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February 17, 2004   Email to Friend 

Debra Davis
(334) 613-4686
February 17, 2004

AUBURN, Ala. -- A team of Auburn University scientists including plant pathologists, horticulturists, agronomists and agricultural economists will break new ground this spring by launching the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station's (AAES) first research project devoted solely to organic vegetable production.

Escalating consumer demand for organic produce coupled with increasing interest among financially strapped small-scale Alabama vegetable growers to enter the organic farming niche market sparked the project, which will be conducted on a three-acre plot of land at the AAES's North Alabama Horticulture Research Unit in Cullman.

The long-term project will yield comprehensive scientific data that will provide growers valuable information on transitioning to organic production, pursuing designation as federally certified organic operation, maximizing production and profit, and marketing the organic crops they produce.

Calling organic farming "one of the bright spots in agriculture," AU plant pathologist and research project coordinator Joe Kloepper said a November meeting in Birmingham of individuals interested in organic vegetable production set the wheels in motion for the project.

Close to 100 people--double what Kloepper and AU rural sociologist Joe Molnar had anticipated when they set up the meeting--were present at what Kloepper said was "the most positive and enthusiastic farm meeting I've attended in years.

"This meeting showed us that a lot of Alabamians, including a growing number of conventional farmers, are looking seriously at farming organically on at least some of their acreage, but they want to be able to base it on solid, scientific information and hard data," Kloepper said.

Strong interest in organic production was also evident during a series of six regional public meetings the AAES sponsored across Alabama recently, as participants repeatedly called on the AAES to make organic farming a research priority.

Organic farming systems are ones that avoid use of synthetic chemicals and rely instead on crop rotations, crop residues, animal and green manures, legumes, mechanical cultivation and biological pest control to maintain soil productivity, supply nutrients and control insects, diseases and weeds.

In 2002, in a move to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent, uniform standards, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the nation's first organic regulations. Under those standards, any crop marketed as organic must have been grown on land that has been free of all synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for three years prior to harvest. Following that three-year transition period, the farm must be certified organic by a government-approved certifying agency.

The AAES research project will replicate all the steps a conventional grower is required to take to become certified organic.

"In three years, we will be conducting our organic farming research on a certified organic farm," Kloepper said.

Growers will be a vital component of the organic venture, Kloepper added, noting that throughout the life of the project, scientists will rely largely on producers' input to determine the directions the research takes.

North Alabama Horticulture Research Unit Superintendent Arnold Caylor said several vegetable crops will be planted on the new research plot this spring so that scientists can begin studying specific issues and problems that arise during the transition from conventional to organic production.

Initially, the project is being supported by reallocation of AAES funding, including funds received as gifts to support research on integrated pest management practices such as biological control and beneficial bacteria. Researchers also will be seeking support through grant applications.

"The Experiment Station's mission is to improve the quality of life for all Alabamians, and that includes small family farmers who are struggling to survive," Kloepper said. "For many of them, organic could be that key to survival."

For more information contact Joe Kloepper, 334-844-1950 or kloeppe@acesag.auburn.edu

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