Agricenter International goes organic

For the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a steady transition from the technology-driven age of abundance to more traditional organic farming practices. Evidence of the shift is all around.

For instance, just a few years back, grocers often would devote but a small corner of an aisle to organic products. Now, entire grocery chains like Whole Foods and Fresh Market are competing to fill demand.

“Today, there are several options for growing food. Sixty to 70 years ago, it was all organic,” said Dr. Bruce Kirksey, director of farm and research with Agricenter International.

But along with the post-war economic boom came a boom in agricultural capacity. New machinery, fertilizers and pesticides brought plenty to a generation that grew up with very little. Eventually, backyard gardens gave way to pantries crammed with canned goods and processed foods.

Agricenter International, which sits on 1,000 acres of farmland, is getting back to its roots with an organic research division.

“Because of the way science and technology has evolved, we’ve come up with other ways to help raise our crops and our gardens with certain synthetic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and harvesting machines.

We felt like because of people’s increased interest in organics again that we would start our own research center focusing on that (organics),” said Kirksey.

Research is the Agricenter’s bread and butter. Typically, the facility picks up work from businesses or other organizations seeking expertise on proprietary material. The downside is that the research is proprietary, too. Owned by the business or organization, the Agricenter has no right to it.

But for the Agricenter, the organics research will be different as it will be their data. The organics arm of research started a couple of years back.

“So what we’ve done is set up about 10 acres, and we started two years ago,” said Kirksey.

Since then, the land has slowly been built up to be certified. Out of production for three years, instead of a commercial crop, a ground cover or “transitional crop” is planted to add nutrients back into the soil along with other organic materials. No synthetic chemicals are used and equipment was bought to be used solely for organic growing.

“By the fall of next year [2019], our three years will be up. An inspector will come in and check our records showing what we’ve done organically and then we get the stamp of approval as a certified organic farm,” said Kirksey. “It’s the process that every producer who wants to grow certified organic crops has to go through.”

But this initial 10 acres is just a sliver of land compared to spread the Agricenter will eventually be working. Next month, 208 acres of offsite land the center has access to will receive its organic certification. Early plans are to devote the smaller parcel to research and the other for testing on a large scale, although nothing is set.

“We don’t know exactly what we are going to do with that yet. We might just plant soybeans on it and continue to build the soil up,” said Kirksey, who recently hired Chris Lankford as organic farm Manager.

Soybeans, of course, are a staple crop in the Mid-South. Along with corn and cotton, the “big three” crops dominate the Mid-South’s growing landscape. Much of the organic research done will be done on behalf of staple crops vital to the region’s economy.

“The addition of the Organic Resource Center to Agricenter’s research capacity will enhance our ability to service the needs in the community and the region,” said John Butler, president of Agricenter International.

Side-by-side studies will be done on organic versus commercial farming practices. Successes and failures will be cataloged while each year with more trials added. Eventually, up to 40 acres could be allotted for organic research. Hopes are, in two to three years, the program will be self-sustaining and will no longer require outside funding.

“So, when we have a farmer that wants to grow something organic, they can come to the Agricenter, and we will have all that information researched and gathered for them. It will be a whole package,” said Kirksey.

The present seems like a great time to get in on organic research. As more information is put out in the public space about the benefits of organic farming with a population growing more health-conscience, demand is expected to grow with it.

“It also depends on the market. An organic soybean market we may not have yet, but as we get more people interested and understanding growing organic soybeans then the market may be there in a few years,” said Kirksey.

Testing will also be done on commercial organic products to see what works and what doesn’t. Test subjects will cover fertilizers, pesticides and plant varieties.

“There are a lot of products out there sold in the organic industry that there’s just not a lot of data on them. If you think about it, most of the organics are grown in California or Florida so we don’t have data on the Mid-South where it’s 100 degrees in August at night. So, we need to test these things here, these organic products,” said Kirksey.

As far as if organics are a long-term endeavor for the Agricenter:

“This is going to be an ongoing project. We see this as the opportunity to grown crops a different way. We also look at it that it’s going to have to be part of an overall picture to feed and clothe the world for the future. By 2050 we are supposed to have 9 billion people on the planet. We’re not making any more land. We have to be more efficient, use land that’s not currently being farmed and look at all the alternatives, depending on science to help us get to that next level,” said Kirksey.

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