Washington State Rep. Ken Jacobsen introduced the first organic food bill in the state’s history in 1984.
“Back then talking about organic agriculture was like talking about kinky sex,” he said.
The subject was less taboo 23 years later, so much so that Jacobsen, D-Seattle – now an experienced senator – felt it unnecessary to push Senate Bill 5160, the Washington Organic Foods Commission Act. The bill, if passed, would have created a commission of organic food producers with the purpose of promoting and selling organic foods.
Born from the concerns of Washington’s organic apple growers, SB 5160 was supposed to give a voice to those who felt the state’s apple commission didn’t promote organic apples strongly enough, Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen, the primary sponsor of SB 5160, said he later felt the bill was no longer necessary because consumers are now demanding organic foods. He added that the market promotes organic food enough by itself.
Increased Demand On the other side of the state, WSU students and professors continue to research organic growing methods, both encouraging and trying to keep up with the growing organic food boom.
David Granatstein, area extension educator for WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at the Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee, agreed that promoting organic crops is unnecessary.
“The organic produce industry is growing at 20 percent nationally, and many crops are sold out,” Granatstein said. “The industry is growing rapidly enough by itself.” A document put together by WSU’s CSANR, the Washington State Department of Agriculture Organic Food Program and the Oregon Tilth Certified Organic Program characterized the trend described by Granatstein and Jacobsen and defined other important developments in the organic food industry.
According to the document “Current Status of Organic Agriculture in Washington State,” Washington experienced 26 percent growth in certified organic land and transition organic land between 2006 and 2007. In addition, the amount of farm land in Washington devoted to organic farming went from less than 10,000 acres in 1995 to more than 90,000 acres in 2007.
Organic farms are blooming all over Washington, as well as all around the nation, while demand for organically grown goods continues to rise.
“Consumers are demanding organics, the future is unlimited,” Jacobsen said.
WSU Efforts Filling consumers’ demand is one goal of organic farmers; researchers at WSU are tackling this challenge by trying to discover the most productive and sustainable organic growing practices.
“What’s needed is more research and problem solving to get around some of the barriers to producing organic crops so that growers can keep up with demand,” Granatstein said.
CSANR’s website states three major goals: increasing farm economic viability, improving human health and wellness, and protecting natural resources and meeting regulatory requirements.
Chad Kruger, a biologically intensive agriculture and organic agriculture (BIOAg) educator, said CSANR began receiving funding from the state in 2006 and since then has set about to accomplish its stated goals. One way of doing this was hiring an extension specialist to look at ways to help organic farmers.
“We research nutritional differences in foods produced with different methods and then look for ways farmers can use this research to increase their profits,” Kruger said.
Within CSANR and the BIOAg program there are 18 smaller research projects that focus on improving the sustainability of Washington agriculture. These include research into organic livestock feed, climate friendly farming and organic fruit trees.
“We have tried to spread the resources around evenly,” Kruger said. “But this has led to some of the projects running out of money.” Crops in Washington are very diverse – because of this, money is spread among many different studies. Kruger said the program is thinking about focusing on one research team to make a more noticeable impact in that area of study. One possible focus could be the study of organic replacements for widely used nitrogen fertilizers that are made from fossil fuels and becoming increasingly expensive, Kruger said.
Though WSU does a lot of research, Granatstein said the school is most reputable for its academic training. WSU began offering the nation’s first undergraduate degree in organic agriculture in 2006.
Of the required classes for graduation in the new major, some involve work at WSU’s three-acre organic farm. The farm, operated through the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, is primarily a teaching farm, said Bradley Jaeckel, WSU Organic Farm manager and instructor. The farm, established in 2004, became an official learning site for the BIOAg program in 2007, Jaeckel said.
“The BIOAg program has been at work since 2000 and will continue to work despite what funding we receive, or don’t receive, from the Legislature,” Kruger said.“Hopefully we’ll continue forever.”