COLUMBIA — Bradford Research and Extension Center became an outdoor classroom Thursday for nearly 150 Missouri farmers and gardeners interested in the booming organic agriculture industry.
Both conventional and organic farmers and gardeners gathered Thursday afternoon for the first ever Organic Production Field Day at MU’s Bradford research farm. Visitors were given tours of the center’s research plots, where they learned about the latest organic vegetable and grain crop management techniques.
“We wanted to interact with organic farmers in the state and get their ideas and input,” said Kerry Clark, senior research specialist at Bradford Farm. “We also want to share our own organic research and relay what we’ve found.”
Bradford Research Center, located about 6.5 miles east of Columbia, initiated several organic grain crop projects in 2012, which are still being studied this year. The center has been attempting to secure an organic research grant for years from the United States Department of Agriculture, and it won such a grant in 2011.
The grant gave the center about $742,000 to improve organic cropping systems while reducing negative environmental impacts.
“When we landed a grant, by God, we landed it,” Bradford Superintendent Tim Reinbott said. “It’s enabled us to do quite a bit.”
The USDA awarded 23 grants to research and extension programs in 2011, totaling $19 million, but Reinbott speculated that only about 5 percent of all applicants were awarded funding.
Four organic vegetable projects and five organic grain crop projects are underway now at Bradford. But, the opportunity for most farmers to grow completely organic crops is rare. Many of the farmers at Thursday's event balked at the idea of becoming USDA certified organic.
“We raise organic cattle, and we try to grow our vegetables organically,” said Doug Elliott, a Brunswick farmer attending the event, “but insect troubles make it hard to grow without pesticides.”
Although Elliott’s cattle are raised organically, he said he can not afford the time or money to become a certified organic farmer.
Bob Schrunk and Craig Witteveen, who farm and raise livestock near Stet, also spoke of the difficulty and expense of organic farming.
“I try to raise grass-based dairy cattle and use manure instead of commercial fertilizer,” Witteveen said. “I’m interested in learning more about using cover crops to reduce weeds and grow my vegetables more organically. But I don’t know if the cost of organic certification is worth it. It’s probably about $2,500.”
“It’s the cost, it really is,” Reinbott said about the lack of certified organic farmers. “You’ve got to pay a certifier, and you’ve got to have explicit, very well-kept records.”
Actual certification fees and costs vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the certifying agent and the size, type and complexity of the operation. Typically, those seeking organic certification must pay fees for the application, annual renewal, assessment of annual production or sales and inspection, according to the USDA’s National Organic Program. However, once certified, the USDA can reimburse up to 75 percent of certification expenses.
The process of organic certification is also lengthy. The USDA requires a detailed description of the operation to be certified, a history of substances applied to the land in the past three years and a written organic system plan that describes the practices and substances to be used.
Reinbott said the organic certification process takes at least three years for many operations.
While giving visitors a tour of Bradford’s organic grain crops and cover crops, Clark explained that the federal grant allowed the center to experiment with making organic farming more economical.
“We probably have more organic fields than most of you,” she said to a group touring the farm. “But we’re researching so that we make the mistakes and you don’t have to.”
Bradford Research Center’s organic experiments include building soil health and reducing weed growth. Improving soil health increases the soil’s ability to capture and retain rainwater, which leads to continued crop growth even during a drought. In order to improve soil health, researchers at Bradford are testing various methods of no-till farming with cover crops.
When land is tilled, the amount of water and nutrients in the soil decreases, which can lead to erosion. No-till allows the soil to retain more organic matter but also allows weeds to grow. Therefore, cover crops are used as a mulch to provide a shading effect that decreases weed growth. Researchers are also testing which mix of grasses and legumes result in the most successful cover crops.
“It’s challenging (to switch to organic farming), but if done correctly, a farmer is better off economically in the long-run,” Clark said. “It can also lead to healthier soils and higher yields.”
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