Organics go mainstream at Fresno State

October 9, 2011

By Genevieve Bookwalter

Fresno State student Ryan Steward stands in front of rows of conventional tomatoes. Steward plans to use what he learned about organic farming when he joins his father's fertilizer business.

Ryan Steward looks forward to graduating from college and joining his father’s fertilizer business as a pest control advisor. His future job: teaching farmers around the world how to apply chemicals so crops will grow more food.

But after taking the only organic farming class offered at California State University Fresno, Steward, 28, said he knows now where he wants to lead the business’ expansion.

“I was all about synthetic fertilizer,” Steward said. But “a lot of customers come to us and say, ‘what do you have on the organic side?’”

Those prospects are what Professor Dave Goorahoo said he had in mind for students when he began teaching Organic Crop Production in 2007. Originally offered as a trial class to gauge student interest, it was approved by the university’s curriculum committee for the first time as a permanent class this year.

“We don’t really come here to debate organic vs. conventional,” Goorahoo said. “The end of the line is, they see it as a business opportunity.”

Organic eggplant grows on the Fresno State campus.

Conventional farmers use synthetic fertilizers and pest controls to grow greater quantities of food per acre, and often sell it at a cheaper price than organically grown food. Some advocates say conventional farming is the only way to feed the world’s expanding population. Until Goorahoo’s class, Fresno State only embraced conventional methods of growing crops.

Meanwhile, California is widely regarded as the birthplace of the organic farming movement. A way of growing food without petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides or other chemicals, organic farming has grown in recent years from a boutique hobby to a major industry. For an increasing number of shoppers, organic farming is important in reducing exposure to unwanted chemicals. Others believe organic produce just tastes better.

But when most people think of organic farming, they often picture the San Francisco Bay Area. There, small farms in Marin, Santa Cruz and other liberal coastal counties have existed for years, selling produce to community farmer’s markets. Fresno County, on the other hand, is the heart of California’s agricultural industry. It is a powerhouse of traditional farming, large agricultural corporations and conservative thinking. If there ever was a sign that organic farming has gone mainstream, it was the arrival of a permanent class on how to farm without chemicals being taught in Fresno.

Organic farming is “not a matter of debate,” Goorahoo said. “It’s coexistence.”

No matter what a grower’s personal philosophy may be, Goorahoo said, as agricultural giants diversify to offer both conventional and organic products — like Driscoll’s strawberries in Santa Cruz County, for example — Fresno State grads will find it harder to land jobs without organic training.

They also will compete against graduates from UC Davis, California State University Chico and other schools that have grown their organic curriculums in recent years, Goorahoo said.

According to the Organic Trade Association, an industry group based in Brattleboro, Vermont, organic produce accounted for more than 11 percent of all fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. last year. Sales of organic food and drink in the United States have jumped from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010.

Fresno County was the leading agricultural county in the nation last year, with $5.9 billion in sales, according to county Agricultural Commissioner Carol Hafner. Of that, $81.7 million—just over 1 percent—was earned from organic crops. That’s nearly double the $47 million sold in 2006.

Ryan Jacobsen, CEO and executive director of Fresno County Farm Bureau, said he’s glad his alma mater is offering students the skills to seize on organics’ popularity.

“There’s a growing demand, and at the same time it’s a distinguishing factor that some use to market their produce,” Jacobsen said. For example, organic Sun-Maid raisins sold at Costco are grown in Fresno County, he said.

Still, Tom Willey, co-owner of organic T&D Willey Farms in Madera and a guest lecturer in Goorahoo’s class, called it a “baby step.”

“I don’t think Fresno State has really waded into it deeply enough where the program is going to cause a tremendous impact in how ag is produced in the (San Joaquin) Valley,” Willey said. Students interested in organic farming, he said, will attend a university that offers more of it.

Like Goorahoo, Willey said students without organic training could be left in a lurch when hunting for jobs.

“The greater exposure that they would have had to organic systems, that would make them much more ideal as an employee,” Willey said. “Some of the largest ag entities in the Valley now are, to some extent, involved in organic production,” he said. He pointed to Grimmway Farms in Kern County as an example, which sells under the Cal-Organic label.

Looming over Fresno State’s organics class is the state’s budget crisis. The university’s three acres of organic crops and 1,000-square-foot herb garden cost money to maintain and expand, and a grant of $250,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2008 is running out, said Sajeemas Pasakdee, soil scientist and garden advisor. Meanwhile funding to California’s public universities is being cut across the board.

Pasakdee said she hopes local organic growers see value in the Fresno State program and will help cover future costs.

“They’ve been waiting to hear when Fresno State will step up” and offer organic farming classes, Pasakdee said. Soon the school could need help keeping them.

For Steward, the future pest control advisor, the organic crop production class opened up a world of business possibilities—literally.

Steward’s Fresno-based family company, Custom Ag Formulators, operates plants in California and in Australia. The company distributes fertilizer to farmers across the United States and in Chile, India, Turkey and elsewhere, he said — markets that are ripe for organic fertilizers, too.

Goorahoo’s class “opened my eyes to a different side,” Steward said.

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