PERSPECTIVES Summer 2000: Inside Story
Perspectives On Line

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Photo by Herman Lankford




































Photo by Herman Lankford

On Higher Ground


Photo by Herman Lankford

his has been a summer of new beginnings for the Organic Unit at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Goldsboro. After two hurricanes — Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999 — sent flood waters from the Neuse River into the fields of organic crops, it was time for a change.

This summer, the unit moved to a new site on higher ground at CEFS, a five-year-old research program in sustainable agricultural systems operated through a partnership of N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Fifteen acres of organic crops were developed this summer at the new site, which ultimately will provide 40 acres for organic research and education.

Organic farming essentially entails a production system that avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides and other synthetic additives.

The new site must use organic farming methods for three years before produce grown there can be certified as organic by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. An additional 40 acres are in transition to organic at CEFS as part of a large-scale cropping systems research project.

In addition, there were some extra hands to help at the unit this summer, thanks to a new internship in sustainable agriculture, sponsored by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Higher Education Challenge Grant, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Sixteen students from N.C. State and universities across the country participated in the program, which involved class-room instruction, project work and lots of hands-on farming experience.

Photo by Herman Lankford

Alternative for the future

As agriculture changes in North Carolina and other areas, organic farming is providing a high-value alternative to traditional crops. In fact, organic production is the fastest growing agricultural sector, expanding at the rate of 20 percent a year.

In North Carolina alone, the number of certified organic growers has quadrupled to 100 in the past four years, according to Nancy Creamer, assistant professor, horticultural science. And there are other organic growers in the state whose operations have not been certified.

The Organic Unit at CEFS is the largest of its kind in the country, and it offers hope to a growing industry hungry for information, Creamer said.

“Historically, there has been little research on organics,” she said. “Growers have developed a lot of practices on their own. But understanding more about the biological processes taking place in the soil and plant environment will help organic farmers further develop and enhance their production systems.”

One of the biggest problems for farmers who change over from traditional to organic production is how to make the transition economically. During the first three to four years of transition to an organic production system, yields often decline until the addition of organic matter and other practices enhance nutrient cycling and the biological control properties of the system. Ten researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are investigating six different strategies for making the transition to organic production systems less costly.

The unit also is involved in research into cover crops used in organic systems to suppress weed growth and enhance soil nutrients. Composting, variety trials and economic analyses are other areas of research at the Organic Unit.

Reaching out to growers

In addition to research endeavors, the unit is reaching out to growers through Extension education. A graduate-level course with lots of hands-on training has been offered to teach N.C. Cooperative Extension agents about organic production.

“A lot of Extension people are interested in this because they’re getting lots of questions about organics in their counties, and they want to be comfortable with organic production practices,” Creamer said.

The unit has hosted field days to update growers on new practices that research has uncovered. This year’s field day in July attracted 150 growers and others who learned about beneficial insects in organic cropping systems, summer cover crop mixtures, tillage tools for weed control, assessing the impacts of organic farming on water quality and more.

At a gathering of CEFS researchers and partners last year, Sampson County grower Stefan Hartmann, who has been in organic farming for 15 years, described how important it was for growers to have a site like CEFS to observe organic practices. “CEFS gave us a place to go see organic farming. Before this, we had to develop methods by trial and error,” he said.

Learning experiences

The 16 summer interns in sustainable agriculture were among those participating in the July field day program. Interns created medicinal and culinary herb gardens and a butterfly garden for the event and participated in other demonstration projects.

The field day marked the end of a very busy summer for the interns, who took part in the eight-week program to earn six credits toward their degrees. Different activities on each day of the week gave the students a wide range of experiences related to sustainable agriculture.

Mondays were classroom lecture days. About 20 to 30 faculty members from N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University conducted classes on topics ranging from vegetable production to agro-forestry. On Wednesdays, the students visited an agriculture operation related to the study topic for that week.

“They visited farms that were organic, but they also visited farms that were doing things in a progressive way. We wanted to show that it is important for practices to be economically viable as well as environmentally sound,” said Keith Baldwin, Extension associate in horticultural science, who coordinated the internship program.

Tuesdays and Thursdays were production days when the students worked on the fields. Their dormitory adjacent to the organic unit wasn’t elegant, but provided easy access to the work site. At first, the students started field work after 8 a.m. But they quickly learned that the best time to work on a North Carolina summer day was at 6 a.m., ending the day by mid-afternoon.

Each student was responsible for participating in an on-going research project or a demonstration project, such as developing the gardens. Rachel Herr, a natural resources major from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, worked on a water quality study that involved ditch sampling, well monitoring and riparian buffer monitoring.

“This gave me the chance to work on non-point-source water quality. I don’t come from a farm, so this gave me a whole new perspective on how farming is done,” she said.

On Fridays, interns spent early morning hours harvesting produce that they sold at lunch time on the N.C. State brickyard. University employees lined up each week to purchase organically grown tomatoes, potatoes, corn, peppers, squash, cut flowers and sunflowers. “That’s been a good experience — learning direct marketing techniques,” Baldwin said.

The interns also sold produce to three dining operations at N.C. State, including the student athletes’ training table.

Students came to the intern program from universities across the country and for very different reasons. Reggie Severin of Dominica, an agribusiness major from Cameron University in Oklahoma, wanted to learn more about organic production. “We are looking for alternative, sustainable practices to add value to our main crop, bananas, and that includes organics,” he said.

James Goodman, an agribusiness major at Louisiana State University, said the course caught his attention because “I wanted to get the hands-on training I couldn’t get in class,” he said. “In this program, I learned about realistic problems — getting an organic operation certified, dealing with parasites in goats and marketing produce.”

Next year the program may spread the classroom portion across several afternoons to allow more morning time in the fields, Baldwin said. USDA funding for the project will continue next year, and he hopes to enroll 20 to 25 interns in the program, helped by positive feedback from this year’s group.

Baldwin noted, “They felt that the group experience of rolling out of bed and working together in the field, then having produce to share at the end of the day was also worthwhile.”

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