Posted on September 1, 2006

$20 million research center to create organic foods think tank

Salinas Valley growers want the Bush administration to pay more attention to consumer's demand for organic

On 22 acres at the edge of Salinas, Calif., U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Eric Brennan experiments on the cutting edge of organic production.

Of 1,200 others at 100 USDA research hubs nationwide, Brennan is the agency’s only researcher solely focused on organics and has been since 2001.

Running his program on a little less than $300,000 a year, he said he’s often forced to multi-task, driving tractors, writing grants and studying the effects of cover crops on broccoli, for example.

And yet, local growers say Brennan’s work is incredibly valuable to their growing interest in organic farming, the fruits of which were worth more than $155 million last year in Monterey County, according to the agricultural commissioner’s crop report.

"We take a lot of what we learn here back to the ranch," said Mike Thorpe of Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, one of the companies collaborating with the USDA at the site.

"Organic land is so finite, you can’t tie it up doing (research)," said Bobby Devoy of Pure Pacific Organics and Pacific Marketing International, another Salinas agribusiness contributor. "We’re looking to use everything we have and more."

"If I can do a better job here," Brennan said, after passing around a bottle of fish emulsion-based fertilizer for onlookers to smell, "it saves me a lot of research costs. If Mike (Thorpe) can do a better job in his fields, it saves him a lot of production costs."

Brennan gave Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, a look at the field on Spence Road on Wednesday. Farr, who sits on the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee and is co-chairman of the Congressional Organic Caucus, also met with other researchers at the USDA agricultural research station in nearby East Salinas.

He discussed the $20 million, state-of-the-art research center to be built there. If $6 million in federal funding for the center comes through in the 2007 federal agricultural spending bill, ground could break on the project as early as next summer.

The idea for the center is to strengthen synergies between the private and public sectors and to make the Salad Bowl a hub for agricultural think-tanking, like in Davis, Fresno and Riverside.

"They have whole campuses," Farr said of the three cities. "All we want is a building."

The center is a much-needed renovation for the station, which consists of several dilapidated, pre-World War II buildings and greenhouses.

"Our problem has been frankly that nobody has spent much attention on research in the Salinas Valley," Farr said. "We have a lot of smart people doing smart ag, but they can’t stay that way if their competitors have access to information that they don’t have."

Just as marine research centers have been built on the Monterey Peninsula and in Santa Cruz and have clustered together businesses and academics, Farr said, having such a nerve center in Salinas would draw in more research dollars for the area from both private and public entities.

When asked why money couldn’t simply be spent on research in Salinas, rather than building a facility to then draw research, Farr said an updated facility is needed to house the modern equipment and researchers to do the work.

Furthermore, the money for the construction of research centers comes from a different federal source than the money for researchers like Brennan, he said.

"Buildings are buildings and researchers are researchers," he said. "You try to match them."

It’s been hard to get federal money to support organic agricultural research because funds are limited, he said, and California is competing with states in the Midwest that produce commodities such as wheat, corn and soybeans.

While organic products have sparked consumer interest, funding for organic research hasn’t taken off because "the president and his Cabinet haven’t made it a priority…. There isn’t any new money. It’s a zero-sum game. There are more and more people fighting over the same dollars," he said.

Brennan’s program may receive another $200,000 in annual funding as part of the 2007 agricultural appropriations bill, according to Farr’s office. That money would be used collaboratively with California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo.

Brise Tencer, legislative coordinator and policy program associate for the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, said more research is needed for growers to feel confident to make the transition into organic farming.

"People are too scared. They are scared to make that jump," said Tencer, who toured Brennan’s field with Farr.

Currently, the United States is importing 10 times more organic products from places such as China and Brazil than it is exporting. So consumer demand is strong enough, she said, that it is time for more organic research.

For the 2007 farm bill, she said her organization is advocating that a new USDA program, solely focused on organics, be created and funded.
"The need is great enough," Tenser said.

(c) 2006, The Monterey County Herald

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