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April 15, 2002

University of California's organic agriculture research gets boost

By Lyra Halprin

Organic agriculture is the main beneficiary of the largest private grant ever awarded to the University of California's sustainable agriculture program. The Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation has awarded the statewide UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program [SAREP] $450,000 to support four county-level programs for California organic farming and soil health research and extension.

Registered organic acreage in the state has more than doubled since 1998, said Sean Swezey, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program director and associate director of UCSC's Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems.
"We are gratified to be able to use these funds to work with local UC Cooperative Extension [UCCE] offices on organic farming in Marin, Humboldt, Stanislaus and Ventura counties," said Sean L. Swezey, SAREP director. "This is the largest grant SAREP has received from a private foundation in its 15 years of existence."

Swezey said a grant will be made to Marin County Cooperative Extension Director Ellie Rilla to fund an organic and sustainable agriculture coordinator who will work with an advisory committee. Rilla will also be able to fund a local farm advisor, the Marin Organic Board and other community members to assist farmers and ranchers with business plans focusing on the transition to organic practices and marketing.

In Humboldt County, a grant to UCCE County Director Deborah Giraud will fund a new organic farming researcher who will work with county farm advisors on research and education projects. A grant to Phil Osterli, Stanislaus County Cooperative Extension director emeritus, will fund a researcher to develop information on soil health and compost science for "transitional" and organic farmers. Additionally, a matching grant to Ventura County UCCE Director Larry Yee will be used to organize a research and extension program to support local organic farming production and marketing.

"The intent of the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation grant is to increase knowledge and information about organic farming systems. It also includes support for commodity-specific organic production manuals and a University of California scientific conference on organic farming research in the near future," said Swezey. "The Heller Foundation has shown great leadership in funding this, which will allow us to more fully integrate SAREP with statewide county programs."

Organic farming is growing in importance internationally, nationally and in California, Swezey said. European Union members spend an estimated $4.5 billion on organic products and Japanese consumption approaches $2 billion per year, according to reports. In 2000 the U.S. market for organic products was over $6 billion, up from $78 million in 1980, Swezey said.

Swezey noted that preliminary data from the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Organic Program show registered organic acreage in the state has more than doubled since 1998 to more than 170,000 acres. Records also show that declared sales value of organic agricultural products was more than $250 million in 2000, and that more than 2,200 organic growers were registered with their county agricultural commissioners in 2001. Organic agriculture has shown an estimated 20 percent per year increase over the last five years, Swezey said.

"If organic acreage growth rates of 10 to 20 percent per year continue, as much as 10 percent of California's cropland acreage could be organic by 2025," Swezey said. "We believe the Heller Foundation grant will assist us in our efforts to help growers with knowledge to improve organic yields, pest control, soil health and to stabilize income.

"We're pleased to see the Heller Foundation step forward and underwrite organic research," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, a national organization based in Santa Cruz that represents organic farmers. "This research will have environmental, agricultural and consumer benefits for all of California."

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