Organically Grown at UW
It's no secret that Wisconsin is a national leader in organic agriculture. The state boasts the second-highest number of organic farms in the U.S. and ranks third in total organic acres. Perhaps less understood is that UW has long been a quiet powerhouse in organic research, extension, and education; and this year, a dedicated group of faculty and staff are doing everything they can to remove "quiet" from that description.
Multimedia storyteller Anders Gurda is a graduate of the agroecology program, co-founder of the Organic Grain Resource and Information Network, former director of the Pipeline Foods Farm Profit Program, owner of Windborne Media LLC, and currently outreach specialist for the UW Organic Collaborative. Here he tells the colorful tale of how decades of organic research and cooperation on campus — and across Wisconsin — are bearing fruit . . . and grain, and vegetables, and milk . . .
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, like many in the agricultural community, was slow to warm to organics. Organic methods represented a stark departure from the way things had been done for decades, and some viewed them as an untested and therefore problematic reaction to conventional farming.
“Thirty years ago, there was skepticism, if not hostility, with little to no support from the college,” says agronomy professor Bill Tracy. “Today, it’s a completely different landscape, and we have lots of big things happening in the organic world at UW.”
But this tale goes back even further. If the organic story at UW is one of a flywheel slowly gaining speed, the first turn happened more than a century ago. In 1909, the year the university’s fight song, “On, Wisconsin!,” was written, F.H. King, a professor in agricultural physics at UW, spent nine months travelling through China, Korea, and Japan. That trip prompted him to write his last book, Farmers of Forty Centuries, which was published two years later, right after his untimely death.
In the book, King clearly lays out many of the principles and practices of what would eventually be known as organic agriculture. He was fascinated by the Asian indigenous farming communities who were able to continuously grow crops for 4,000 years while farms in the U.S. were losing productivity after less than a century. These traditional cultures inspired the pioneers of the modern organic movement. King’s contribution was skillfully importing and translating his observations of indigenous farming to Western audiences. His observations also reaffirmed some of the conclusions he had drawn from his stateside experiments.
“King countered myths, espoused by contemporaries in powerful positions, with careful research,” says Steve Ventura, professor emeritus of soil science and environmental studies. “As documented by another pioneering UW soil scientist, C.B. Tanner PhD’50, [King’s] findings highlighted the importance of manures and plant residues in maintaining soil fertility, a fundament of organic agriculture.”
Farmers of Forty Centuries eventually matured into the U.S. organic movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s still growing and evolving today.
King’s work altered the country’s agricultural landscape over time and also shaped the UW campus and community long after his death. After a period of dormancy, the next time anything significant happened on the UW organic timeline was 70 years after Farmers of Forty Centuries hit shelves.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Green Revolution brought new technologies aimed at rapidly increasing agricultural production, and it resulted in widespread farm consolidation and chemically intensive growing practices. In response, many farmers and a growing number of wary consumers began exploring alternatives. As often happens with the formation of movements, students got the ball (or perhaps the organic pumpkin) rolling at UW.
In 1979, King came back to campus — not the man this time, but his legacy, living on in the name of a new student group, F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture. This student collaborative, which is still active on campus and managing the two-acre organic farm it started in the early 2000s, connects generations of UW’s agricultural innovators.
As organic agriculture grew in popularity throughout the country, the UW faculty caught up with their students. The Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST) was established in 1989, largely the vision of late CALS agronomy professor Joshua Posner. (See The Science Farm in the spring 2017 issue of Grow.) It included organic rotations as part of a comparative, long-term cropping systems trial that’s still going strong today.
Organic farming systems often face two criticisms: They are not evidence-based, and they produce significantly lower yields than comparable conventional systems. WICST, and long-term cropping systems trials like it, have closed the evidence gap with bales of data that have helped optimize organic grain and forage systems throughout the Midwest.
“WICST has been able to unequivocally prove that organic farms can feed the world with yields hitting 99% of conventional in two-thirds of the years studied,” says Gregg Sanford PhD’12, senior scientist and trial manager. “It’s also been the most profitable system, along with pasture, over the last 30 years.”
Sanford says WICST has also highlighted some of the challenges of organic farming, such as its reliance on soil tillage for weed control and the potential long-term negative impact this has on soil health and soil organic carbon. He sees the results coming out of WICST as both supportive of organics and a call to do better. “We’re going to need intelligent, complex, sexy rotations to address these challenges,” he says.
WICST wasn’t the only UW group incorporating organics into its work in the 1990s. The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) was founded the same year. Although CIAS does not focus exclusively on organics, the center published its first organic article — “Organic Potatoes: They Can Be Grown, but Can They be Profitable?” — in 1992, before many organic markets were established.
