Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Washington State University First in Nation to Offer Major in Organic Agriculture

The freshly-picked strawberries at the WSU organic farm aren't as large as the ones typically sold at the grocery store, but they are redder, sweeter and grown without the use of pesticides.

"If it's seasonal, if it's local, then it's going to taste better," WSU student Julie Sullivan said as she laid out irrigation tubes in the organic farm fields.

Sullivan will likely be the first student in the nation to major in organic agriculture. The WSU College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences will offer an organic agricultural systems major starting fall semester.

Sullivan heard about plans for the major and took the appropriate classes even before the major was approved.

She said she wanted her education to be in organic farming whether or not that was reflected in the name of her major.

Student Will Hollingbery took a less direct route, but he also plans to major in organic agricultural systems. He said he switched majors several times, most recently to soil science, before deciding on the new organic agriculture major.

"It's a huge focus on the quality of the soil and healthy plants," he said.

Hollingbery grew up on an apple orchard, but said his future plans involve growing as many crops as he can.

Sullivan and Hollingbery are working at the farm this summer for credit in Soil Science 480, a course required for the new major.

The curriculum was primarily developed by soil science professor John Reganold. He said WSU has been a leader in organic agriculture research over the past 25 years, and he knew there was student demand for that knowledge.

"With that history of research, why shouldn't we have an academic program?" he said.

The organic agriculture market has been growing at a rate of about 20 percent a year for the past decade, Reganold said. Organic foods and drinks now make up 2 percent of the total food industry, and he said that figure is expected to double by 2010.

With increasing demand for organic products, the new major will make students more marketable.

"There are companies who are interested in students who are knowledgeable in organic agriculture," Reganold said.

Since it is the first of its kind, the organic agricultural systems major is attracting national attention.

Paul Hepperly, director of research and training at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, said they are pleased to hear about it.

The Rodale Institute is considered the birthplace of modern organic farming. It was founded 60 years ago by J.I. Rodale, whose philosophy was that people are healthier if their food is grown in healthy soil. This philosphy continues to guide organic agriculture.

Hepperly said the new major responds to the growing demand for organic products.

"We need to produce a new generation of organic farmers and entrepreneurs to promote sustainability," he said.

Miles McEvoy, manager of the Washington State Department of Agriculture Organic Food Program, said the new major at WSU benefits the entire regional community by providing education in organic farming.

"Having WSU support it is vital to the development of organic agriculture in the Northwest," he said.

The new organic agriculture major may be a landmark in the development of organic farming, but a new label doesn't change the daily work that Sullivan, Hollingbery and others put into the farm.

Not that they're complaining.

"I love it," Sullivan said. "I want to be on a farm like this for the rest of my life."

Sullivan finds it funny that organic farming is getting attention as a new innovation since all farming was organic before 1940.

"People have become so disconnected from their food supply," Sullivan said. "We have to relearn it."