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OPN Connect Newsletter 324 · June 15, 2023

Many Projects Under Way at UC Organic Agriculture Institute


Now nearly three years old, the UC Organic Agriculture Institute has expanded its focus, received significant funding, and started a number of projects.

Initially, the UC OAI was focused on organic tree nuts, tree fruit, raisins, and rice, but it has since increased its scope to include all types of organic agriculture—of all sizes and scales—in California.

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One of the OAI’s earliest initiatives was to launch a comprehensive needs assessment of organic ag in the Golden State. It received funding for that endeavor from the USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) in 2021, and research began last year, headed up by Shriya Rangarajan, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Riverside.

Initially, the UC OAI was focused on organic tree nuts, tree fruit, raisins, and rice, but it has since increased its scope to include all types of organic agriculture—of all sizes and scales—in California.

“That assessment really got started last fall when we started to put together the survey tool,” said Dr. Houston Wilson, UC OAI’s director who oversees the project along with Dr. Mark Lubell, an environmental science and policy professor at UC Davis, and Dr. Joji Muramoto, assistant cooperative extension organic production specialist at UC Santa Cruz. “There are a few different surveying methodologies we're using. One is a quantitative survey that we sent out online to all organic farmers across California.”

Wilson shared that the assessment also has a qualitative component—a semi-structured interview that can be conducted in-person or on Zoom. “It's about an hour to two-hour interview that we do with growers as well as consultants and certifiers and other stakeholders within the organic food system.”

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Houston Wilson, Director, UC OAI

Wilson explained that the needs assessment is being conducted to help guide programmatic activity. “If we're going to create research, extension, and education resources, we need to know where to prioritize those efforts. California is the largest state for organic agriculture in the nation. We have hundreds of organic crops being grown at many different scales of production.”

Wilson noted that there’s a third aspect to the assessment that is focused on understanding the current knowledge networks in California’s organic ag community.

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“California is the largest state for organic agriculture in the nation. We have hundreds of organic crops being grown at many different scales of production.” - Houston Wilson

“In the absence of targeted support from the University, organic growers have needed to create their own knowledge networks,” Wilson said. “The fact that we've had a National Organic Program for 20 years and only after 20 years the University of California is creating this institute means we need to characterize where people have been getting their information from and how they rank and prioritize it.”

The OAI will use the results of its knowledge network survey to help develop what Wilson has dubbed the California Organic Agriculture Knowledge Network—or the Cal OAK Network.

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Wilson and lab associates

“We're creating an online database that people would access through a map of California,” said Wilson, explaining that organic growers and others in the organic community could click on the area of the map where they’re located to learn about the people and organizations available to help them. 

In addition to the needs assessment and the creation of the Cal OAK Network, the OAI is working on developing mentorship and in-person extension resources for organic growers.

“We're creating an online database that people would access through a map of California.” - Houston Wilson

In 2022, the OAI received significant funding from the CDFA State Organic Program and also the CDFA Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation.

“In combination, they funded the OAI over a three-year period to do a series of different extension and training activities for organic growers,” said Wilson. “And one of those activities that we proposed was the formation of a network of organic demonstration sites and an organic mentorship program. So if you're a new organic farmer, we would connect you with an experienced one, and they would help you through the process.”

Wilson at Kearney Ag Center

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At around the same time that the OAI received the CDFA funding, the USDA announced its Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). CCOF is leading TOPP in the Western region and reached out to the OAI to see if they might want to collaborate on the program’s mentorship aspect.

“It was perfect because we had just been funded to create this mentorship network,” Wilson said. “I was really relieved to start collaborating with CCOF because a mentorship program is a major undertaking to do it correctly. So that is all just now getting launched, and we're working through a lot of the administrative things and defining how the program works, etc.”

“[CDFA] funded the OAI over a three-year period to do a series of different extension and training activities for organic growers. And one of those activities that we proposed was the formation of a network of organic demonstration sites and an organic mentorship program.” - Houston Wilson

The OAI is also in the process of putting together four workshops for later this year centered around several different topic areas—organic rice; organic citrus, avocados, and berries; organic seed breeding and in situ conservation; and soil management. The rice event will be held in the Sacramento Valley; the citrus, avocados, and berries workshop will likely be held in Ventura; the seed workshop will take place in Arcata; and the soil management event location has not been determined. Dates for the workshops have not yet been announced.

Wilson with Riverside students

Wilson noted that there will also be a statewide OAI conference in the Central Valley, likely sometime in 2025. “We're trying to figure out a way to make sure we're not duplicative with other organic ag conferences. We want to do something that's complementary to these existing events. So we're still just starting to think about that since it's a little bit further away.”

To learn more about the UC Organic Agriculture Institute, please visit https://organic.ucanr.edu. California organic growers and other organic industry members interested in participating in a Zoom or in-person interview for OAI’s needs assessment are encouraged to reach out to Dr. Shriya Rangarajan (shrrajan@ucdavis.edu).

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