Every Tuesday and Thursday, at the base of the sunny, rolling hills of the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), campus, locals gather at a farm stand to buy fresh tomatoes and salad greens. A small sign advertises, "UCSC Farm and Garden: Organic Produce for Sale."
Affiliated with the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), the UCSC Farm and Garden make up a 25-acre research farm, one of only a handful in the country devoted to 100% organic research. The Farm provides fertile soil--and fertile research opportunities--for a diverse group of scientists and educators. It serves as a nexus for a wide variety of activities: a field research station for scientists; a classroom for visiting students; a training ground for organic apprentices, and a fully functioning organic farm.
Thanks to the collaboration between the Farm and CASFS, "We have made pretty amazing contributions to our understanding [of sustainable agriculture]," says Steve Gliessman, the Center's founder.
The problem of food production for a growing population has been largely met by modern agribusiness. Much of this success is due to a host of scientific and technological advances, including the use of pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, and genetic manipulation. However, these same advances, some say, threaten to degrade the basis for food production. As a result, interest in alternative, sustainable methods of agriculture--of which organic production is just one component--has increased. In fact, organic farming is currently the fastest growing agricultural sector.
But, scientific research into organic farming lags behind. Marc Los Huertos, a postdoctoral researcher with CASFS says, "There is a high percentage of organic ag in the region, and [yet] we don't know anything about organic agriculture." The authors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) State of the States report agree that more research is needed: "Even now, efforts at doing long-term organic systems research can be counted on one hand."
The UCSC Center is one such program, but it is unique in that it focuses both on the "how to" and the "how come," blending the social and the natural sciences with hands-on farming. "You won't find an interdisciplinary approach in all the other programs," says Gliessman.
Graduate students affiliated with CASFS--they're usually enrolled through the university's Environmental Studies department--interact with faculty from the social and natural sciences. They also benefit from the rich field-research opportunities offered by the Farm and the central coast.
"What's unique here is [that] there's money in the region, and there just aren't enough people to do the research," says Los Huertos. "There are so many questions in ag ? that almost any field, except perhaps astrophysics, could come in and ask [something] interesting. ... The questions here are really provocative."
The interdisciplinary and applied nature of the work seems to attract a certain kind of scientist. Many have a passion for getting out in the field and doing work that addresses real-world problems. "I never would have come back into academics without the nontraditional approach available here," says Gliessman, who spent 10 years farming and doing research in Latin America before founding CASFS and continues to farm part time. "For me, it [the appeal of the program] was a real focus on getting out of the lab and into the field, and then from the field onto farms, working with people who are dealing with these problems every day."
Sajeemas Pasakdee, a graduate student with CASFS, is typical of the problem-centered approach of the researchers who work on the Farm. Pasakdee, who studies fertilization and irrigation of organic broccoli, hopes to bring her knowledge home to Thailand, where she grew up as the daughter of a rice farmer. Pasakdee believes that agriculture is very important, but her work also reflects her personal interests. "I like gardening and plants," she says.
Another researcher who likes to get his hands dirty is Jim Leap, the Farm's manager. Leap was an independent farmer for 15 years before completing his bachelor's degree and accepting the job at UCSC. He is a "research farmer"--but not in the conventional sense of a researcher for a large firm studying pesticides. "I've really got the best of both worlds," says Leap. "I am extremely lucky to be engaged in a production system and at the same time be involved in research and information sharing."
Researchers--CASFS faculty or scientists from elsewhere--come up with a research question and plan of study. Leap is the one who tells them how and when it can be done, drawing on his considerable farming expertise. "He's definitely one of the more experienced organic farmers in the central coast," says USDA researcher Eric Brennan. Leap does the practical part of the research, such as laying out plots and data collection. He is also involved in education and public outreach, teaching classes and giving lectures at farm conferences and colleges.
Leap's original goal was to become a farm advisor--another possible career path for those interested in agriculture. Farm advisors are generally employed by university cooperative extension programs and work closely with growers to develop research programs geared toward the farmer's needs. Depending upon the nature of the position, they may have any degree, from a bachelor's to a Ph.D. Farm advisors provide the crucial communication link between farmers and academic researchers, helping to inform scientists of farmers' needs.
Carollee Bull, a USDA plant pathologist, is one of many government researchers who have collaborated with CASFS and the Farm. She and Leap worked together on variety trials for organic strawberries. Bull reports that "My parents kept saying, 'But, what will you do with a degree in botany?' " Despite her parents' skepticism, she followed her interests and is very pleased with the results; Bull enjoys her job because it has so many facets, including a large fieldwork element.
As a viable profession, organic agriculture research has gained a lot of ground, but it still has a long way to go. When Eric Brennan, a future collaborator with the Farm, got his first (BS) degree in 1983, his advisor told him there was no future in organics. Now, he has just become the first USDA researcher in the country to focus on 100% organic research. Gliessman expects more research positions in organic agriculture to open up now that the National Organic Standards--which took effect on 21 October--have provided consistent labeling for organic produce across the country.
Many of the program's graduates go on to do what Gliessman calls "action research"--trying to solve scientific problems with social aspects. Many find jobs--teaching, doing research, or concentrating on policy and funding issues--in universities and nonprofit groups. This typical career path for graduates is not surprising, considering the nature of the training they receive at CASFS: While completing a Ph.D., Gliessman says, students get to grapple with a difficult problem for a time. "And, when you're done with that, you can sort of ask yourself a question: Did I do this just so I could get a job at a university, or did I do it because I got to work on something that I really believed in?" Gliessman then adds, "In my opinion, if you choose the second, then you begin to accomplish things you never dreamed possible."