Houston Wilson is director of the University of California (UC) Organic Agriculture Institute (OAI), a research and education organization that was established in 2020 with an endowment jointly funded by Clif Bar & Company and the UC Office of the President. OPN recently caught up with Houston to talk about his background in ag, the initial plans of the Institute, and more.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background in agriculture?
I received my PhD from UC Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, where I focused on agroecology, entomology, and biological control. As a graduate student and subsequently as a postdoc at Berkeley, I did a lot of research and extension around integrated pest management (IPM) in wine grape vineyards out on the North Coast. In 2017, I was hired by the Department of Entomology at UC Riverside as a Cooperative Extension Specialist to work on orchard and vineyard IPM issues. While I am UC Riverside faculty, my position is actually based off-campus at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Fresno.
Houston Wilson, Director, University of California Organic Agriculture Institute
When did you become director of the UC Organic Agriculture Institute?
July 1st of last year. To be clear, this is a role that I've taken on in addition to my role as the Principal Investigator of my UC Riverside lab at the Kearney Ag Center. While my lab is focused on research and extension in agricultural entomology for orchards and vineyards, as director of the UC Organic Agriculture Institute, my job is more akin to that of a facilitator. At the Institute, I'm trying to bring together the relevant expertise and stakeholders to develop a multitude of research and extension programs to address a range of issues facing organic production of tree nuts, tree fruit, raisins, and rice.
Houston Wilson with UC Riverside extension students
How were those specific commodities chosen? And what kind of research will be done related to them?
I think the UC’s logic behind the choice of those commodities was to initially restrict the focus of the Institute to some degree so that it's not an entirely overwhelming task for the first director. My understanding from conversations with UC leadership is they do eventually want the Institute to be focused on all of organic agriculture in California. Once traction gets going with this initial basket of commodities, and we have a well-coordinated group of people working on tree nuts, tree fruit, raisins, and rice, we want to expand the scope of the Institute.
“At the Institute, I'm trying to bring together the relevant expertise and stakeholders to develop a multitude of research and extension programs to address a range of issues facing organic production of tree nuts, tree fruit, raisins, and rice.” -Houston Wilson
In terms of your second question, if you look at organic agriculture and some of the needs assessments that have been carried out recently by groups like the OFRF (Organic Farming Research Foundation) or CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), the needs are vast and include weed control, pest control, disease control, crop nutrition, irrigation—it's everything! So for this reason we need multidisciplinary teams of people to tackle these issues rather than a lone entomologist like myself!
“Given the range of crops we're trying to deal with and the many stakeholders that are out there, we proposed to create what we're currently calling the California Organic Agriculture Knowledge Network (the Cal OAK Network).” -Houston Wilson
What are some of the organizations that you anticipate the UC Organic Agriculture Institute will collaborate with?
There’s a really long list of people and organizations that I've been meeting with. We just submitted a proposal to the USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) to do a needs assessment to figure out what the top research and extension needs are in organic agriculture in California. Given the range of crops we're trying to deal with and the many stakeholders that are out there, we proposed to create what we're currently calling the California Organic Agriculture Knowledge Network (the Cal OAK Network). This would bring together all of the relevant stakeholders around organic agriculture, not just growers but also consultants, certifiers, nonprofits, policy groups, and UC academics and Cooperative Extension personnel.
Houston Wilson, Director, UC Organic Agriculture Institute
We plan on holding a series of events to bring these groups together. We'll focus the meetings around the UC OAI target commodities and their unique production regions—so, for instance, a raisin production meeting in Fresno County or a tree fruit meeting in the northern San Joaquin Valley. With each meeting, we'll bring those organic growers together with all the other relevant stakeholders around that crop and spend a day talking through the current issues and challenges and conducting surveys. And out of that, we’ll come up with a summary document with explicitly defined priorities.
“There’s clearly interest in organic agriculture in California, and there's clearly impetus from consumers, growers, and regulators to figure out how to farm in a way that minimizes negative impacts on people and the environment—and organic agriculture can significantly contribute to achieving that goal.” -Houston Wilson
We’ll then figure out what the relevant partnerships are to address the most pressing issues. So maybe for one issue the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and a local RCD (Resource Conservation District) would be really good partners, whereas in other cases we’d contribute to ongoing projects with the OFRF or CCOF. These are just examples I’m thinking up quickly here, but the point is we create this Cal Oak Network of stakeholders, and then through that we're able to build a series of unique partnerships around different issues.
Houston Wilson at an almond field day event at Kearney Ag Center (2019)
Given that there are so many different organic-ag-related groups in California, that sounds like a great idea!
I’m glad you like it! When I first started, I used to keep track of the different groups on a notepad; then I moved to a whiteboard; and now I’ve got a database! The history of organic agriculture is strongly rooted in California, and today we lead the nation in total organic acres, farms, and value of output. There’s clearly interest in organic agriculture in California, and there's clearly impetus from consumers, growers, and regulators to figure out how to farm in a way that minimizes negative impacts on people and the environment—and organic agriculture can significantly contribute to achieving that goal.
Furthermore, there's a lot of great support from the state to make that happen, but research and extension are going to be critical to developing and scaling these solutions, making them economically feasible for growers to adopt. I think that's where this Institute is hoping to catalyze the development of the solutions that we need because I hear from a lot of growers that they’re interested in alternative farming practices to (for example) reduce pesticide use, but there's simply no other effective strategy available for them. We need these alternatives to be developed, and collaborative research and extension with stakeholders is the key to doing that.
For more information on the UC Organic Agriculture Institute, please visit https://organic.ucanr.edu.