KINGSTON, R.I. – May 13, 2020 – A portion of the land used to conduct crop research at the University of Rhode Island has been certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organics Program.
Three acres of the 30-acre Gardner Crops Research Center on URI’s Kingston Campus will now be able to be used to conduct research on organic production methods and for comparison studies of organic and conventional crop production. The land will also be used in classes on sustainable crop production.
The process of certifying the land as organic involved a three-year prohibition on the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a detailed plan for how the land will be used in the future, and an inspection by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture.
“There is a great deal of student interest in organic production, so this will be a selling point for prospective students and a great teaching opportunity,” said John Taylor, URI associate professor of sustainable agriculture, who led the certification effort. “It also means we can conduct research under grants that require that it be conducted on organically-certified lands. And it’s a learning opportunity for our faculty, too.”
According to Taylor, there is increasing interest among farmers to grow crops organically because the methods used enhance soil health and provide for better nutrient cycling, and because consumers are willing to pay more for organic food.
Maintaining the land as organic will require that URI staff pay close attention to how the adjacent land is treated.
“We have to do things like wash equipment when we take it from the conventional field to the organic field, and we have to be strict about pesticide use on the conventional field so the pesticides don’t drift to the organic side,” Taylor said.
On the organic field, Taylor plans to conduct research on how organic practices can be applied to culturally significant crops from diverse communities in New England. Other faculty will also be conducting research on organic growing methods and related topics.
Taylor is also working with Pierre St-Germain, director of URI Dining Services, to serve more food grown on URI farms in the campus dining halls.
“We have produce going there now, but there could be more,” Taylor said. “There are constraints in terms of labor at the farm and the fact that the farming season is out of sync with the school year. But we’re going to be expanding food production, and we’re working to facilitate the flow of production from the farms to the dining halls.”
St-Germain has hired one of Taylor’s graduate students to serve as a liaison and to streamline the process of acquiring food produced on campus, including lamb and beef raised at URI’s Peckham Farm.
“I have a culinary background, and I have a love of good fresh product,” said St-Germain. “One of the enticements for me to come to URI was to have the opportunity to utilize the farms, not just as a production facility but also as a way to educate students about local food. It’s exciting to see that some of our food comes from just a half mile away.”
He plans to send his student managers to spend time working on the farms this summer, and he hopes to eventually get a small plot of land dedicated to growing food exclusively for the dining halls.
“We’re taking baby steps now, but I’m trying to change a culture that has long been driven by assumptions about what students want,” St-Germain said. “I’m trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of local food acquisition.”
Taylor also hopes to create a workshare program that will engage faculty, staff and students in volunteering at the farm in exchange for a portion of the harvest.
“It’s a way of giving the campus community an opportunity to get their hands dirty and help produce food for campus – and for themselves,” he said.