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The National Organic Tree Fruit Research Symposium, held in Chelan, Washington, this summer, brought together researchers and growers from across the country to discuss the future direction of organic research. In each of the regions, researchers are working to address the needs of organic growers, though there are two distinct types of organic production: the large-scale, wholesale-oriented production, found mainly in the West, and small-scale direct marketers.

Debate at the symposium centered on the idea of creating a national organic research agenda. David Granatstein, one of the symposium organizers, said though it’s obvious that growers have different needs in ­different parts of the country, there are some commonalities that could be ­tackled in unison by the disparate group. “The key is to be communicating,” he said.

This is the third symposium of its kind, and the fourth is tentatively scheduled to take place in Michigan in 2007. In the meantime, a national task force was appointed to prioritize organic research needs in the various regions so that a national research agenda can be developed.

Task force members include Drs. Ian Merwin of New York, Mark Whalon of Michigan, Curt Rom of Arkansas, and Kent Mullinix of Washington State. The need for a systems approach to research was discussed at the Chelan meeting, which was attended by scientists from a wide range of disciplines.

Whole system

Steve Ela of Colorado, who is current president of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said the more everyone works together with a common goal, the less wasted resources there will be. ­Research needs to be taken out of the input-substitution model to focus more on systems.

“How can we look at the whole system—not just what’s ­happening on the farm, but off-farm effects as well?” he asked. “There’s a lot of single-treatment, simple-effect, measure-the-response, report-results kind of research,” agreed Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. What might be needed, he suggested, is long-term research to answer profound questions of national significance relating to soil health and ecology, econ­omics, profitability, systems, and rural sustainability, such as, “How does the system work if it’s not disrupted?” or “What’s the relationship between ­sustainability and profitability?”

Such questions take on a new urgency as organic food moves into the mainstream and becomes a significant proportion of the food supply, but it will be challenging to find financing for such projects when funding commitments for research are normally limited to three years. How long is long enough to assess a system, participants wondered. McFerson said unless the symposium participants seek political action, very little will happen.

“What’s going to have the most impact, in my opinion, is if the industry itself says, ‘We need more research in organic tree fruit and we’ve partnered up.’ The rewrite of the Farm Bill is the best opportunity this industry will have, and if we miss that, shame on us.”

Grower profitability

Granatstein, who is coordinator of Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, said a case can be made on several fronts: grower profitability, which relates to producing quality fruit that people want to buy, as well as environmental stewardship, and public health.

Over the past 30 to 40 years, research has focused heavily on the individual components of fruit production, and with success, he noted. “But we’ve missed the forest for the trees, and that’s why we have some of the problems we have today. Let’s look at the bigger picture and the context in which our farms are operating, whether it’s the landscape or the society. The organic philosophy has tended to have a more holistic ­approach from the beginning.”

Granatstein said in his opinion it’s not a matter of either/or, and there are still many specific questions that need to be answered as well. “There’s a balance between the two. We’ve gone too far one way. Let’s make sure we do retain some perspective on the bigger picture and ­integrate that with our other work.” Ela said his group is active in Washington, D.C., to encourage legislators to authorize more research funding.

“If organic is 1.8 percent of the market, let’s get 1.8 percent of the research dollars,” he said. “If we did, that would be $30 million more than we would get now.” Chelan grower Wynne Weinreb said it’s important to include marketing and economic viability in the research, as she doesn’t feel that the organic industry is thriving and growing. “I think there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on,” she said.

“We’re all hanging on by threads. My husband has a full-time job so he’s able to support my habit of farming. How long can we continue farming if we’re not getting paid to do it?” Dr. Jay Brunner, director of WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, said scientists need to help develop practices for organic growers that lower costs of production and are economically feasible, so they can have a viable industry. As organic and conventional production practices converge, such research will have spin-offs for ­conventional growers, too.