Perspectives Online

College Profile. Sustainable agriculture expert Nancy Creamer leads in celebrating a decade of CEFS programming. By Art Latham.

Dr. Nancy Creamer
Photo by Daniel Kim

Growing up in mountain-ringed, sprinkler and ditch-irrigated San Jacinto Valley of southern California, Dr. Nancy Creamer did ranch chores: With 80,000 laying hens on her father's 20-acre poultry farm, somebody had to.

She and her two brothers worked after school and fulltime in the summers, or when her dad needed larger crews vaccinating chickens and such, says Creamer, now associate professor of horticultural science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

She is also director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), the 2,000-acre interdisciplinary farm near Goldsboro, where researchers compile long-term, large-scale systems data to help develop profitable, diverse, environmentally friendly agricultural systems that enhance our rural communities.

Recalling her California youth, Creamer says, "It was an agricultural community, so a lot of the kids were working on farms. It was expected and my Dad paid me, so that was nice. Besides, I like being outdoors, and agricultural work gave me a chance to do that."

Nancy Creamer (left), director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, confers with Susan Mellage, project manager for N.C. CHOICES, a project to help farmers market certified organic pork products directly to consumers.
Photo by Daniel Kim
But despite the decent spending money she earned doing agricultural work, after graduating from high school, Creamer decided to expand her horizons. "Not that I was anti-agriculture," she says. "I just wanted to try something else."

At first, she gravitated from agriculture to people, earning a 1979 bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

But her next step was a sea change, a voyage back to agriculture she's continued ever since.

Creamer signed on for the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea, visiting the Philippines, China, Indian, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, Jamaica - "places where food and hunger were really important, so I decided to go into agriculture," she says.

And the more she studied, the more her focus shifted to sustainable agriculture.

"My courses in international agriculture taught me that the causes of hunger weren't so much production-related, but were often related to poverty and the lack of buying power, distribution problems and such," she says. "And learning about some of the issues in U.S. agriculture - some of the policy decisions we make, declining number of farmers, impacts on the environment, energy - made me want to address them."

A 1984 master's in international agriculture development with a certificate in crop science from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and an International Rotary Scholarship landed her at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India, for a year, where she studied crop production.

"It's possible that it's easier to farm organically now, given the cumulative experience that has been gained by farmers," says Creamer, who is launching a "Friends of CEFS" organization for program development and fund raising.
Photo by Daniel Kim
"I ended up living with an extension agent and her family. Their extension program is modeled on ours. My project was focused on extension there, so it worked out well," she says.

After completing the degree, she served as program coordinator and farm manager of the Sustainable Agriculture Program/Student Experimental Farm at the University of California-Davis.

In 1994, continuing her travels, in a manner of speaking, she was awarded a Ph.D. in horticultural science from The Ohio State University.

She joined the College's Horticultural Science Department in 1995 as an assistant professor and Extension specialist, working first at the Tidewater Research Station near Plymouth as a potato specialist.

But in 1997, she joined Drs. Paul Mueller and Mike Linker at CEFS as the organic unit's coordinator. In 2000, she was named an associate professor and CEFS director.

Creamer, whose research focuses on long-term organic vegetable crop management and cover crop suppression of weeds, believes in spreading the word about organic systems, especially as they apply to North Carolina.

CEFS, she notes on the farm's Web page, represents a new model that combines research, extension, education and broad stakeholder involvement. With five sub-units - farming systems research, pasture-based dairy and beef, organic systems, conservation tillage and a newly developed alternative swine unit - CEFS also hosts an intensive sustainable agriculture college credit internship program.

For her work in holding these sometimes disparate interests together, a major sustainable agriculture organization's Web site recently called Creamer "a leader of the North Carolina State University organic transition experiment, comparing a range of organic systems, [who] has benefited from the cumulative knowledge gained from the last two decades of organic farming research."

The USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program's Internet entry on transitioning to organic production also says, "Based on past research results, Creamer and her colleagues started their rotation with soybeans instead of corn and applied principles of organic weed management to achieve relatively weed-free fields." (SARE is a cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service component.)

"It's possible that it's easier to farm organically now, given the cumulative experience that has been gained by farmers over the years," notes Creamer.

"By designing research based on results from earlier studies," the SARE report continues, "Creamer and others have shown that is possible to make the transition with minimal production losses. By preparing the land, building soil, focusing on the right crops and rotation, and not putting too much acreage or too many animals into production, farmers can minimize what has come to be known as the 'transition effect.' Creamer and her colleagues' study, for example, showed that with good weed management, soybean yields can equal those of conventional beans during the first year of a transition."

But although settled in a challenging job she loves, Creamer isn't through traveling. Just recently, having returned from the 15th International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements World Congress and the International Scientific Society of Organic Agriculture's research conference in Adelaide, Australia, she expressed her continued excitement about CEFS's ongoing work in organic agriculture.

"One conference result is that CEFS has been invited to submit a paper on our long-term research trial for a book under way by the group," Creamer says.

An upcoming project she'll have to write about is a joint facility with Wayne County's Cooperative Extension Center, the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Cherry Research Farm. Another is the swine housing in a planned production experiment of antibiotic-free pork with Drs. Morgan Morrow and Eric van Heugten of the College's Animal Sciences Department.

In addition, Creamer and the farm's personnel are planning an upcoming anniversary celebration. The May 9 kickoff for "A Season Of Sustainable Agriculture: Celebrating Ten Years of Programming at CEFS" will include a dedication of the new alternative swine unit.

The celebration includes focused educational events over the summer and a fall event.

And the CEFS-initiated, Kellogg Foundation-funded North Carolina Choices program has launched a new Web site designed to connect North Carolina consumers with local independent hog farmers using alternative production practices. Viewers can find a local farmer producing pasture-raised and/or antibiotic-free pork; consumers can learn how to support local farmers.

Part of the Kellogg grant includes numerous networking meetings, time-consuming, but crucial, Creamer says.

Despite her busy travel schedule, she finds time for other activities, one of which is investing in CEFS' future.

"We have been busy with the 'development' side of CEFS," she says. "Final documents are in process to formally set up a 'Friends of CEFS' organization and establish an advisory board, which will assist and guide us with fund raising, outreach and program development. Both groups will be launched at the anniversary celebration."

And Creamer will be right in the middle of it all. You can bet the farm on that.