David Oien of Timeless Seeds has an immediate reaction when asked if the soils and agriculture departments at state universities have been helpful to organic farmers: "No!"
"But then again, the average (conventional) wheat farmer
would say the same thing," he says. "Institutions are behind the
curve. It’s not their job to lead. Their job is research.
"They are very sensitive to politics," he adds.
"That’s what happens when you have an institution that has to
beg the Legislature for money."
While the Legislature
provides some funding, companies such as Dow, Syngenta and Monsanto
fund most of the agricultural research that is done at land-grant
universities. These companies aren’t interested in
alternative farming methods.
"I’ve had letters to
my dean asking for my resignation," says Bruce Maxwell, a Montana
State University weed ecologist who is currently leading a study
comparing organic and conventional grain production. "They (people
in the industry) said I had no business promoting organic
agriculture. They’re threatened by it. And they should be."
Organic agriculture offers farmers a way out from under
the companies that profit from industrial farming methods. So
perhaps it’s no surprise that, according to the Santa
Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, only about 450 of
the 885,863 available research acres in the land-grant system are
devoted to certified organic research. Nor is it surprising that no
land-grant colleges offer an undergraduate degree in organic
Montana State has done a better job than
most, according to Perry Miller, an associate professor there who
specializes in diversified cropping systems. In 2005, Miller and
his colleagues received a $471,111 USDA grant to study dryland
organic crop agriculture, including crop rotation and how to best
control weeds. The university has also dedicated five acres of its
main research facility in Bozeman to organic production.
"Don’t underestimate that development," says Miller. "The
department took that five acres away from someone else and gave to
us. That’s a good sign." MSU currently offers no classes
focusing on organic or alternative agriculture, however.
"We need those classes," says Robert Boettcher, a longtime organic
farmer from Big Sandy. "There’s a lot of misinformation out
there on organic agriculture. They think it’s a bunch of
hippies, part of the 1960s. It isn’t that anymore. We can
talk ’til we’re blue in the face, but doing it at a
land grant (university) gives us credibility."
Ultimately, it may be the students who decide whether organics
become a part of the university curriculum. "One of the few areas
we’re seeing intense student interest is in sustainable and
organic agriculture," says Miller. "We need to serve those