Around the same time, the national winds were shifting as well: Organics blew like a cloud of non-GMO corn pollen from farms and kitchen tables to Washington, DC, where the Organic Food Production Act was passed in the 1990 Farm Bill. The National Organic Program came into being 10 years later, and organic became an officially official labeling term, with statutory regulations enacted and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Some UW faculty and staff had been working at the liminal zones between agronomy, ecology, and sustainability for years, but as organic with a little “o” became “USDA Certified Organic,” an ever-growing group of campus researchers and affiliates joined the work of WICST and CIAS and began to focus on farmers — and others in the supply chain — who were working to grow the scale and productivity of organic agriculture. Wisconsin has organic farms of all types and sizes: corn, beans, and small grains; dairy and livestock; fruit, vegetable, and nut crops; mushrooms and maple syrup; and on and on, from less than an acre to several thousand acres. Equally diverse are those in the campus community working on organics, with home departments inside and outside CALS.
Today, the term “organic” really has two meanings. The first is following the rules of the USDA’s National Organic Program, whereby farmers (or researchers) must pass an inspection to use the “organic” label. The second is farming in alignment with the principles of organic agriculture. There’s overlap and interplay between the two. Even though organic certification is a very specific, regulated process, there are many farmers participating in UW organic research who may not be certified organic. Similarly, many farmers are certified organic and still farm conventionally on separate acres, just as faculty who work on organics also do research on and for conventional agriculture.
Though organic and conventional farming are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, they often peacefully co-exist on the landscape and in academia, interacting and learning from one another. Some UW programs, however, do emphasize organic production. Horticulture professor Julie Dawson runs the Urban and Regional Foods Systems Program, focused on everything from breeding organic vegetable and grain varieties to season extension for tomatoes to pioneering participatory research methods and statistics for organic breeding projects. In the Department of Plant Pathology, professor Erin Silva conducts field-scale research on tillage reduction strategies for organic row crops, cover crop integration, and organic livestock systems, among many other projects. But, Silva says, “whether a lab counts organic research and outreach as a major or very minor part of its overall program, the creation and support of diverse agricultural systems, which lead to healthier farms, farmers, and eaters, is recognized as a collective goal across our agricultural community.”
Organic experts on campus also agree that there is a profound need for research and education that specifically targets organic agriculture. Many of the tools in a conventional farmer’s tool kit are prohibited in or not well suited for organic farming. Similarly, varieties bred in conventional systems may not perform well on organic farms. This creates a constant need for increased investment and more dedicated expertise to optimize organic systems and help them thrive — agronomically, ecologically, economically, and socially.
“Taken together, we are fostering interconnected health — of people, places, and processes,” says Alfonso Morales, professor of food systems, marketplaces, and public policy in the UW Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture. “Our activities are providing help, from the soil to the top of skyscrapers; everything people interact with can benefit from organic agriculture.”
⊕ See sidebar, UW’s Organic Acreage
Since 1989, work in organic agriculture has slowly spread across campus — year by year, course by course, person by person — but the last few years have been truly transformational. The flywheel, now long-spinning, has been gaining momentum, and the group of faculty and staff committed to working in organics has grown and solidified.
In 2015, Clif Bar & Company and Organic Valley, with matching gifts from UW alumni John and Tashia Morgridge, provided funding for an endowed chair of organic plant breeding at UW. The first faculty member to fill the chair was agronomy’s Bill Tracy. He worked with a team of graduate students (Adrienne Shelton MS’12 and Jared Zystro MS’08, PhD’19) to release UW’s first plant variety bred specifically for organic systems, thanks to a partnership with organic farmers and the Organic Seed Alliance. Among the uniform plants and ears of hybrid corn, open-pollinated varieties like Tracy’s have more variability in plant height and ear color, giving farmers more genetic wiggle room to improve them for their own systems, tastes, markets, or growing regions.
In 2016, UW faculty, staff, and partners, including local nonprofits and the UW Farm and Industry Short Course, formed OGRAIN, the Organic Grain Resource and Information Network. OGRAIN is a multifaceted program housed in the Department of Plant Pathology, managed by Silva, that provides education and a peer-learning community for organic grain growers throughout the country. And, in 2018, UW–Madison hosted Harvest of Ideas, a two-day forum exploring how education, research, and outreach on organic agriculture can support Wisconsin’s communities, both human and ecological. That same year brought the country’s first registered apprenticeship for organic vegetable production, founded in collaboration with the FairShare CSA Coalition, Dane County UW–Extension, and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
“Right now, it can be difficult for beginning farmers to articulate what they’ve learned in various internships and jobs,” explains Dawson, who cofounded the apprenticeship program. “A formally recognized program tells employers and loan officers what graduates know how to do. We don’t expect other skilled trades to learn their profession on their own, so it doesn’t make sense for farmers to have to do so.”
As these milestones clicked by, UW researchers and extension specialists were doing more and more work with the organic community statewide, nationally, and internationally. On-farm research, co-hosted field days, farmer-breeder-chef collaborations, conferences, industry collaborations, and much more. The flywheel was spinning fast, but all of this good organic work was happening in siloed departments, in individual labs, or via temporary partnerships. To Wisconsin’s detriment, there was no cohesive program to aggregate, distill, and showcase everything on UW’s growing organic menu.
