Growing demand prompts organic research at research stationWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
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This year, Mountain Research Station in Waynesville is investigating organic farming on the Western North Carolina landscape on a greater scale than ever before.
The launch of the test farm’s new organic unit has already turned heads and sparked mixed reactions from area farmers.
“So many people are excited, saying, ‘We’ve been waiting for this,’” said project coordinator Emily Bernstein.
Others are more hesitant about the addition of organic research to the test farm’s portfolio. Staff members are quick to point out that organic is by no means replacing conventional farming research at the station.
“We hope by using that word, we’re not excluding people,” said Bernstein.
“We’re not here to promote an opinion,” said Kaleb Rathbone, superintendent of the Mountain Research Station. “We’re not here to compare conventional versus organic.”
The test farm’s 410 acres studies everything from tobacco to Christmas trees and livestock. It has delved into organic research on and off for the past seven years, but the new unit marks the first serious commitment to organic.
For now, the unit is exploring how 20 different kinds of heirloom and heirloom-type hybrid tomatoes fare when produced organically.
It is also studying ways to combat one of the top obstacles to profitable organic farming — weeds — in the most economical and least labor-intensive way possible.
Researchers are exploring the feasibility of producing organic broccoli during autumn, along with assorted methods to prevent soilborne disease using grafted tomatoes.
Organic heirloom tomatoes are commonly more susceptible to disease, but growers now have the option of grafting their favorite tomato cultivars to disease-resistant rootstock to have the best of both worlds.
It’s tough to get an official count, but Bernstein estimates that at least 300 farmers in WNC are already employing organic methods.
The majority of them skip the arduous process of getting certified officially, but farmers here do have an interest in joining the growing all-natural movement.
WNC consumers, too, support organic food — whenever it is an affordable option. Rathbone learned that Ingles customers overwhelmingly choose organic over conventionally grown carrots whenever they are sold for the same price.
“As times change and consumer demand changes, it’s important for farmers to keep up,” said Rathbone. “The best way to make sure farms are profitable is to diversify.”
The only problem is finding a cost-efficient way to supply the flourishing niche market. At this point, organic farming is more labor-intensive, and demand often outweighs supply.
That’s where the research comes in.
So far, staff members have surveyed 250 farmers to determine the prime issues associated with organic farming in WNC. Farmers have listed disease, weed and insect management; fertility; and marketing as their top concerns.
The research station is already testing out a variety of weed barriers and mulches on organic vegetables.
Rathbone said the station is trying to provide as much practical information as possible to all interested WNC farmers.
The organic unit is being funded by a $45,000 specialty crop grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mountain Research Station hopes to continue receiving funding so that it can form a long-range plan with the help of local farmers’ input.
Challenges specific to the area include farming on rocky slopes and helping small-scale farmers learn how to stay viable growing organic produce.
For a start, learning how to produce organic broccoli in the fall — when few other growers can — will allow farmers to fetch higher prices.
“We’re looking to produce something nobody can and get a premium price for it,” said Rathbone.
Clearing the air
Misconceptions reign about what is and isn’t organic despite the growing popularity of all-natural food. Bernstein and her co-workers plan to do community outreach by working with local schools, gardeners and farmer’s markets.
“It’s complicated for consumers. They’re not sure what [organic] really means,” Bernstein said.
For example, many believe that growing organically means leaving crops entirely untouched. Rathbone said that’s not the case.
Consumers also incorrectly assume that organic produce is always healthier, according to Bernstein.
Rathbone said the problem is that organic growers don’t all use a standard method of production. A variety of producers use wildly different production methods, but all call the end result “organic.” These farmers’ environmental impact is sometimes minimal and other times not.
While navigating somewhat uncharted territory in WNC, Mountain Research Station will stick to some basics.
“Being able to help farmers improve their viability, that’s our main goal,” Bernstein said.
According to Bernstein, agriculture is shaped by consumer demand, economics and tradition. The organic unit will take all three into account as it decides how to move forward.