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Sustainable Agriculture

Growth in Organic Markets Helps Launch Florida Research Center

In the last decade, organic production has grown by 20 percent per year nationwide. Florida farmers lead the way in the South, growing organic crops on more acres than any state in the region. With that in mind, Marty Mesh received a SARE producer grant to educate diverse groups about Florida organic production at farm tours, workshops, and meetings. The get-togethers took on more of a focus when group leaders—from farmers to university faculty—decided to officially encourage University of Florida (UF) officials to prioritize organic research to address a bevy of needs. Mesh’s year-long collection of activities developed partnerships among participants and, with support from UF administrators, galvanized the establishment of The Center for Organic Agriculture, which now provides cohesion to organic research conducted throughout the state.

A unique aspect is the center’s built-in farmer input. One of its two co-directors is a Gainesville vegetable farmer—the other is a UF faculty member—and its board of directors has an equal number of university personnel and farmers. According to Mesh, the farmer involvement in the administration of the center appeals to growers throughout the state. “True collaboration produces positive results that farmers will trust,” he said.

Started in 2003 the center now supports such projects as evaluating leguminous ground covers in organic citrus production and teaching extension educators the ins and outs of the National Organic Standards.

“Organic farmers are one more industry group that we need to address,” said Center Co-Director Mickie Swisher, a professor of consumer sciences at UF. “The organic market is growing every year, and consumers, too, need science-based information about this.”

Mesh and others had found it hard to find research-based production information about organic systems unique to Florida. Mesh’s project—to facilitate a statewide discussion on organic research needs spanning disciplines and institutions, including Florida A&M University—was meant as a model. Others seem interested, too. At the 2004 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference, a session about the creation of the center received high marks from participants, who Mesh hopes might emulate the successful partnership in their states.

 

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