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Living Well: WSU's organic agriculture major takes root

It's apparent John Reganold is a good listener. He may be an even better speaker.

Four years ago during a faculty meeting of his Washington State University agricultural science colleagues, Reganold presented a seminal idea: He proposed starting an organic agriculture major for WSU undergraduates.

"My feeling was the time was right," recalled Reganold. "Production in organic agriculture had increased by 20 percent for eight straight years and is now up to 12 years at that growth rate. Plus, businesses and students alike were contacting me in increasing numbers wondering if we would consider starting an organic major."

In the case of businesses, Reganold was hearing from lots of Western Washington organic farms that were booming in popularity but running short on knowledgeable employees. Plus, larger food companies with organic-brand aspirations have called frequently.

For instance, Bob Sowcroft, executive director of the California-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, has commended the new WSU major and has said that "especially the bigger companies are looking for experienced organic farm managers and sales forces with some credentials."

Reganold listened and reacted progressively. The organic agriculture major offered for the first time this year is the first of its kind in the country. Both Colorado State and Michigan State have organic ag courses in their curriculums, but neither offers a major. Both schools likely will follow WSU's lead within the next several years. The University of Guelph in Canada also offers an organic agriculture major.

After presenting his idea, Reganold got the green light from his faculty colleagues. One professor, quite enthused, visited Reganold after the meeting to offer his support.

"You mean it will be a sustainable agriculture major, right?" asked the colleague.

"No, no, other schools have that," said Reganold, referring to the broader farming practice of maintaining production without compromising the soil, water supply and other precious resources. But sustainable agriculture is less strict about chemical use.

"I said, 'It's OK to use the O-word as a major," recalled Reganold. 'The demand is there. Let's go all the way.' "

Reganold came to his idea fortified by the then-pending national organic standards, which by October 2002 established a specific and consumer-friendly "certified organic" label for foods produced without chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides. He remained encouraged during a first year of successfully coordinating the prospective organic major with eight other WSU departments that might offer courses to be included in the curriculum.

For example, organic ag majors will take an economics course to be exposed to the market forces of organic produce. The university's nutrition professors gave a hearty thumbs-up to the project and offered to develop a possible minor in food science for organic majors.

The next academic year involved the mandatory market survey of employers and students required by all new majors at a state school. The organic ag major passed that test with flying colors.

This past year, the state's higher education authorities approved the new major. Reganold has since been on a campaign to recruit students for the designation. He reports several students already in the fold and a good number more expected during student meetings this week in anticipation of the new WSU fall term that starts next Monday. The goal is about 40 majors.

"The response of the faculty, other university departments, the community and state authorities didn't surprise me at any juncture," Reganold said. "What would have surprised me is if we didn't get to this point. The organic agriculture major is a natural outcome of the growth of organic food."

Reganold is no doubt being modest. While organic food sales are continuing an unprecedented upswing, the journey to legitimacy for organic farmers has been staggered at best. The establishment of an organic major at a respected agriculture school such as Washington State brings instant creditability. What's more, the national media and legislators are sure to discover that Reganold and his fellow faculty members have been compiling quite the impressive collection of organic farming research over the past two decades.

What encourages Reganold the most is attracting new students to agriculture in general through the organic program.

"We weren't just responding to organic but to get students interested in agriculture," said Reganold. "There has been a significant decline in interest in agriculture (the estimated average age of U.S. farmers is 55). Agriculture has not been hot, but organic is hot."

Reganold has enjoyed a pilot program of sorts during the formative years of creating. The university has a 3-acre certified organic farm that operates as a CSA (community-supported agriculture). Students learn to plant, grow, tend and get organic crops to market. First marketing efforts resulted in 86 CSA shares, and that customer list grew to 100 this summer before WSU coordinators again had to set up a waiting list.

"I guess we need more land," said Reganold. "It's a good problem to have."

And living proof that WSU is ahead of the class with its new organic agriculture major.