Washington State University

Small Farms Team

Organic Teaching Farm at Tukey Orchard
Washington State University

By Deb Stenberg

Photo of Tukey Orchard

A three-acre farm within an established orchard—barely a postage stamp amid the miles of grain, legumes and forage of the Palouse—is playing a key role in a new agriculture education program that is among the first of its kind in the nation. Known as the WSU Organic Farm at the Tukey Horticulture Orchard, it is the site of the hands-on learning component of the first organic agriculture major to be offered by any U.S. university, public or private.

The program promises to help fill the need of both organic farmers and those aspiring to be. “I've talked to many organic farmers who are struggling to find experienced workers,” notes Brad Jaeckel, the WSU Organic Farm's manager and instructor. Farmers whose livelihood and family well-being depend on a successful crop too often depend on well-meaning but unskilled workers. In an operation in which small mistakes can cause big losses, an untrained workforce can be costly at any wage.

WSU has a strong track record in organic agriculture research work, says John Reganold, the WSU professor who has spearheaded the plan for both the organic agriculture major and the Tukey Orchard farm.

In 1980, a USDA soil scientist at WSU, Bob Papendick, co-authored a seminal publication on organic agriculture, initiated at the request of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under the Carter Administration. Another member of the soil science staff, Dave Bezdicek, was the lead author in another widely-published organic farming publication that came about after a symposium on organic farming at the 1981 American Society of Agronomy Annual Meeting… More.

Yet, for decades, those who wanted to learn how to grow organically have had few education options. The knowledge and techniques were passed on from one grower to another, or through a few anti-establishment magazines such as Mother Earth News. Even the organic industry's “mothership”, the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, offers only intermittent workshops and a few paid internships on their research farm. Some universities have added individual classes to their catalogs, but none has developed a comprehensive major to prepare a student for a career in organic agriculture.

John Reganold, the WSU professor who has spearheaded the plan for the Organic Agriculture major says that organic agriculture appeals to many students who would not otherwise consider a degree in agriculture. Enrollment in WSU's traditional agriculture programs has dipped in the past 10 years, but Reganold says he gets “a call at least once a week from someone who wants information about the organic ag major.” Many of those calls come from people living and working on the West side of the Cascades.

It's still to be seen whether the program will become a major draw for aspiring organic farmers from around the state and country. Reganold cautions that a significant number of those who do enroll could find the chemistry and other science classes more than they bargained for. Working with fellow Soil Scientist Cathy Perillo and others in the department, Reganold developed a challenging curriculum for the major. The coursework plans are now in the approval stages required at the university before becoming an official major.

Photo of Tukey Orchard Greenhouse

Perillo points out that, as the organic industry grows, so does the need for people knowledgeable about the practice to fill support roles in areas like community partnership development and marketing. The program can help fill that need as well.

The department offers the Practicum in Organic Agriculture, as the field-based class at the farm is called, for credit to registered WSU students, or on a continuing education basis for gardeners or farmers who just want the experience in integrated organic growing techniques.

Last year, the first that the farm was in operation, there was little time to promote the class. The handful of students that participated gained in-depth experience in running an organic farm through the height of the growing season. That included selling the produce and flowers through a system known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which customers buy a share and receive weekly deliveries of produce.

The Soil Science Department's start-up funding for the farm was supplemented by a $25,000 grant from Small Planet Foods, a Sedro-Woolley, Washington, organic food company. Soil Science graduate student Kathi Colen-Peck served as the manager, with Jaeckel assisting. After Colen-Peck relocated to the East Coast this year, Jaeckel stepped up to manage the farm and provide instruction.

With a head-start on planning this year, Jaeckel expects to have more students, more CSA subscribers and more business partnerships on campus and in the community. He plans to provide produce to the culinary arts school for teaching and for catering events, as well as to the campus dining service, which buys grains locally, but until now, has purchased produce through large suppliers. Jaeckel also intends to continue growing dye plants such as indigo and madder for the textile school, a service that Colen-Peck began last year.

Photo of harvested beets

Students who participate in the class can expect to devote 20 hours of physically strenuous work for three solid months, May 9 through July 29, growing certified organic vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers for sale through the CSA. Along the way, they'll learn the skills they'll need to manage an organic market garden, farm or greenhouse. They'll get insights into the ecological interactions between plants, soils, microclimate, insects and pests, and how to assess and deal with those pests, as well as weeds and disease management issues. They'll gain experience in marketing, harvesting and packaging for a CSA.

“I want this to be a very realistic experience for our participants,” Jaeckel emphasizes. “Students should walk away with a real understanding of practical organic farming, and the experience to go to work for another farm or even start their own.”

Photo of harvested carrots

In the bigger picture, students will gain an understanding of the value and importance of the local food system and food security, and how organic agriculture is a viable alternative to conventional agriculture. “Every week it seems I have a conversation with someone who says, ‘we aren't connected with where our food comes from anymore,' Perillo notes. Classes like those she already teaches in sustainable food systems encourage participants to look at their food supply system differently and hopefully seek out local growers.

Jaeckel and Perillo are also actively recruiting volunteers who can donate a few hours to the farm; regular volunteers can even trade their time for a share in the CSA. “I really need volunteers in the early and late parts of the growing season, when the class is not in session,” Jaeckel says. Sufficient volunteer help will allow the farm to achieve another of its goals; donating about 1/6th of the crop to the Pullman Food Bank.

Those interested in the practicum or purchasing a CSA share can contact Brad Jaeckel at 208-892-0655 or jaeckel@wsu.edu.

WSU has a strong track record in organic agriculture research work, says John Reganold, the WSU professor who has spearheaded the plan for both the organic agriculture major and the Tukey Orchard farm.

In 1980, a USDA soil scientist at WSU, Bob Papendick, co-authored of seminal publication on organic agriculture, initiated at the request of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under the Carter Administration. Another member of the soil science staff, Dave Bezdicek was the lead author in another widely-published organic farming publication that came about after a symposium on organic farming at the 1981 American Society of Agronomy Annual Meeting.

Reganold, who joined the WSU staff in 1983, in part because of the presence of Papendick and Bezdicek, has also contributed to the university's collection of organic research over the years. A study conducted by Reganold gained publication in Nature magazine, “sending an important signal to fellow researchers that organic farming research was scientifically legitimate and acceptable to the leading peer-reviewed journals,” a colleague wrote recently.

While in the minority at WSU, organic researchers were nevertheless respected on and off the Pullman campus. “Our department is in a very real way one of the leading, if not the leading university, in organic agriculture,” Reganold asserts. Over the past ten years, organic and sustainable farming classes have been added to the department's class list; about two years ago, the idea of offering an organic agriculture major surfaced.

Like all universities, WSU is also a research center. A major federal grant this year to WSU's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources will continue to support the university's ability to respond to the growing demands for information on organic farming techniques. Federal grants to the university for organic research have topped $700,000 in the past three years.

David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist and area extension agent in Wenatchee, notes that consumer demand for organic products has encouraged growth in the number of acres devoted to organic crops, as well as an upswell in corporate interest.

“Companies are looking for research on organic agriculture and are willing to support it,” he explained. WSU, with its more than 30-year history of organic agriculture research, was ahead of the curve and thus was in a great position to apply for and obtain federal and state dollars supporting organic agriculture research.

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