Land Grant Universities Tilling Old Soil with New Methods

Washington State University (WSU) and Cornell University are two of the large, landed schools leading the way in the advancement of alternative models of agriculture. With the establishment of university farms, academic programs, and scientific research projects, organic and sustainable food production in both Washington state and New York are receiving a boost as these colleges provide new opportunities for students looking to get their hands dirty.

Both programs emphasize teaching and have farms that students work at in order to gain the hands-on experience necessary in a subject where learning is achieved by doing. In 2007, WSU rolled out its newly minted major in Organic Agriculture Systems, offering students comprehensive coursework and practical experience to prepare them for work in the emerging organic sector.

The research and development of organic and sustainable agriculture by land grant universities is not as widespread as the established programs that benefit conventional agriculture. However, a movement towards alternative food production systems in university curricula is picking up steam. According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, there are 11 other land grant universities that have instituted programs related to the research and development of sustainable agriculture. Additionally, as of 2006, there are four universities offering either a major or a certificate program in organic agriculture: Michigan State University, University of Florida, Colorado State University, and Washington State University.

Through the Morrill Act of 1862, Congress mandated certain institutions be designated land grant universities with the duty of promoting liberal and practical education among the agricultural and mechanical trades. As the 20th century progressed, agriculture evolved from an occupation practiced by many small farmers to a highly mechanized endeavor encompassing fewer producers on more acres. The land grant university contributed to this shift through research that led to the dramatic improvement of crop yields through seed hybridization and the development of effective pesticides and powerful fertilizers after World War II.

However, as concern over the climate grows and sustainability gains adherents, some schools are scaling down (not back), moving towards a smaller farming model that emphasizes local food distribution and growing with low or no chemical inputs. According to Cornell’s Small Farms Program, the emphasis on “small” is intended to spread risk and create a more robust food system, avoiding the monocrops that currently rule the American and global food system.

Dr. Rich Koenig, department chair of the Crop and Soils Department at WSU, sees the offering of an organic agriculture major and the even more popular certificate program (which is similar to a minor) as fulfilling the duties of the land grant university and responding to the growing demand for education in the area of organics.

“Some conventional farms are adding organic components to their operations in response to the fast-growing organic sector, and we are helping to meet the needs of these family farms in Washington,” says Koenig.

The dividing line between sustainable and organic agricutlure is that organic agriculture is now–thanks to the National Organic Program standards passed by Congress in 2002–a USDA-regulated certification. Some of the most pertinent regulations of USDA-certified organic agricultural products include growing without the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, most chemical pesticides, antibiotics and hormones (in livestock production), and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The regulations found in organic agriculture fit general descriptions of sustainable agriculture as well. However, unlike organic agriculture, sustainable farms do not pay to have a certification. Because there tends to be a local nature of food distribution in sustainable agriculture, some farmers do not feel the need to pay for a certification because their customers either know how they grow, or can ask farmers how they grow. Phrases such as “no spray” and “pesticide-free” are commonly found at farmers markets, for example, and comply with the organic labeling laws of the USDA by not claiming to be “organic.”

Both of these types of farming focus on the ecological aspects of building up healthy soils and utilizing preventative pest management tactics to ensure a farm or ranch requires as little off-farm inputs as possible. Additionally, both organic and sustainable agricultural systems offer alternatives to the large-scale, industrial model of agriculture that currently dominates the food system.

According to the EPA, in 2006, agriculture was estimated to be responsible for nine percent of the GHGs emitted in the United States. To mitigate some of the CO2 emissions coming from crops in conventional production, the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at WSU is researching ways to make agriculture a net carbon sink, rather than net carbon emitter, through its Climate Friendly Farming Research and Demonstration Project. This project was initiated to better understand how to reduce agricultural GHG emissions in dairy production, irrigated crop farming, and dryland grain farming, as well as improve the capacity of agricultural soils to sequester carbon.

At Cornell, the 3-acre Dilmun Hill Student Farm provides an opportunity to gain hands-on experience for students looking to learn more about alternative methods of agriculture. Weeding, transplanting, harvesting, and planning are all in a day’s work to maintain the farm.

Additionally, the student farm provides a place for students to conduct their own experimental research in organic and sustainable agriculture, helping to advance the field one project at a time. Some projects that Cornell students have organized include a study concerning how beneficial insects are affected by certain types of ground covers in between crop rows and a study evaluating the nutritional content of the farm’s organic soils.

Such programs are still in their infancy, however. Washington State University’s new degree program has about 15 students. Koenig says, “The number of students enrolled in the major is outstanding considering it has only been offered for two years. And interest in it only continues to grow.”

Haley Paul works at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, whose mission is to improve lives, communities, and the economy. She specializes in water resources and urban agriculture. Haley holds an M.S. in Sustainability from Arizona State University.

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Published: September 15, 2009