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Guinea RPCV Stephanie Chasteen writes about organic farming
Guinea RPCV Stephanie Chasteen writes about organic farming
By STEPHANIE CHASTEEN
Several times a week, you may have the opportunity to buy fresh organic produce from a small farm stand at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus. These are, quite literally, the fruits of decades of research and training.
The UCSC Farm and Garden, managed by experienced farmer Jim Leap, is the fertile research ground for The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems ó one of just a handful of programs dedicated to training the next generation of organic farmers and to research on improving organic systems. Although organic is the fastest growing sector of agriculture, there is precious little information on how to farm organic.
"Itís one of the oases, nationwide, as far as hands-on organic farming experience is concerned," said Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, based in Santa Cruz. "People do not know the jewel of a program that they have there."
The farm is considered by many to be the birthplace of organic farming. Using then-revolutionary techniques such as raised beds, close spacing and double digging ó the charismatic actor Alan Chadwick sparked the interest of a generation of students in the late 1960s. With the help of mesmerized apprentices, he transformed a rocky hillside into the 2-acre Chadwick Garden. To test his ideas on a larger scale, his students later created the 25-acre farm complete with row crops, orchards and research plots.
"This is really unique because weíre doing organically based research, weíre doing practical training, weíre running a farm, selling product and teaching," said Leap, farm manager.
Leap is the man in the middle of it all, juggling the practicalities of running a farm, training apprentices and managing research trials. He is a lucky man whose soil-worn hands are grappling with a variety of challenging jobs.
"I have two passions: One is being actively engaged in the farming system and the other is teaching and instructing," said Leap. "I really have the best job, for someone of my inclinations."
Leap is particularly well-suited to the job: He was an independent farmer near Fresno for 15 years prior to coming to Santa Cruz.
"Heís definitely one of the more experienced organic farmers in the Central Coast," said Eric Brennan, the first USDA researcher to focus on organic farming.
Leap is actively involved in training the next generation of farmers. He lectures at universities and conferences, and devotes much of his time to hands-on teaching of farm apprentices. Apprentices spend six months living and working at the farm, learning aspects of soil science, botany, compost production, irrigation, weed and pest management, and farm equipment as well as marketing and social issues.
"You can take soil classes, but god, you gotta go out and get sweaty, you gotta dig the dirt," said Scowcroft in praise of the program.
The apprenticeship is unique, he said, because of the freedom to be creative, the lack of pure academic boundaries, and opportunities to interact with local farmers and organizations such as his own.
Tom Broz, owner of Live Earth Farm in Watsonville, said the apprenticeship, and Leapís experience, were instrumental in launching him in his career in organic farming.
Graduates of the program have spread their experience around the globe. You can find UCSC progeny at their farms from Sebastopol to North Carolina, from Mexico to Kenya. Several others teach agriculture through colleges, high school or the Peace Corps.
Leapís expertise is also invaluable to researchers who are working to understand organic farming systems.
"Just because a system is organic doesnít mean itís necessarily sustainable," said Brennan.
Instead of focusing on comparisons between organic and conventional agriculture, he said, we need to know more about how to improve organic farming methods. Organic farmers are floundering when it comes to finding tried-and-true methods to manage weeds and pests and to increase their crop yield.
When a researcher proposes a field trial, Leap tells them if, how and when it can be done. He is the one who figures out how to work the trial in with the crop rotation sequence, how to irrigate it and how to apply the fertilizers, as well as managing much of the practical work such as ground preparation.
USDA researcher Carollee Bull has collaborated with Leap to help find out what varieties of strawberries are best suited to organic farming.
"Working with Jim as a farmer is so much different than working with some other farmers because his bottom line isnít making money," said Bull.
Leapís main product is research, not food, so researchers know their plot wonít fall victim to neglect or replanting and that the data will be collected right.
For Bullís research, Leap harvested berries twice a week from 80 plots, counting the pounds of berries harvested from each plot.
"It was a lot of work," he said.
Itís work he probably wouldnít have been able to do as an independent farmer.
"Farmers often donít have the time to set up trials," acknowledged Leap. "When I was running my own small farm I rarely had time to interact with farm advisors, researchers or even other farmers to discuss observations."
The work at the farm is important for the public as well as for farmers.
"We arenít just thinking about how to grow something," said professor Steve Gliessman, the founder of The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. "Organicís not just a way to produce, itís a whole aspect of how a community relates to its land."
Scowcroft agrees, and argues that the cost of organic produce reflects its value. Consumers take for granted cheap food without understanding the implications.
"Look at our groundwater, look at our air, look at our youth," he said. "Hey consumer, you get what you pay for."
Contact Stephanie Chasteen at email@example.com
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.