After pioneering the organic movement in the 1970s, California now leads the nation in number of organic farms, total organic acreage and overall organic crop value. Attaining this status was no small feat, and largely driven by resourceful growers who developed and refined the wide range of novel organic farming practices seen in California today.
Now, with the creation of the Organic Agriculture Institute, the University of California will be able to leverage its vast capacity for research, extension and education to further improve the sustainability, resilience and profitability of organic agriculture in the state.
In its first major public initiative, the Organic Agriculture Institute – a program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources – is conducting a statewide needs assessment for organic agriculture, as well as forming a knowledge-sharing network that connects UC experts with growers, processors, producer organizations, certifiers, crop consultants, community groups and state agencies.
This California Organic Agriculture Knowledge Network, or Cal OAK Network, builds upon the productive partnerships and knowledge systems established by organic growers and other stakeholders over many decades.
“This network will be a sustainability partnership that enables learning, innovation and cooperation among organic agriculture stakeholders,” said Houston Wilson, director of the Organic Agriculture Institute, which was established in January 2020. “As facilitator of the Cal OAK Network, the Organic Ag Institute will serve as an intermediary that fosters communication among stakeholder groups, organizes discourse, forges new collaborations, and generally enhances coordination of stakeholder activities.”
By creating closer connections between the UC and the organic community, the Cal OAK Network will foster ongoing feedback cycles of knowledge and best practices, and in doing so help create the conditions and momentum to facilitate the development and adoption of organic production practices.
“The Cal OAK Network will better connect the organic community with UC technical and training resources, while at the same time providing a mechanism for that community to feed information back to the UC that helps us shape our programs at the Organic Ag Institute,” said Wilson, noting potential contributions in areas such as pest control, weed management and crop nutrition.
In the first 18 months of the Institute, Wilson has been charting the current landscape of organic agriculture in California, listening to the needs of stakeholders and working to position the Institute in a way that best uses the UC's unique research and extension capacities to support and augment existing efforts by growers and other groups.
“Almost 20 years after the establishment of the National Organic Program, many stakeholders are excited to see the UC making such a focused effort to support organic agriculture,” Wilson said.
The Institute recently received a planning grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to conduct a formal needs assessment through summer 2022. In surveying growers and other stakeholders, the Institute seeks to identify their primary research and extension priorities, as well as gain a better understanding of the key people and organizations they currently rely on for information about organic production.
Through this process, a map of nodes and connections in the organic community will also take shape – and the roster of members for the Cal OAK Network will continue to grow. As Wilson points out, it is only through a diverse and robust information-sharing system that California organic agriculture will successfully adapt to challenges like climate change.
“We're trying to create a resilient infrastructure for engagement with organic stakeholders,” he said. “When we talk about sustainability in agriculture, part of that is having sustainable institutions that function well and can be flexible and dynamic as new challenges arise down the road.”