Universities lag on organics

  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 agriculture.

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 students."