Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)
at Cherry Research Farm
Nancy Creamer, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Environmental Farming Systems
Box 7609; Raleigh, North Carolina 27695 USA
( 919) 515-9447
Organic production represents the largest growth segment nationwide in agriculture today. The organic industry is worth $10 billion (2002), and has grown at a rate of 24% per year for the last 10 years. Consumer demand for organic food has increased the need for more research and education in this area.
In 1998, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems' Organic Unit (OU) had nearly 100 certified organic acres dedicated to research and demonstration projects. Because of flooding due to Hurricanes Fran and Floyd, the OU was moved to higher ground in 1999, and the certification process initiated again.
With approximately 80 acres now certified organic, CEFS is one of the largest research/demonstration sites affiliated with a land-grant university (North Carolina State University) in the country. The site is used for research, demonstrations, and education and serves as a focal point for student and extension agent training. The Organic Systems Unit hosts annual Field Days for farmers and other agricultural professionals.
Demand by organic retailers is outstripping North Carolina production of organic products. Organic produce sales are among the fastest growth sector in the N.C. retail food industry. Currently N.C. imports more than 90% of the organic products it sells, even though many of these products can be grown in this state. Fortunately, according to a recent survey, buyers are committed to buying local produce when it is available. Recent release of the proposed federal organic standards and the USDA's approval for certification of livestock will increase the demand for organically-grown products including organic feeds for livestock.
Organic farming has been shown to be profitable, and in some studies returns to the farm are higher than those of "conventional" farming, even without the price premiums. Currently, premiums are available for most commodities (organic corn sold for $5.20 per bushel in 1999; organic soybeans sold for $11- $22 per bushel depending on variety). High-value organic crops can help keep some farming enterprises viable. As commodity programs are eliminated, more farmers will discover that organic production is a legitimate and economically viable alternative enterprise. Because of the high profitability, organic farming can be profitable on small acreage. With high returns and lower land and capital requirements, young people interested in farming as an occupation face far fewer barriers to entering the business. In fact, it is one of the few ways new growers without an inherited land or equipment base can enter agriculture.
While the organic industry has continued to grow and mature, there has been little supporting university research. The Organic Unit serves as a site for relevant research in biologically-based farming systems. Some examples of research conducted on the Organic Unit include:
Using summer cover crops to enhance nitrogen cycling, reduce nitrate leaching, control soil erosion, and suppress weeds;
Evaluating various rates and types of compost and other organic fertilizers for wheat production;
Breeding rye cover crops that are more suppressive to weeds;
Developing a sweetcorn and buckwheat intercropping system; and
Investigating organic production strategies for major NC crops including sweetpotato and peanut.
In 1999, USDA National Research Initiative Program funded Strategies for Transition to Organic Systems: Ecological and Economic Indices. This study is nested within the larger comprehensive systems experiment at CEFS. The objectives to this study are to investigate various strategies — from a biological and economic systems perspective — for making the transition from a conventional to an organic agricultural production system. It has been documented that when growers transition from conventional to organic production systems, there is a period of suppressed yields followed by a return to yields near or equal to conventional production. This "transition effect" has been attributed in part to time required for necessary changes in chemical, physical, and biological properties of soil which enhance nutrient cycling, plant growth and development, and the biological pest control properties of the system. Six treatments, representing various strategies for transition and appropriate controls, are being monitored for a variety of parameters.
The Organic Unit also serves as a focal point for agent training in organic farming systems. Through funding made available by the USDA Southern Region SARE Professional Development Program, N.C. Cooperative Extension agents participated in a series of six, two-day workshops in organic farming systems. Offered together as a course for graduate credit, the training included hands-on experiential learning opportunities, demonstrations, farm tours, lectures, exposure to a variety of educational resources, and more.
One focus of the Organic Unit is to demonstrate successful organic farming principles and practices. Annual Field Days showcase organic production principles and practices. Demonstrations showcased at the 2000 Field Day included:
Plantings (grasses, legumes, "beneficial mixes", and wildflowers) for creation of beneficial insect habitat;
Soil solarization (with and without sudex, canola and compost) demo for control of strawberry pests and weeds;
Tillage tools (including a bezzarides torsion weeder, a buddingh finger weeder, a buddingh basket weeder, a flex tine weeder, and traditional sweeps, among others) for weed control in organically grown summer vegetables;
Compost preparation (at the new OU composting site, complete with windrow turner) and application rate demonstration of nutrient availability;
Summer cover crop mixtures for adjusting C:N ratio of resulting green manure mulches; and
Rate and method-of-application for organic nutrient amendments of varying stability and character.
In 2000, we hosted the first annual intensive Summer Internship Program in Sustainable Agriculture. Funded by the USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant Program and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, this program includes production, research, and extension components in Sustainable Agriculture. This eight-week course draws students from all over the country to attend. Students live in a dormitory directly in front of the Organic Unit. While the internship program participants are integrated into all of CEFS activities, many interns chose the production option at the OU. Students learn basic principles and practices ranging from composting to marketing.