The University of California is designating 10 acres at the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, for organic research.
The three-year transition period needed to meet organic standards began this winter.
"We are committed to serving the research needs of all segments of agriculture," said Fred Swanson, director of the Kearney REC. "Organic agriculture is an area of increasing interest and economic value to California agriculture, and we are there to provide science-based information to help growers make important production decisions."
Organic agriculture is essentially the production of crops without using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the National Organic Program, which governs all aspects of organic production, processing, delivery and sale.
Farmers who wish to use the term "organic" must follow regulations that meet the federal organic standards, and the farm must be certified by a designated agency, such as California Certified Organic Farmers. Among the standards are the use of environmentally friendly farming techniques defined by the program and the prohibition of genetically modified plants.
California organic farmers have enjoyed steady sales growth in recent years, according to Karen Klonsky, UC Cooperative Extension agricultural economist at UC Davis. In 2005, organic farmers took in $530 million, an increase of nearly 200 percent since 1998.
Small-scale farmers are attracted to organic production in part because of the premium prices that consumers pay for organic food. Small farmers need a lucrative market niche like that to compete with the state's larger farms.
The request for designated organic acreage at Kearney came from Cooperative Extension farm adviser Richard Molinar, who has maintained a one-acre plot at the research center for specialty crop field trials since 1996. Three years ago he and his research assistant, Michael Yang, began using organic production methods to study capers, jujube trees, lemongrass, mini watermelons, cherry tomatoes, medicinal herbs and other unusual crops.
"In organic production, your objective is to build up more productive and healthy soil," Molinar said. "Some people believe organic matter and the diversity of microorganisms in soil maintained organically result in healthier plants that can more effectively fight diseases, fend off insects and outcompete weeds."
By certifying this parcel and the 10-acre site, Molinar is creating a scientific environment for comparison of organic and conventional practices. "Then we can say with validity that yes, it does work or no it doesn't," he said.
The Kearney Research Advisory Committee approved Molinar's request to have the land certified.
"Organic production is going mainstream," said UC Davis pomologist Louise Ferguson, chair of the Research Advisory Committee. "We see the value in giving people choices of what they buy and helping growers decide whether it makes economic sense to transition to organic production."
The committee will entertain proposals from UC farm advisers, specialists and campus-based scientists who wish to conduct research on the organic farmland at Kearney.
Ferguson said the committee believes that the organic research might also benefit the state's conventional growers.
"The information that is generated will also be available to those who choose not to be totally organic, but may wish to implement the research results into their production practices" she said.
Warnert is a public information representative with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.