September 6, 2004
USDA grant funds UCSC research with organic farmers
Strawberry and vegetable producers collaborate
with UCSC as methyl bromide ban looms
By Jennifer McNulty
With organic agriculture poised to represent 10 to 20 percent of California
cropland by 2024, the federal government has tapped UCSC to lead a research
program that will give organic farmers the same kind of boost the university
has given conventional farmers for decades.
UCSC researchers, from left, Sean Swezey, Stephen Gliessman,
Joji Muramoto, and Carol Shennan are collaborating with organic
farmers, including Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farms.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded UCSCs Environmental
Studies Department a $571,000 grant over four years to bolster scientific
knowledge about organic systems and to strengthen the Central Coast
network of organic farmers and agricultural researchers. The grant period
begins September 15.
In collaboration with farmers, agroecology researchers at UCSC have
pioneered organic production methods for strawberries and other important
regional crops. This project will build on those successes and prepare
the organic industry for continued rapid growth by developing baseline
nutrient management tools and addressing stubborn challenges, such as
soil pathogens and pest management.
Conventional farmers have decades worth of research to draw on,
while organic growers have very little scientific data to rely on,
said environmental studies professor Carol Shennan, director of the
UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) and
one of four UCSC leaders of the project. Organic production is
a complex system that integrates soil fertility, crop rotation, water
management, and pest and disease control. It requires a systems approach,
but agricultural research has historically tended to focus on narrow,
The grant will fund a series of coordinated experiments at multiple
locations designed to give farmers hands-on information. The results
will be dispersed throughout the farming community with the help of
organizations such as California Certified Organic Farmers, the Organic
Farming Research Foundation, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers,
and the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association. UCSCs
research team will be made up of Shennan, environmental studies professor
Stephen Gliessman, research associate Joji Muramoto, and entomologist
Sean Swezey, who directs the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and
Over the years, weve done research that farmers want, and
theyve had a role in directing it, said Gliessman, the Alfred
E. Heller Professor of Agroecology. Our job is to take their problems
and do the research they need to solve those problems.
Gliessman recalls the skepticism that greeted early collaborations.
When we started this work 17 years ago with Jim Cochran of Swanton
Berry Farms, people said, Youre crazy. You arent going
to grow strawberries organically. Now, the USDA is saying, This
is important. It has to be done. Its the farmers who took
Cochran will be joined by other experienced organic growers who will
participate in the study, including Daniel Schmida of Sandpiper Farms
and Steve Pedersen of High Ground Organics. Landowner Robert Stephens
has also set aside a portion of his acreage at Elkhorn Ranch for use
in the study. In addition, research will be conducted on the 25-acre
UCSC Farm. Representatives from UC Cooperative Extension offices in
Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and
Ventura Counties will participate, as well as a scientist from the USDAs
Agricultural Research Station in Salinas and an agricultural economist
from UC Davis.
The grant will enable researchers to take their work to a new level
and test the limits of monoculture farming, said Gliessman. We
want to redesign the system to better resist disease, he said.
It may turn out to look very different from what were used
to. You probably wont see acre after acre of organic strawberries.
You may see a patchwork of strawberries and other crops, because monoculture
brings problems. We need to build on the strengths of diversity.
By conducting multiple replicated trials on organic farms, researchers
will assess the effects of crop rotations and different fertility, disease,
and pest management strategies on yields, soil quality, weeds, pests,
and soil pathogens.
Experiments will focus on:
Testing biological alternatives to methyl bromide to suppress
Verticillium dahliae, a soil pathogen that poses the greatest
threat for organic strawberry production in the state. Anaerobic decomposition
of cover crop residues and biofumigation with Brassicas will
be evaluated. Given the upcoming ban on methyl bromide, such experiments
may be of value to conventional farmers, as well.
Developing tools to help organic farmers monitor changes in
soil nutrient levels, or what goes in and what comes out,
as Shennan put it. Researchers will analyze the nutrient value of soil
amendments, including cover crops, commercial composts, and fish emulsion
fertilizer, and document what nutrients are removed when the crop is
harvested. They will also develop plant tissue nitrogen tests so farmers
can assess how well their fertility management is working, said Shennan.
Building a database of their findings will give farmers a powerful resource
to draw on that will supplement their own soil tests, she said.
Use of organic pest control to combat pests that prey on strawberries.
Vacuum devices and an alfalfa trap crop will be tested against the western
tarnished plant bug, and researchers will evaluate the movement and
effectiveness of beneficial insects introduced into or near the trap
crop vegetation. Researchers will also assess the value of native-plant
hedgerows in attracting beneficial insects that prey on crop predators.
Applicability of three models to simulate how management changes
could impact crop harvests, soil nitrogen availability, and the movement
of nutrients under a range of weather conditions and for different types
of soils. If any model works well for predicting farming outcomes in
this area, it could be used to help farmers make decisions about crop
rotations, cover crop use, and management of fertility inputs, said
The scope of the project reflects the importance of organic agriculture
in the economy and UCSCs role supporting organic farmers, said
Shennan. The Central Coast is well known for its high concentration
of organic farms, and many producers have benefitted from partnerships
with UCSC researchers and UC Cooperative Extension specialists.
In Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, more than $140 million, or 6 percent,
of the regions $2 billion vegetable production in 2001 was certified
organic, according to Shennan, and the two counties generated more than
$400 million gross value in strawberries. The California organic agriculture
industry has grown quickly, producing sales of $340 million in 2003,
according to the California Department of Agriculture Organic Program.
The state produces nearly half of the total organic vegetables certified
in the United States; strawberries are the most lucrative organic commodity
in the state on a per acre basis, valued at $17.5 million.
Organic farmers face the same production challenges as conventional
growers, but the research community has overlooked their needs,
said Shennan. With one of the oldest university-based organic
research and training programs in the world and one of the pioneering
academic programs in agroecology, UCSC is in a good position to help
fill in the gaps of scientific knowledge.
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