Mission organic

Roughly one-third of Western North Carolina farms are organic; many home growers also choose this path of least resistance. But figuring out how to make it work (not to mention profitable) can be tricky.

That’s where the Mountain Organic Research and Extension Unit in Waynesville comes in. Many Tar Heel agricultural programs work to keep farming viable, but MORE’s organic focus sets it apart. In existence for a year, the program is funded by a U.S. Department of Agricultural Specialty Crops Block Grant and by N.C. State University. Mountain Xpress spoke recently with Project Coordinator Emily Bernstein to find out how the program aims to help local farmers.

Mountain Xpress: How does organic farming fit into the overall picture of making farming more viable?
Emily Bernstein
: Currently, organic and local foods have been among the most successful diversification markets for farmers. Many consumers want organic or locally grown food, although these are not always the same thing. And most growers, not just the organic or certified-organic ones, have an interest in trying organic methods. MORE’s job is to increase research capacities to help all farmers discover what organic approaches will benefit them.

How would you define “organic”?
I would say it’s one method to try and improve the sustainability of farming, building up the soil and increasing diversity. It’s about improving the overall farm method and closing the loop, which means reducing what is brought onto the farm — synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and such — and reducing what leaves the farm. It’s a method that uses what is within the system. The goal is to make a more reliant farming system. Consumers’ focus is their health: They want food that hasn’t been sprayed with harmful chemicals. For the growers, it’s about the soil and having a healthier farm: They want to keep farming. For MORE, it’s about improving the sustainability of farming.

How many certified-organic farmers are there in Western North Carolina?
The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project has a roster of 639 farms in Western North Carolina, of which 4 percent are certified and 27 percent list themselves as organic but not certified. The certification process is lengthy. We have 3.5 acres of land in Haywood County where we will conduct our research, but the land has to go through a three-year transition period before we can receive our certification. We’ll be transitioning the land by what we do and what we don’t do.

Of course, we won’t use synthetics or pesticides, but then there’s what we will do. We grow cover crops, build up pollination habitats, have a crop rotation schedule and so forth. There’s a lot of documentation that goes along with the certification, not to mention the application and inspection fees. So some farmers practice organic methods without doing the certification. This works well because of community-supported agriculture and tailgate markets. If a consumer is purchasing food in a supermarket, they want the certified organic label, but if they’re buying it from their neighbor in the form of a CSA or local tailgate, they don’t need the label quite so much. So being certified-organic isn’t always necessary.

How do you determine what to focus on in your research?
I spent the last year listening to the farmers to see what they need. The most interesting thing to me was their desire for a more holistic research: They want us to mimic a farm environment and not just tell them what to do for a particular problem, but discern what’s causing it.

This is a little more difficult to do at a research station, because to study the disease and different approaches to it, we might actually introduce a disease, or we might keep an area very weedy to build up disease or pest pressure. So we can’t always do exactly what the grower is doing, and we’re not following the same crop rotation. But their point is a good one: Learning how to not introduce the problem to the farm is the best solution.

What are you working on now?
The surveys showed an interest in disease management first, then fertilization, and finally pests, insects and weeds. Currently we’re doing a weed-management study and looking at hybrid heirloom tomatoes. For the organic grower, a more disease-resistant crop and [an] understanding [of] fertilization is important. If you’re using synthetics, you know exactly how much nitrogen you’re putting on your crops. If you’re using manure, that’s harder to measure.

— Cinthia Milner gardens in Leicester.

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