⊕ See sidebar, Of Collaboratives, Wheat, and Wepkings
There’s a French culinary term, mise en place, which can be interpreted as “everything in its place.” This means that every ingredient is prepared and set aside, one at a time, until all that’s left to do is activate the alchemy of a chef ’s vision, tools, and raw ingredients. Imagine a well-seasoned pan encircled by bowls filled with grated cheese, diced onions, pats of butter, ground pepper, minced herbs. For decades, all of the disparate organic programs at UW were so many well-prepared ingredients, but scattered, kept separate.
Last year, the addition of a key ingredient finally brought that delicious moment when a French chef would say “Commençons,” or “let’s begin.” It came in the form of an anonymous donation that provided the resources, direction, and inspiration the UW organic community needed to finally bring all of the ingredients together into a new, recognizable entrée.
First came the formation of the UW Organic Collaborative, a much-needed organizational home for the university’s organic research, education, outreach, and organic-relevant programs. The co-organizers came from throughout CALS: In addition to Tracy, Morales, Ventura, Dawson, and Silva, professors Brad Barham (agricultural and applied economics) and Shawn Steffan (USDA and entomology), along with a number of academic staff, have brought the vision of a cohesive organic collaborative to life.
With its own governance, social media presence, website, and growing number of faculty and staff associates (40 and counting), the collaborative is a cross-campus community that throws everything related to organic agriculture into a pot and stirs it until combined. Before last year, anyone interested in learning about what UW was up to with organics would have had to visit a half-dozen lab websites, read a handful of press releases from the last decade, and likely show up at a few events to put the pieces together. No longer.
“We are a dynamic group of scholars advancing basic and applied research that integrates different fields of study impacted by organics,” Morales says.
Next, 2020 brought a program manager and an outreach manager. A dedicated team of faculty and staff created the UW Organic Collaborative, and the two new staff members, Katie Peterman and this author, are supporting the group’s work and sharing it with the world.
“These new hires have allowed us to build critical connections, both internally and externally, and bring people together across multiple disciplines and multiple sectors of the industry,” Silva says. With new staff, the collaborative “will be able to bring more solutions to organic farmers, expand their markets, and promote entrepreneurship.”
Third came the allocation of five graduate student research grants. It can be a challenge to secure funds for graduate student positions and research projects dedicated to organics. Organic research captures only a tiny fraction of all funding available through the USDA’s two largest competitive agricultural research grants (just 0.2% of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative pot and 1.85% of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative).
“By having dedicated organic funding, we can attract a very competitive pool of graduate students who are looking for meaningful opportunities in healthy food systems that are biologically interesting,” Dawson says. “Organic fits that bill really well.”
The first crop of graduate students funded through the UW Organic Collaborative, representing departments from across the college, started this fall and will make up the first cohort of organic agriculture scholars at UW. They will contribute to organic research and organic-related instruction as teaching assistants, and they will train to be the next generation of leaders in the field.
“I want my research to go somewhere and do something — to be applied,” says Claire Benning, an agroecology graduate student who studies the benefits of cover crop mixtures in organic grain with soil science professor Matt Ruark. “And I want it to jump-start a career where I can keep making an impact in the ag world.”
And, finally, CALS launched the nation’s first in-person undergraduate certificate in organic agriculture, launched this fall. In the four decades since the founding of the F.H. King student group, interest in sustainable agriculture has only grown. Topics such as global food security, climate change, animal and human welfare, and farm-to-table supply chains are more relevant and widely discussed than ever before. The 15-credit certificate is available to students across campus and provides opportunities for undergraduates to not only understand the production and processing approaches that define organic agriculture but also gain insights into the or- ganic industry — economics, policy, environmental stewardship, health, food systems, and beyond.
“The program prepares graduates to confidently pursue any of the growing number of job opportunities in organics, from the field to Washington, DC, to the public and private sectors,” says Peterman, manager of the certificate program.
Much has changed in the 112 years since F.H. King returned from his global agricultural pilgrimage, but his eloquent case for evidence-based agricultural techniques, inspired by what he saw among indigenous peoples working on the other side of the world, is more important — and persuasive — than ever. Organic agriculture has become an inextricable part of the university’s work just as it’s become tightly woven into the patchwork of the state’s farmland. The UW Organic Collaborative has matured from inspired but disconnected programs and people into something more recognizable, resilient, and impactful. With an innovative menu of offerings to share with agricultural communities and their allies in Wisconsin and around the world, the collaborative is looking for more partners to offer even more to a wider audience.
“We couldn’t be more excited to be working cooperatively with others to build one of the strongest organic programs in the country,” Peterman says. “Our power has always come from inspired and passionate people. This effort is no different, and we hope others will join us. Any agricultural system is made stronger through diversity, and the same is true for our growing organic community.”This article was posted in Cover Story, Fall 2021, Features, Food Systems, Healthy Ecosystems and tagged Alfonso Morales, Anders Gurda, Bill Tracy, Brad Barham, C.B. Tanner, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, Erin Silva, F.H. King, F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, Farmers of Forty Centuries, green revolution, Gregg Sanford, Julie Dawson, Katie Peterman, Matt Ruark, OGRAIN, organic, organic agriculture, Shawn Steffan, Steve Ventura, UW Organic Collaborative.