WSU researchers to study feasibility of organic Inland Northwest wheat

A cow grazing in a field.
Cattle grazing of legume crops is one way that growers can both enrich the soil of future wheat fields and save money on livestock feed.

Scientists will study the best ways to shift to organic wheat farming through a new $1 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Organic Transitions Program.

Organic agriculture is becoming more common, often yielding products that can fetch a premium price, but it presents its own different set of challenges. For farmers interested in switching from conventional to organic wheat growing, there is little research-based information available on how to best make that transition, especially in the Pacific Northwest’s dryland wheat growing region.

“Determining best practices and the economic impact of organic systems gives growers clear pros and cons to consider,” said team leader Surendra Singh, agronomist and director of Washington State University’s Lind Dryland Research Station.

The program includes scientists from WSU, Oregon State University, North Carolina State University, and the Rodale Institute.

Inland Northwest farmers face three big challenges in going organic: weed management, finding a non-chemical source of nitrogen for soils, and reducing the associated costs of both.

“I want to find the best way to do organic,” said Don Hartley, a Pendleton, Ore.-based grower who is donating farmland for the four-year research project. “There’s a steep learning curve, so the more brains we have, the better.”

Each of the four institutions will focus on specific organic cropping systems in their own region that make the transition from conventional to organic wheat growing easier. The WSU team, which includes Surendra Singh and Shikha Singh, a soil health scientist at WSU’s Lind Station, will try out different legumes to grow on wheat farms. As nitrogen-fixing crops, legumes naturally put nitrogen into soil. They can also reduce the number of weeds in a field. Finding a legume that does both jobs well is the goal.

The team will also work with several other crops, including clover. Clover fulfills both goals of fixing nitrogen and crowding out weeds, while having other benefits. Farmers don’t want to grow a crop they can’t use, however, so the research team will also study cattle grazing of legume crops, like clover, on the land. The animals will feed on the crop, saving growers from purchasing feed while providing a suite of soil health benefits.

The researchers said they aren’t familiar with any certified organic wheat research in the Pacific Northwest that combines grazing and organic work.

“We are really excited to start this project,” Shikha Singh added. “We believe it’s better to find out what works and what doesn’t on a small scale and give that information to growers for their decision-making.”

Hartley is looking forward to the grazing aspect of the study, especially since the donated land has been in his family since the 1860s.

“My great-grandfather and grandfather farmed like this; they didn’t use chemicals and had sheep and horses grazing the land to help maintain a balance,” Hartley said. “I’d love to get back to having livestock and organic product.”

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