A walk through the aisles of any supermarket will turn up dozens of organic items, from produce and dairy to meat and canned goods. With the organic foods industry growing by 20 percent a year since 1990—generating revenue of about $15 billion last year—Dr. Nancy Creamer is working to stock shelves with even more organic items for consumers.

As director of NC State’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Creamer oversees a 2,000-acre farm in Wayne County that studies agricultural methods that can be both profitable for farmers and beneficial to the environment and rural communities. “There’s a lot of potential to keep family farms and keep future generations in farming,” says Creamer, who grew up on a poultry farm before studying agriculture systems in India. “Organic farming is the one niche profitable enough that even an individual can do it.”

The CEFS farm, owned by the NC Department of Agriculture, has one of the most comprehensive organic research and education programs in the country, Creamer says. Before farmers can label their crops as organic, they must forgo conventional fertilizers and pesticides for three years and have a crop-rotation plan in place to maintain soil quality. She experiments with cover crops like rye and clover—other researchers study the use of compost or manure—to find alternative methods to fertilize the ground and control weeds while maintaining yields. “With conventional farming, you follow a recipe of applying chemicals at set times,” she says. “But there’s no cookbook for organic farming. You have to use knowledge of basic biology of crops and pests to succeed.”

Although organics grew out of the counterculture movement decades ago, little research had been conducted on the science behind the techniques until recent years, Creamer says. Plots on the CEFS farm are set aside to study and improve on systems developed by long-time organic farmers, such as investigating plants that attract beneficial insects, leaving cover crops as surface mulches to control weeds instead of tilling them into the soil, and using vegetative buffers to improve water quality. “There are billions of bacteria in the soil, and many have important roles we don’t understand yet,” she says. “We need to continue learning the biology of the soil to optimize the profitability of organic farming.”

For more information, please visit www.cefs.ncsu.edu/