Two decades ago, organic agriculture was a fringe movement. It was generally ignored by land-grant researchers when John Reganold began comparing the soil quality, food nutrition, flavor and environmental impacts of conventional and organic methods.
That research, published in many of the most prestigious scientific journals, positioned Reganold as an internationally recognized authority and the go-to source for reporters trying to explain the burgeoning influence of organic food.
“Organic is mainstream now,” says Reganold, Regents professor of soil science. “Since 1992 or ‘93, the organic market in the U.S. been growing by 20 percent annually. It’s amazing.”
At WSU, organic agriculture has become equally mainstream. The university offers the first, and still the only, undergraduate major in organic agricultural systems in the country.
(Brad Jaeckel, left, and John Reganold in the greenhouse recently with the beginnings of this year’s organic crop at WSU. Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)
“At a faculty meeting in 2002, I said that the students and the industry both want an organic major and that we should offer it as a way to get more people interested in agriculture,” Reganold said. “The department agreed. We finally got it all approved in 2006.”
Twelve students are enrolled in the major, with others in the pipeline. And there are jobs awaiting those graduates.
“I get calls all the time,” Reganold said. “Industry people call me needing organic ag students. There are job opportunities to work at farms, restaurants, food production facilities and certifying agencies.”
One strength of the program is the combination of academic theory with practical field experience at the three-acre organic farm at the Tukey Horticultural Orchard on the Pullman campus.
Brad Jaeckel is the farm manager and instructor of the practicum program. He established a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program at the farm when he became manager in 2005.
Through the CSA, local families pay a set fee at the beginning of the season and receive a box of fresh produce weekly (their share) from May through October. This helps finance continued operation of the farm. In addition, students learn about growing and selling produce.
Last year, for the first time, Jaeckel was forced to turn away families wanting to buy one of the approximately 100 available shares. About 75 families are on a waiting list.
With that increasing demand, Jaeckel was pleased to learn recently that the farm will be able to grow to about 10 acres at the Tukey site.
WSU is planning to build two permanent structures on the farm to house student workers as well as classroom, storage and office space — if the Pullman-Moscow Airport expansion does not interfere with the project.
“We will not know for several months about the impact of the airport expansion,” Jaeckel said. “We are excited and hopeful about growing our farm. Interest in organic agriculture continues to expand among students and in the community, and we hope to expand to fill that need.”
How much pesticide?
For those looking to incorporate organic into their produce purchases, Reganold recommends this list developed by the Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org, ranking fruits and vegetables from high to low by their tested pesticide loads.
Sweet bell peppers 86
Grapes, imported 68
Green beans 55
Hot peppers 53
Grapes, domestic 46
Honeydew melon 31
Winter squash 31
Sweet potatoes 30
Sweet peas, frozen 11
Sweet corn, frozen 2