Organics 101 Down on the Farm

Assistant UT Professor Annette Wszelaki is UT Vegetable Specialist
and heads up the state's organic growing program.
Interested in eating organic foods whenever your family can afford them?  Agriculture leaders know you do. They are working to improve your chances of being able to find local, organic foods to purchase.  The University of Tennessee notes that supply can't keep up with demand in this emerging movement.  Enter UT Vegetable Specialist Annette Wszelaki to develop an organic growing program in cooperation with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.  The program plugs the latest crop research into useful organic and sustainable methods for family farms.

Wszelaki was gracious enough to give me a personal tour of the UT Organic Research Farm in early spring.  She showed me everything from the high tunnels that house rows of lettuce and strawberries, to strips of experimental mulches, to a plot of organically grown cabbages and garlic.  This assistant professor is ready to articulate in detail about the ways cover crops like Austrian winter pea and oats can benefit the soil. Yet, she's patient enough to answer my simple questions like, "Isn't growing organically harder than conventional?"

(Caption clockwise:  Leaf lettuce grown in high tunnel; research could extend the growing season for local strawberries; legumes like Austrian winter pea provide nutrient rich cover crops; organically grown garlic.)

Wszelaki's answer focuses on the big picture. "Once you have a nice system I don't think it's harder; and with our organic program we're working on developing a system."  The UT extension service supports growers around the state who use both conventional and organic methods and those who are in transition between the two paradigms.  Research at the UT farm can show growers alternatives to reaching for something synthetic to fix depleted soil, kill weeds or defend against pests.  Organic studies help growers focus on crop rotations that can prevent erosion, feed the soil, control weeds and attract beneficial insects.  "You're looking at the whole system and what each thing can contribute."  While we admired some of the crops up close, we could see the bees housed at the edge of the woods, soon to be doing their part to pollinate the plants. 

Service Supervisor Bill Lively, Light Equipment Operator Bobby Terry,
Assistant Professor David Butler, Research Assistant Sarah Eichler Inwood
install various types of mulch for comparison:  cut rye grass,
polyethelene sheeting, photodegradable white plastic
Wszelaki admits that growers can become frustrated if they don't understand the long-term benefits of converting to organics.  During the initial transition from conventional,  growers may experience lower crop yields; but that's a normal part of the process.  The agriculture specialists are hosting a field day at the end of April to help more growers learn from the latest projects at the UT Organic Research Farm.

Organic Growing:  Getting Started

Green Watering Alternatives

To Market, To Market

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