Research and Results Beyond the Classroom
The Organic Agriculture Program, offering the most popular minor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, recently earned a perfect score for the quality and breadth of its teaching, research and outreach from a leading industry foundation that evaluated similar programs at land-grant universities nationwide.
The Student Sustainable Farm produce stand from the student-run organic garden is open Thursdays throughout the summer at the W.D. Holley Plant Environmental Research Center (630 West Lake Street) - more information.
"As the organic industry has grown from $7.4 billion in sales in 2001 to $28.6 billion in 2010, the Organic Farming Research Foundation has expected the land-grant university system to keep up the pace with increased investment in organic research, outreach and training opportunities," according to the foundation report.
The Interdisciplinary Minor in Organic Agriculture, established in 2005, exemplifies the university's sustainability focus. The Organic Agriculture Program benefits from frequent interaction with industry partners; from northern Colorado's vibrant farmers market scene; and from University resources, including expert faculty and gardens designed for teaching and research.
The minor had 41 students enrolled in fall 2012, with most majoring in horticulture or soil and crop sciences.
"We are pleased to offer a high-quality program that appeals to students while also advancing research and engagement in a dynamic sector of agriculture. It's rewarding to receive national recognition for this work," said Craig Beyrouty, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Students in the program said they picked the organic path because it focuses on raising food with a philosophy and practices that value long-term environmental sustainability.
This focus plays out as organic farmers and ranchers forgo synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, genetic engineering and added hormones. Instead, producers use naturally derived inputs and management strategies based on knowledge of complex land, water and food systems.
Consumer demand for organically produced goods has shown double-digit growth for more than a decade, providing market incentives for U.S. farmers across a broad range of products, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
Organic sales account for more than 3 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to recent industry statistics, the USDA-ERS reports.
There are 333 operations in Colorado that are listed as certified organic by the USDA National Organic Program. This includes farms, ranches, processors and handlers.
Of Colorado organic operations, 119 produced crops, livestock and poultry totaling more than $70 million in sales in 2011, according to the Certified Organic Production Survey released by USDA in October 2012.
Driving the sharp increase in nationwide sales of organic products is an exploding desire among consumers to understand the sources of their food and how it's produced.
Often in the camp of "locavores," these consumers crave fresh, delicious, healthy food that contributes to local economies - and is raised with sustainable practices that protect global environmental resources.
Overall, organics compose a tiny sector of the agricultural industry. Yet the sector is flourishing as consumers demonstrate their willingness to pay the higher costs of organically and often locally grown food.
"I believe we're all doing valuable work in agriculture. We all want to feed the world. In our program, we believe the organic approach is the best way to do that," said Keegan Athey, a junior majoring in soil and crop sciences with a minor in organic agriculture. Athey assists with research into cost-effective organic production methods for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, raspberries and other crops at the CSU Horticulture Field Research Center north of Fort Collins.
If you think organic agriculture is crunchy granola stuff, step into a couple classes in the CSU Organic Agriculture Program. There's a distinctly scientific focus.
"Our program provides students with a strong foundation in soils, pest management and crop production," said Frank Stonaker, assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture and co-coordinator of the Organic Agriculture Program.
"Adding to that strong scientific foundation, we're providing a rigorous understanding of organic agricultural production and the critical-thinking skills needed to objectively compare costs and to dissect perceptions," Stonaker said. "We want students to thoroughly consider whether organic agriculture is a viable answer, and if so, how to approach it."
Late last summer a group of students worked at the CSU Horticulture Field Research Center north of Fort Collins, where they helped conduct variety trials for specialty crops and assisted with research into viable strategies for increasing yields. Much of this research focuses on fresh-market tomato varieties, chiefly because tomatoes are the highest value crop grown for direct marketing to consumers.
The students pointed to cultivars including Cherokee Purple, Amish Paste, Arkansas Traveler, Striped German and Green Zebra - tomatoes as colorful as their names. The varieties were studied in a production system of tall trellising under high tunnels, a simple greenhouse system covered with screening that effectively extends the growing season and thwarts
Sara Kammlade, a graduate student in horticulture with a focus on organic agriculture, popped a tomato into her mouth.
"We love our jobs. There's something about caring for plants, raising them and harvesting them that's really fulfilling," she said. "Plus, we get to eat the fruits of our labor."
This story is abridged from work originally published in "Food For Thought", a College of Agricultural Sciences publication showcasing student research projects, collaborations, and engineering programs.
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