The Whole Organic Process
Soil research bears fruit for organic vegetable production
With extreme weather from dry periods to wet, climate variability keeps agricultural researchers in business. Yet enhancing how produce bears the weather isn’t the only mystery researchers are trying to solve.
“As one looks at their plate through the year, at home or at some other place that they are dining, a larger percentage of that can now be organic in its origin than two decades before,” says Dr. Matt Kleinhenz, professor at The Ohio State University’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science.
A new composition on your plate means more than just a healthier diet. With the rise in popularity of organic food and its availability comes the increase in organic farms and the proper certified organic farming techniques. For Matt, the growth of organic farming practices leaves behind an excess of research to be done on the effects of organic farming and how to enhance it. “Let’s go way, way, way back. Before there were farmers we followed our food,” Matt says. “Something changed in that people started to produce their food in place. Now, the moment you do that you set the stage for altering the environment.”
Organic farming isn’t exempt from such alteration of the environment.
Just consider the effects of not using herbicides. “If organic growers cannot use an herbicide like traditional growers can they might have to drive across the field several times with an implement behind their tractor to disrupt the weeds but not the crop, and in the process, you know, they may have an effect on the soil that’s different from an herbicide,” Matt says.
Yet, in order to analyze those effects, community is key. Matt says, “Working directly with organic farmers in addressing short- and long-term needs that tends to be, at least in my experience, the most powerful research.”
Matt is doing exactly that as he is working with many farmers and researchers of various expertise across Ohio to research soil management.
“One project that we are involved with right now is examining different approaches to soil management and their effects on the soil, the crops, and the farms, and one of those approaches is called soil balancing, and so we are looking at a soil balancing approach versus other types of approaches together as famers and a research community,” Matt says.
Above the ground, Matt and his partners are involved in another project concerning microbials, which are beneficial microbes that when put into contact with soil or plants can make both of them healthier.
“Much like you and I would go to a store and see 50 different versions of ibuprofen or 50 different versions of aspirin, organic growers see many dozens of microorganisms and it’s not always for use on their farm and it’s not always clear which are the most beneficial. So, we’re helping sort that out,” Matt says.
Apart from researching effects of organic farming, Matt and his team have spearheaded research that evaluates the quality of organic vegetables so that some day if there is a move to place nutritional value labels on fresh produce, just like labels found on processed foods, there will be ways of measuring such nutritional value.
This research into the nutritional value of organic vegetables has come in handy for Matt in another project where the findings will help prepare the market for a possible change in farmer compensation.
“Most farmers are compensated by how much they grow. If the product meets the minimum standards of the market, they don’t get [paid] any more for having a higher quality product,” Matt says. “In time though, all of us maybe want to reconsider that math and think about compensating farmers based on the quality of their product, including its nutritional value.”
So, what’s the drive behind enhancing organic vegetable production, whether it’s through rewarding farmers for high quality food or figuring out the microbial puzzle? Well, for Matt, it’s the very special place farming holds in our society.
“All businesses are important, but certain businesses have connections to culture, society, and the individual a little bit more so. Farming happens to be one of those that at least in my experience is very strongly connected in many different ways to daily lives,” Matt says. “So, in as much as we’d like to proceed with farming remaining a business, we also want to ask it to do so much more and research can help in that whole process.”