Saturday, June 30, 2012

Will The University Of Tennessee Teach Students Organic Farming?

The University of Tennessee’s Organic and Sustainable Crop Production program was ranked as one of the top six organic programs in the country by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, which monitors the U.S. land grant system.

The foundation recently ranked institutions on their level of commitment to organic agriculture, using an eight-point system that considered if the institution offered certified organic research land, a student organic farm and organic major and minor areas of study, among other factors. Six campuses received the full eight points in the 2012 Organic Land Grant Assessment, with the University of Tennessee as the newest addition to the organic arena, according to a publication from the foundation.

Annett Wszelaki, commercial vegetable extension specialist at the Department of Plant Sciences at UT, says the program was started in 2007 in cooperation with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the Center for Profitable Agriculture.

“Since 2008, the number of organic fruit and vegetable producers has more than doubled,” Wszelaki said in an e-mail.

The university conducts monthly workshops on farms on a wide range of topics. On June 11, the workshop, themed “Ketchup on the Latest in Organic Tomato Production,” was held at the Beardsley Community Farm in Knoxville, Tenn.

“We had about 20 participants and they got to try their hand at tomato grafting, as well as learn more about general organic tomato production,” Wszelaki said in an e-mail.

The workshops are targeted toward commercial growers and agriculture professionals, such as farmers markets and roadside stands, according to Wszelaki. She says the workshops are in their third year and have seen success.

“There has been a great response and appreciation for the information,” Wszelaki said. “We work with season extension, minimum tillage, variety trialing, biological control, cover cropping and anaerobic soil disinfestation.”

The next workshop is scheduled for July 9, with the theme, “Grape Expectations,” and will be held at Delmonaco Winery in Baxter, Tenn. In 2010, an organic internship program was created to train students in all aspects of produce farming. The program trains students interested in potentially becoming organic farmers in business planning, production and marketing, according to Wszelaki. The program also created a campus farmers market to help incorporate the entire university community.

“We have educational exhibits each week, as well as a variety of vendors, and music and children’s activities. We hope to continue to grow the market and make it a recruiting tool for the university as well as a gathering place for the university and Knoxville community,” she said.

In addition, the university initiated food safety trainings in 2009, and has since trained more than 500 growers and workers and more than 50 extension agents in worker health and hygiene, writing food safety plans. The program has also helped prepare these individuals by conducting mock audits, according to Wszelaki.
Other projects include a season extension project with Washington State University and Texas A&M.

“We are looking at how biodegradable mulches behave (break down) and perform, both inside and outside of high tunnels. And also, the performance of varieties of high-value crops (lettuce, tomato and strawberry) inside and outside the tunnels,” Wszelaki said.

The study is in its third year and has revealed several developments of the use of these hoop-shaped temporary frames covered in clear plastic, according to publications from the project.

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