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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.

Photo of researchers

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 UCSC’s 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, single-issue problems.”

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. UCSC’s 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 Education Program.

“Over the years, we’ve done research that farmers want, and they’ve 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, ‘You’re crazy. You aren’t going to grow strawberries organically.’ Now, the USDA is saying, ‘This is important. It has to be done.’ It’s the farmers who took the risk.”

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 USDA’s 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 we’re used to. You probably won’t 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 Shennan.

The scope of the project reflects the importance of organic agriculture in the economy and UCSC’s 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 region’s $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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