The fertile Puyallup Valley in the shadow of Mount Rainier historically has been a highly productive agricultural area, yielding a wide variety of crops. As urbanization has encroached on the valley and the region, its agricultural base has shifted to smaller farms, many of them applying organic techniques.
The WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center was established in 1894 to help support and sustain the mostly agrarian valley. Now, more than 60 percent of the state’s population is located within 50 miles of the facility. As the region has changed, so has the mission of the Puyallup REC: today, programs at the REC focus primarily on issues related to urbanization, including sustaining the growers still farming on the urban edge.
In 2002 the REC’s organic agriculture research team began a program researching sustainable and organic production systems for small-scale, direct market vegetable crop production. Through this program, researchers, educators and staff work with farmers to develop management systems using local inputs to produce high-quality, high-value crops efficiently, profitably, and in an environmentally sustainable manner.
With six acres of organically certified land at the REC, the team has undertaken a variety of experiments on organic farming systems, sharing their findings with growers through annual field days, research papers, and a variety of educational events. For growers who attend the field days and educational events, the faces of the REC’s organic research program are soil scientists Andy Bary (below, left), Craig Cogger (center), and Small Farms Program educator Doug Collins (right).
As a team, their research looks primarily at four areas for improving organic cropping systems.
The first is the use of local organic materials produced in urban areas — yard waste, compost, biosolids, and animal manure from area farms — as a source of nutrients and organic material for crop production and soil renovation. In response to the need for better information on crop nutrient availability, the team completed a three-year research project in 2004 studying nitrogen availability from a range of those local organic amendments.
A second area involves research trials to help determine the most effective ways to use of cover crops to supply organic matter, improve soil structure, fix nitrogen, cycle nutrients, and help manage weeds and other pests. Through trial planting plots, the researchers evaluate the effectiveness of different fall-planted cover crop blends, planting dates, incorporation dates, winter weed competition, and nitrogen availability for the subsequent crop.
In 2003 the team established a third research area: an organic vegetable production systems experiment on the REC’s certified organic land. This research compares 12 organic management systems, including three cover cropping systems, two tillage treatments and two types of soil amendments. Researchers measure for such outcomes as crop yield and quality, soil quality, insect and weed control, and production costs and value.
Soil quality is a fourth major area of organic research. Team researchers measure and assess selected soil properties, including bulk density, soil compaction, the amount of soil organic matter and its aggregate stability.
Altogether, their ongoing research and outreach is helping local growers carry on the agricultural heritage of the Puyallup Valley and the entire Puget Sound region.
By Denny Fleenor, CAHNRS Marketing, News, and Educational Communications