Oct 12, 2006

New University Program Teaches Organic Farming

GAINESVILLE -- Danielle Treadwell sees herself as both an artist and a scientist as she teaches University of Florida students in one of the nation's first organic-agriculture degree programs.

Treadwell became interested in plants while pursuing an art degree, climbing into the Carolina mountains to paint. Art gave way to a doctorate in horticultural sciences, and now she works in one of three new university programs tied to the multibillion-dollar organic produce industry. Washington State and Colorado State universities also began programs this fall.

"So, art to science. Not that much of a stretch," she said. "Intuition and creativity are good skills to have when you farm."

Organic agriculture involves little or no use of synthetic chemical fertilizer or pesticide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established strict guidelines for certifying organic farmers and ranchers and imposes stringent fines for those who violate its regulations.

In 2005, organic foods accounted for about $14 billion in U.S. consumer sales, about 2.5 percent of total food sales, according to a manufacturers' survey commissioned by the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. Since 1998, revenues from U.S. consumer sales of organic foods have risen by an average of more than 18 percent per year.

Food categories with the greatest growth in 2005 included meat, 55.4 percent; condiments, 24.2 percent; and dairy products, 23.5 percent, according to the trade group.

"Organic farming is a better way," said student Michelle Bakowski, 23, of Tampa. "Commercial farmers use a lot of chemicals. Organic farmers use less harmful chemicals."

Dan Cantliffe, chairman of UF's horticultural sciences department, said the degree program has been long overdue.

"There's a big industry, a big demand and a lack of people who are qualified to do the work employers need," he said.

Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers Association, said no records are kept statewide on organic production. But he estimates about 12,000 acres of rice, citrus, watercress, blueberries, mixed vegetables, mangoes and avocados are grown on Florida organic farms.

Those farms could create jobs for UF graduates.

"There is employment when you get out," Cantliffe said.

UF offered a minor in organic agriculture last year and Cantliffe said he thought that would be enough to satisfy students, but demand from students and the industry changed his mind.

Though the new program was not announced until the start of the fall semester, nine students signed up right away, he said.

Eventually, he hopes to see 30 to 50 students studying organic agriculture, but "we may surpass that," he said.

The program is heavy on science and requires 120 credit hours, including chemistry, botany, genetics, entomology, soil science, several production agriculture classes and a semester-long internship.

"This gives you the skills and technical knowledge where if you needed to put 2,000 acres of organic crops into production, you could do it," said Mickie Swisher, a UF associate professor of family, youth and community sciences and director of UF's Center for Organic Agriculture.

Treadwell, an assistant professor of horticultural sciences, also sees the practical importance of the classes.

"There is a real need for trained students," she said. "What was evident to me is that we have a generation of young people who are committed to making the world a better place."

Florida's large grocery retailers, including Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart and Publix, are devoting more shelf space to organic products, varying from those produced by small businesses to firms such as Kellogg's, which has released organic versions of popular breakfast cereals.

Organic milk is becoming more popular among families with youngsters because it doesn't contain the hormones found in other milk. Organic beef is being bought for the same reasons, Mesh said.

Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. has seen a customer interest in organics.

"We believe it is a trend that is here to stay," said Patrick McSweeney, a company spokesman.

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