Thursday, May 29, 2008

Organic Ag Program Benefits Students, Community

Students' interests in the organic agriculture certificate program at the University of Georgia aren't limited to growing peppers, sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Some students are hoping to start businesses with the knowledge they acquire.

One student, Lizabeth Simmons, is hoping to open a "florist shop featuring organic cut flowers while another student, Wesley Belcher, wants to open an organic Christmas tree farm," said Marc van Iersel, a UGA horticulture professor involved with the program.

Belcher is a UGA student and Christmas tree farmer. After getting into the program, he'd like to incorporate organic trees into his business because "some people feel that chemical residues are harmful to their health and the surrounding environment," he said.

"People handle Christmas trees a lot with their hands," Belcher said. So he'd like to offer them trees they can decorate without coming into contact with chemical residues.

"People will feel warm and fuzzy when they see that they're getting an organically grown Christmas tree," he said.

Benefits

The UGA certificate program provides hands-on learning opportunities for students. It benefits Georgia farmers by increasing awareness of organic agriculture as an alternative method of growing crops.

Van Iersel said farmers around Athens support the university's program. Students study local farmers' problems and try to solve them as part of the class research. Then they pass this knowledge back to the farmers.

"The horticulture farm doesn't compete with local farmers," van Iersel said. "It serves more to educate the community and students about different ways to grow crops and the different, nontraditional options growers have."

"Our purpose is not to promote organic agriculture over traditional methods but to promote awareness of using alternative methods," he said.

Differences

Robert Tate, the primary caretaker and project coordinator for the UGA horticulture farm, has more than 10 years of experience with organic agriculture. He said, "The techniques are more labor-intensive than in traditional methods. However, methods such as crop rotation and drip tape, a form of irrigation, prove more efficient and ecologically friendly."

"Water conservation and soil rejuvenation are among the main concerns," Tate said. "Their objective in organic production is to grow quality produce and continually maintain good soil conditions."

The program has benefits throughout Athens. Anish Malladi, a horticulture assistant professor, said the program donates half of the certified organic produce grown at the horticulture farm to the Northeast Georgia Food Bank in Athens. The rest is sold as a club fundraiser.

"Many departments work together in the certificate program," van Iersel said. "Entomologists suggest using certain insects to protect the crops from harmful insect species. Plant pathologists teach ways to prevent pathogens from invading the crops."

To learn more about the UGA organic agriculture certificate program, visit the Web site at www.uga.edu/organic.

By Katie Jaeger
University of Georgia

Katie Jaeger is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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