous research to bear on a wide variety of farming topics and problems. Azarenko and her colleagues are examining the whole spectrum of farming systems, from conventional to organic. “What’s more important than the labels,” she says, “is that we at the university are in a great position to help different farming systems learn from one another. All farmers are looking for better ways to grow better products for the marketplace, and our organic research is bringing new tools for that purpose.”
Before the advent of modern technology, all farming was “organic.” The modern organic-farming movement grew from the work of Sir Albert Howard, a British soil scientist working in India during the 1930s. He suggested that people who used composting extensively in their village farms grew better food and were generally healthier than those who didn’t. In the late 1940s, Howard formed a partnership with J.I. Rodale, the American founder of the magazine Organic Gardening. The methods they promoted—reliance on composting and rejection of chemical pesticides and fertilizer—appealed to home gardeners and small market farmers, but had little effect on commercial farming practices. This was at the beginning of the agribusiness era, when large farms, aided by petrochemical technology, were boosting agricultural output by leaps and bounds.
Then in the early 1960s, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring sparked widespread public concern about pesticide residues in food. Interest in “health foods,” including fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides, suddenly appeared, and all kinds of foods and supplements were being touted as “organic.” However, with no agreement on what “organic” meant, the market was ripe for hucksterism. In the early 1980s, organic farmers and advocates formed the group Oregon Tilth to learn more about organic agriculture and to develop standards for certifying local organic farmers. By the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began developing nationwide standards for organic growers and Oregon Tilth became the main certifying agency in Oregon for the USDA’s “organic” label.
Alongside the USDA certified- organic label, other certification systems assure consumers that food is being grown sustainably, if not strictly organically. One of these is the Food Alliance certification, which considers soil and water conservation, wildlife habitat, and fair labor practices. There is a strong and growing market for such certifications, according to Karla Chambers, co-owner of Stahlbush Island Farm in the Willamette Valley, whose land and processing plant are certified under both Oregon Tilth and the Food Alliance.
“The market is clearly differentiating between ‘conventional’ and ‘organic and sustainable’ foods,” Chambers says. “Remember that Oregon has seen closures of 22 conventional food processing plants since the early 1990s. Publicly traded companies that fall into the ‘natural foods’ category are trading 41 percent higher in the last year, while traditional food companies are trading 4 percent higher. Reading these markets clearly is important for growers in Oregon.”
Organic dairy farming has found particular success in the marketplace. Demand for organic milk, cheese, and yogurt is rising, and Oregon is one of the top three states in organic milk production, according to the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association.
Jon Bansen and his wife, Juli, operate Double J Jerseys, an organic dairy farm near Monmouth. The Bansens received USDA certification six years ago and now belong to a nationwide marketing cooperative, Organic Valley, through which they get a premium price for their products.
The essence of organic dairy farming, says Jon Bansen, is letting the cows get most of their nutrition from grazing rather than from supplemental grain, which many conventional dairy farmers use to boost milk production. “Grazing,” says Bansen, “gives you a level of cow health that makes the rest of it a piece of cake. When you have healthy cows, you don’t need antibiotics.” He moves his 200 cows to a different part of his 500-acre farm every 12 hours. This rotational grazing allows pastures to recover so the forage stays nutritious.
Bansen does supplement his cows’ diet with small amounts of high-protein feed, which helps the cow’s rumen bacteria digest the roughage. “But you supplement at a small level, and for her own health, not to increase milk production.” He adds: “We let our cows be cows—we don’t try to make them into milk machines.”
Even in small amounts, organically grown supplemental feed is expensive, because much of it comes from the Midwest or even South America. Mike Gamroth, OSU’s Extension dairy specialist, and researchers Steven Machado and Clint Shock are growing white lupine, soybeans, and field peas organically on plots at OSU’s branch experiment stations in Ontario and Pendleton. Gamroth hopes these high-protein legumes will help Oregon’s organic dairy farmers supplement their cows’ feed more economically.
Gamroth moved into the organic world in parallel with the Bansens. “I consulted with them when they were starting their operation, before they got certified as organic. Organic farming has taken off so quickly and has continued to grow, it became clear that we had to get research projects going and develop our Extension services.”
Gamroth believes there is much untapped potential in organic farming, particularly in producing organic meat. The studies of high-protein feed in eastern Oregon may be useful to farmers producing organic beef, pork, poultry, and eggs.
