Sydney is a senior multimedia journalism major from Las Vegas, Nevada
A Wasteful Life: Should WSU fund sustainability
Natural approach to farming can sustain the environment
October 9, 2019
Writer’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify some of Bradley Jaeckel’s comments about WSU funding.
Some researchers at WSU say the future of agriculture can be found in the soft mud of the 30-acre organic student farm, a little-known donation from alumni that serves as the main research facility for sustainable agriculture.
The Agricultural Act of 2014 was updated and re-implemented across the country in December 2018, detailing new funds for renewable energy, organic agriculture and research on climate change.
The bill will cost about $956 billion over the next decade, but most of that money will fund food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, to help with growing food insecurity. For example, Whitman County has at least 18 percent of residents who experience food insecurity in Washington state.
John P. Reganold, soil scientist and WSU professor in agriculture ecology, said WSU absolutely leads the way in sustainable farming techniques, and that the school has been a leader of sustainable agriculture for “at least 30 years,” he said.
In regards to the food insecurity problem, which in a food policy report from the International Food Policy Research Institute is projected to get worse because of climate change, Reganold said the problem is not food production — it’s food waste.
The long-term solution, Reganold said, is to continue research on organic systems and establish them as the norm for farms everywhere.
“If you throw everything together, organic is more sustainable. It’s not gonna get the yields, in general, but we can’t keep farming just for yields, we have to protect organisms and the environment,” Reganold said.
The student research facility, known as the Eggert Family Organic Farm, had its 30 acres donated by WSU. Reganold said that about $9.5 million of the $15 million needed came from Chuck and Louanna Eggert, who previously owned a Pacific Northwest food operation. The Eggerts also graduated from WSU.
“It was a game-changer to have that kind of funding,” Reganold said.
All organic farms on campus must completely support themselves, said Bradley Jaeckel, the farm’s manager. While this helps students get hands-on experience, he said it can be frustrating to work with WSU on big-picture issues or projects.
Jaeckel also said the search for research funding can feel tedious. Researchers are often at the whim of their source for funding, which can take away opportunities for them in their work.
Under the Farm Bill of 2018, federal research grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture prioritize land-grant universities such as WSU. The university’s 2018 federal legislative agenda outlined its top goals to fund sustainable and responsible agriculture with the federal money.
According to a document provided by the WSU Office of Research Support and Operations, the only federal grant provided for organic research since December 2018 was an organic study at WSU Mount Vernon in July of this year.
Jaeckel said people don’t realize how hard it can be to get funding, and that WSU cannot afford to invest its own money into research, mostly because the funding comes in the form of salaries for its researchers, utilities and general services on the farm, and other ambitious projects on campus. Instead, most research done especially on sustainable agriculture must be outside sourced.
“They [WSU] enjoy that we do well, that we get good press, but we didn’t get a lot of infrastructure support [on the organic farm],” Jaeckel said.
Organic farm owner Dave Sutherland started in Oregon as an agronomist and saw firsthand the amount of both space and time an organic farm needs to develop well. He used his experience in crop and soil sciences to build his own organic farm in Moscow, Idaho.
Sutherland said the main problem with conventional farming is the use of pesticides, which poisons the soil. These chemicals, even if inactive, seep into the food people consume.
After World War II, a population boom demanded that crops become commodities in order to feed everyone, he said. Large-scale commercial farms still produce these commodities with little to no responsibility for the environment.
Moreover, conventional farming techniques, especially those involved in animal agriculture, produce methane and carbon that accounts for a large chunk of the world’s collected greenhouse gases, Sutherland said.
While students can feel disconnected from the world of sustainable agriculture, Reganold said consumers have to put thought into what they buy and eat.
“We’re the ones that are demanding the food they [farmers] are producing,” Reganold said. “So if we say, hey, we want more plant-based foods, or we want more organic food, then they will respond and do that. But we have to demand that.”
However, Jaeckel said farmers carry the responsibility of ethical food production, and engagement with the community to encourage more organic eating habits is a slow process, which is why funding matters.
Jaeckel said he hasn’t seen the effects of the farm bill on research. However, he said that new organic farming techniques and research such as the Eggert farm need more funding in order to improve agriculture in an era of climate change.