Milestone: Ohio State fields certified organic

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WOOSTER, Ohio – Three Ohio State University farm fields recently earned organic certification, a milestone placing the university in select company.

Only a few other U.S. land-grant universities, Iowa State and North Carolina State among them, have certified organic research land.

The fields, near the Wooster campus of Ohio State’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, comprise about 14 acres.

OARDC’s Organic Food and Farm Education and Research program – established in 1998 to study organic farming, one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture – conducts experiments on and manages the land.

Relevant research. “For organic farmers, our certification means we’re playing by the same rules they have to, which makes our research much more relevant to them,” said Debbie Stinner, program coordinator.

“From a research perspective, it means that we’re forced to learn the full production context that our stakeholders are contending with and that we can ethically and legally report our research as being ‘organic,'” she said.

It also means that the scientists involved in this research are becoming much more informed about the new organic standards and what producing organic foods really entails.

“Putting this land through organic transition hasn’t been easy or pretty. We’ve gained a real understanding of the psychological stress many farmers report as they go through transition,” Stinner said.

Growing segment. According to the USDA, the number of organic farmers is increasing by about 12 percent a year and now stands at about 12,200 nationwide, most of them small-scale producers.

The U.S. Organic Food Market Report said organic food sales reached $7.8 billion in 2000, a 20 percent increase over 1999.

Certification. Farmers who wish to sell crops or livestock and label them as organic must be certified. In Ohio, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and the Organic Crop Improvement Association handle the process.

Among other things, certification requires that prohibited pesticides and fertilizers not be used for at least three years prior to applying for certification.

Also required are various soil-improvement, pest-management and crop-handling practices, an inspection, and extensive recordkeeping by the farmer – or in this case, the researchers.

Until now, all of Ohio State’s fields in the organic program have been classified as “transitional organic,” meaning organic methods are used but the fields aren’t yet eligible for certification.

Experiments in the certified fields, located at OARDC’s West Badger Farm, employ a basic organic field-crop rotation of corn, soybeans, small grains and hay. Management issues, including weed control, tillage and fertility, are a focus.

Stinner said most of the rest of the West Badger fields, comprising another 14 acres, will be eligible for certification later this year. Five to 6 acres of research land elsewhere in Ohio may be certified by 2004.

Besides field and cover crops, potatoes, strawberries, and processing cabbage and tomatoes are being studied.

“A long-term goal of our research is to find ways to ease the typically painful transition process,” she said. “We haven’t reached that goal yet, and our own transition has been no less painful than anyone else’s. But we’re learning a lot about the process along the way that we’ll be able to share.”

Organic conference. Stinner will discuss the program’s findings at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s annual conference, March 9-10 in Johnstown, Ohio.

For more information contact the association at 614-421-2022, oeffa@iwaynet.net or go to www.oeffa.com/conference.html.

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