Another certification system is Low-input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE), modeled on a program in Switzerland and brought to Oregon by Carmo Vasconcelos, a viticulture specialist in the OSU horticulture department. LIVE restricts but does not ban pesticides and herbicides, and it requires cultivation practices that encourage beneficial insects and reduce soil erosion.
Ray and Pat Straughan use the LIVE system on their Helmick Hill Vineyard near Salem. “During the winter, we have full ground cover between our rows, so water coming off the vineyard is not going into the streams all murky and muddy,” says Straughan. “I can walk out there during the wintertime and see the runoff is almost clear.”
His wife, Pat, adds, “We have at least 15 different species of plants growing between our rows, not just grass. We joke with our friends: there’s a lot of biodiversity in our vineyard—other people call them weeds.”
Many of the methods used by organic growers are also used by conventional growers, according to Dan McGrath, chair of the Linn County office of OSU Extension and a specialist in the management of plant pests and diseases and soil fertility. “Progressive farmers across the spectrum have a common interest in maintaining soil health.” McGrath adds, “They know the benefits of reducing tillage, increasing organic matter in the soil, using winter cover crops, managing irrigation appropriately, and rotating crops.” OSU’s role, according to McGrath, is to test the effectiveness of these methods, as scientific inquiry not advocacy.
Because research into organic farming methods requires looking at the whole plant-soil-environment complex, it poses some challenges, according to Azarenko. “Organic farming methods can be tested by scientific inquiry,” she says, “but you have to consider the whole agro-ecosystem. It’s not variables.” Ever-improving computing technology and statistical methods are making such systems-focused research more practical and more reliable. And to support more rigorous study, there is more federal funding for organic-farming research than ever before.
The research at OSU does not set out to compare organic farming with conventional farming, says Azarenko. “We don’t try to address the question: which is better and which is worse? because that’s not useful. Rather, we’re asking ourselves and the farmers we’re working with: whatever system you choose to use, how can we help you move forward?”
Two of those farmers are John Eveland and his wife, Sally Brewer, who own Gathering Together Farm, a certified-organic operation in Philomath. “I’ve been very pleased with the way the university has been responding to organic farmers in the last few years,” Eveland says. “Take Al Mosely, OSU’s potato guy. Every year I’d call him up about my potatoes, and he was happy to share his wisdom. And Alex Stone [OSU Extension’s vegetable specialist]—her appointment to the horticulture department has been excellent for us. And Melodie Putnam [the College of Agricultural Sciences’ chief diagnostician of plant diseases]—that woman is a saint. Her expertise has been invaluable to my farm.”
These and other faculty in OSU’s organic-agricultural working group collaborate with organic farmers throughout the state to develop effective methods of organic agriculture. For example, Alex Stone and OSU colleagues Dan Sullivan, Paul Jepson, and Mario Ambrosino are embarking on a project to study organically grown potatoes. Potatoes are hard to grow without pesticides because they’re subject to “an armada of pests,” says Sullivan. Their study explores ways to help growers combat these pests without chemicals and also to improve soil fertility. Participating farmers will be full partners in the research—they will help form the hypotheses, design the experiments, install the studies on their own farms, and work with OSU to get the results out to fellow growers.
Azarenko, with OSU colleagues David Myrold, Russell Ingham, and Clark Seavert, has begun a three-year study comparing the living components of soils in organic, transitional, and conventional cherry orchards near Hood River. Here again the farmers are doing their own research with help from OSU.
In addition to developing sustainable farming methods shared by progressive farmers of all stripes, OSU researchers are developing new varieties of fruits and vegetables that lend themselves to organic methods. While varieties bred for conventional agriculture may produce adequately with organic methods, they often lack disease resistance or resilience against insect pests. OSU vegetable breeder Jim Myers is breeding vegetables for organic production systems, including late-blight-resistant tomatoes, a resilient summer squash, and an open-pollinated broccoli, all through methods of traditional plant breeding in organically managed plots.
What will agriculture look like in another decade or two? “There are organic principles that you can use as a conventional farmer or as an organic farmer,” Eveland says, “and either way, you’re a wise steward of the land. Many of us organic farmers have grown from two acres, and two old hippies out pulling weeds, to more sophisticated operations. The knowledge we’ve gained of conventional farming—equipment needs, economies of scale—has been useful to us. It’s helping us all move toward being better farmers,” he says.