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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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WSU Focus on Sustainable Ag Goes Beyond Curriculum to Impact Washington Farmers and World At Large

March 21, 2012 |

For Washington State University, the states only land-grant university, sustainability is an integral part of its agriculture program.

“It’s all based on developing sustainable strategies. It has to be in this day and age or it’s just not feasible,” said Kim Kidwell, associate dean of WSU’s College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resources Sciences. “The mindset with all these students is long term viability.”

In 2009, WSU reconfigured their Agriculture and Food Systems degree program to make it more interdisciplinary. The program offers a degree in Organic Agriculture Systems, which was the nation’s first organic agriculture major when it was created in 2006. It also offers degrees in agricultural technology and production management, agricultural education, agricultural and food business economics, and agriculture and food security.

The Agriculture and Food Systems curriculum is geared towards people who will be practitioners in the industry, Kidwell said. The program attracts a lot of returning students who already have experience working in agriculture. For these students, it’s a given that sustainability should be a concern, Kidwell said.

Since it’s creation six years ago, enrollment in the Agriculture and Food Systems program has increased by 60 percent, Kidwell said. She credits the increasing enrollment to the steady job market for students with agriculture degrees.

Kidwell stressed the interdisciplinary nature of the Agriculture and Food Systems curriculum. Students take a core set of classes that integrate human, economic, environmental, scientific and educational components, as well as classes specific to their focus.

“We’re giving students a holistic view, because the students understand the whole picture,” she said. “It mirrors the way we do research here – on any research team you’ll find a broad array of researchers.”

Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources

WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources is the outreach branch of WSU’s agriculture program. It brings sustainable agriculture to the citizens and farmers of Washington through its research, extension centers and grant programs. The center focuses on organic agriculture, biologically intensive agriculture, climate friendly farming, and providing assistance to strengthen small farms.

Small Farms Program

WSU’s Small Farms program, part of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, isn’t unique nationally but it is one of the strongest small farms programs on the West Coast, said Chad Kruger, director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Most of the nation’s small farms programs are on the East Coast.

Small farmers are responsible for a lot of innovation, but often their science isn’t documented, Kruger said. WSU’s Small Farms program works closely with professionals in the field to document their research and apply it to other farms.

“We really reach out to small farms, especially in the area of soil science,” Kruger said. “I don’t know if any other land-grant universities have been as successful as us at offering courses to professional small farmers.”

WSU’s Small Farms program has 60 faculty team members with diverse areas of interest including agritourism, medicinal herbs, farmers market research, and soil science.  Team members provide information and educational programs for small farmers, as well as consumers and policy makers.

Climate Friendly Farming

Washington is known for rain but it can be bone dry in the summer, especially east of the Cascades. Farms in Washington rely on snowmelt in the mountains to irrigate their crops all-summer long. This reliance on snowmelt makes farms near WSU and it’s extension centers especially susceptible to climate change, Kruger said.

WSU’s Climate Friendly Farming Program focuses on developing solutions to reduce agriculture-related greenhouse gasses, sequester carbon in the soil, and replace fertilizer and other fossil fuel-derived products with plant-derived products.

Research projects at WSU that aim to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint include the following: experiments with switchgrass and other perennial plants to capture carbon in the soil; growing wheat and potatoes with low and to-till methods; and turning agricultural waste into energy.

One focus area for WSU’s research related to turning waste into energy is on anaerobic digestion. Through anaerobic digestion, it is possible to convert manure and other organic waste into methane, which can then be used to generate electricity. In 2005, WSU’s center for Sustaining Agriculture and Resources hosted a workshop to teach dairy farmers about anaerobic digestion. They have been funding anaerobic digestion research ever since.

WSU is also working to provide farmers in Washington with the information and tools to adapt to future climate conditions that may include new and different pests. A team of WSU and USDA scientists are using computer simulation, expert advice, and experience from areas with a similar climate to Washington’s projected climate to determine the effect climate change will have on the state’s main crops.

This work is tedious, but Kruger said it’s important to research now, or climate change will drive up the costs of pest control. “With a lot of Washington’s bigger crops, like tree fruit and potatoes, pest management is the major cost,” he said. “We need to prepare for that now, because some of the sustainable pest management practices we have developed won’t be as effective in the future.”

International Sustainable Agriculture Programs

WSU has extension offices all over Washington, but their faculty is exporting sustainable agriculture research as far away as Malawi, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Rwanda. This spring, six students will travel to Rwanda to develop sustainable solutions for small-scale farmers. Kidwell said they hope to teach rural Rwandans sustainable plant, animal and mushroom growing practices, as well as installing compost toilets.

Kidwell traveled to Rwanda in January 2012 to plan the project. She said the goal of the project is to not only aid food production in one of the world’s poorest countries, but also to learn some new practices to bring back to Washington. “I was shocked by how much they’re doing in Rwanda that we can learn from,” Kidwell said. “It’s a beautiful bridge between WSU and a developing country that needs some support.”

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