TTU establishing 113-acre organic farm

With profits from tobacco farming going up in smoke as the crop continues to decline, organic farming could provide a healthy alternative in the livelihoods of Upper Cumberland area farmers.

Professors in Tennessee Tech University’s School of Agriculture and Center for the Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources are joining forces to take the lead in that emerging trend by establishing a 113-acre organic farm in southern Putnam County.

The university has a long-term lease of the property from owners Gary and Brenda Waters of Bristol, Va., and was recently awarded $187,690 from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture for the Waters Organic Farm Startup contract.

A USDA Managed Ecosystems grant for $99,940 will also begin on Aug. 1.

“We’re glad to have these great resources because the use of the property and these grants will help provide the university with a number of organic research and demonstration opportunities,” said Jed Young, assistant professor of agriculture at TTU.

Organic simply means food that is produced free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms and hormones or any other man-made chemical.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, it’s one of the fastest growing agricultural segments in the nation, with about 1.7 million acres of cropland dedicated to certified organic farming in 2005.

At the same time that organic farming rates have risen, rates of tobacco farming have fallen significantly.

U.S. farms growing tobacco in 1954 numbered more than a half-million, according to USDA statistics, but by 2002, that number had dropped to fewer than 57,000. Of that number, only about 37,000 of those farms were classified specifically as tobacco farms, with that crop accounting for 50 percent or more of sales.

“The process of converting land to achieve organic certification takes three years, but we’re already taking steps to ensure that we’re organically certified as early as possible,” Young said. “That means using organic practices that we can demonstrate to other area farmers from the start.”

Vegetable crops of tomatoes, squash and bell peppers have been planted, and compost rates are being evaluated.

In addition, strawberries have been planted, shitake mushrooms have been seeded, and sweet sorghum is being compared between conventional and organic practices. Three beehives are also on site.

“A high tunnel greenhouse — which now has 250 tomato plants that have been harvested and sold at the farmer’s market — has been constructed,” said Kim Stearman, a soil chemist at the Water Center and Waters Farm project director.

In addition to the $287,630 in current grant funding, Stearman continued, “other proposals have been written to the USDA addressing marketing concerns for selling organic produce and working with Cookeville High School to grow year-round vegetables using season extension techniques.”

Young said, “The Waters farm is the kind of opportunity that gives researchers — regardless of their area of expertise — the opportunity to study everything about organic farming, from the smallest detail to the most technical aspect.”

Other TTU faculty members working with these grants include Michael Best, agriculture economist; Jim Baier, agriculture engineer; Janice Branson, soil scientist; Bruce Greene, animal scientist; Wade Faw, agronomist and School of Agriculture director; and Randy Dodson, horticulturist and organic farm manager.

Pat Bagley, dean of the College of Agricultural and Human Sciences, and Dennis George, director of the Water Center, have also supported these projects.

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