Daily News Archive
From June 20, 2006                                                                                                        

Washington is the First State With an Organic Farming Degree
(Beyond Pesticides, June 20, 2006) The state of Washington recently approved a proposal submitted by Washington State University to create the nation’s first organic farming degree program. According to Washington State University Soils professor, John Reganold, interest in traditional agricultural degree programs are waning, primarily due to the declining number of family farms and because many farm kids were seeking better-paying careers. However, interest in organic farming has been rising, even among students who were not raised on farms.

In an effort to respond to this increased interest, the professor submitted a proposal that received no opposition, which included traditional big agricultural groups. According to Ray Folwell, associate dean at the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources, "There was no resistance to it,” because as Mr. Folwell continued, "It's a hot topic."

Once considered a niche market with questionable economics, organic farming is the fastest growing and most profitable field in agriculture, and demand for food produced without hormones, pesticides or other chemicals is exploding. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sales of organic food and beverages increased from less than $4 billion a year in 1997 to $13.8 billion in 2005. The OTA also stated that organics were 2.5 percent of all food and drink sales nationwide, but have been growing 20 percent per year since 1990. To respond to consumer demand, retailers are expanding their organic food sections, but this expansion also creates a demand for people to work in the field. Currently, Wal-Mart is the largest buyer of organic foods and the corporation said that they are also developing additional organic products.

Washington State University’s new program will help the organic industry by finding the workers to grow, process, market and certify organic foods. The organic farming community applauds this move because they have been suffering due to the lack of trained workers. Jake Lewin of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) said "As an organization that hires people with organic agriculture experience, I see it certainly as significant." Made up of 1,300 different businesses, the CCOF also sees the degree program as an opportunity in helping to legitimize organic farming. Mr. Lewin continued, until now, organic farming courses were piecemeal.

The university’s history with organic spans three decades of pioneering research on organic farming and they own an organic research farm (See Daily News). Aside from the program at Washington State University, a university in Canada and one in Wales are the only ones in the world with organic degrees. Michigan State University and Colorado State are on the verge of trying to offer organic degrees also.

Considered a Democrat-leaning state where many of its citizens are environmentally aware, an organic farming degree is a natural for Washington. The state currently has 597 organic farms and lots of farmers markets and organic food stores and school districts with organic food policies (See Daily News). Stephen Jones, a Washington State University wheat breeder, recently received a $680,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop wheat varieties suited for organic agriculture systems. Mr. Jones said, "There's a tremendous demand for organic wheat." For the past five years, Mr. Jones has been crossing modern wheat varieties with 163 varieties grown from the 1840s to the 1950s, a period of time preceding the use of nitrogen fertilizers and other chemicals.

It is unclear how large the organic farming program will become, in part because the chemistry and other science classes required may be too daunting for some students, said Mr. Regnold. The new Organic Agriculture Systems major is expected to appeal not only to aspiring farmers, but also to people interested in related industries, such as global marketing, direct marketing or organic food, said Cathy Perillo, coordinator of the new degree program. Graduates in organic farming can also expect to be hired by grocery and restaurant chains.

The new coordinator continued, "There's quite a bit of industry interest in the new degree, too." Ms. Perillo continued, "Large corporations increasingly interested in meeting the nation's growing appetite for organic foods are seeking employees who understand organic agriculture systems, which are significantly different than conventional agriculture." Organic agriculture is attractive for several reasons. It does not use expensive fertilizers and other chemicals, it is perceived as healthier to eat, and it produces less stress on farmland, Mr. Reganold said.

Mr. Reganold believes organic farming will always be in the minority, however he also believes it can grow to 20 percent of the food grown. But it can be more complicated to grow a viable crop, requiring more education for the farmer and often-higher labor costs. "You can't just spray. You've got to plan ahead," Mr. Reganold said. "A lot of people don't know how to do it." Now they can because the education is available.