Legislature might boost U organic research funding

A new bill proposes giving more than $2 million for organic agriculture research.

by Courtney Blanchard

The University might become a little greener and more natural.

The Legislature is considering giving the University more than $2 million to research organic agriculture.

The appropriation would create ongoing funding for new staff positions, graduate assistantships and equipment to research organic agriculture at the St. Paul campus, UMore Park and outreach centers in Lamberton, Waseca, Morris and Crookston.

Farmers might label crops and livestock organic if they meet certain conditions, such as avoiding the use of manmade herbicides, pesticides and growth hormones.

Rep. Ken Tschumper, DFL- La Crescent, authored the bill. He said the state has lagged behind on researching organic agriculture, even though the products are now on the mainstream market.

“This initiative will make the University of Minnesota a national and international leader in organic research and education,” Tschumper said.

Most organic farmers rely on word of mouth for new information, he said. Their farms are small operations, he added, and the method is a way to be environmentally friendly and boost profits.

“The fact is, that you can get more money from your products,” Tschumper said. “That really looks attractive to smaller producers.”

At the University, students learn about organic farming and research through classes and groups like What’s Up in Sustainable Agriculture.

Courtney Tchida is the project coordinator for the student organic farm project on the St. Paul campus. Students grow mostly fruit and vegetables, and, when in season, they sell the produce on campus or at the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market.

Tchida, an agriculture graduate student who works at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, said involvement in the project rapidly increased during the three years she’s been there.

“People are interested in organics because there’s a perception that organic food is healthier,” she said.

Tchida said there’s some evidence that organic produce contains higher values of micronutrients like Vitamin C. She said many people choose to buy organic because they feel it’s better for the environment, and they like to support smaller farms.

“People want to know where their food is coming from,” Tchida said.

At North Country Co-op on the West Bank, students can buy organic and fair-trade products and even get a latté from the newly opened organic coffee bar.

University graduate Matt Ryan, who has worked at the store for more than two years, said the store draws a lot of students and a large East African population.

“Organic is becoming more accessible,” Ryan said. “It’s a response in a lot of ways to large farms producing low-grade food.”

Some of the most popular products at North Country are fair-trade bananas, which cost 99 cents per pound on Fridays. Ryan said many students also look for sandwiches and snack food, but the more ingredients, the harder it is to make organic.

Some students, like economics junior Evan Anderson, choose to forgo organic foods because of the price.

“It’s a good idea, but it’s kind of expensive,” he said.

Anderson said he tries to avoid preservatives, but that can sometimes be difficult.

“There’s a lot more variety with non-organic food,” he said.

Despite the cost to buyers, the industry is growing across the state.

The number of certified organic acres increased by 57 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The report also said the state had 525 certified organic farms in 2006.