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University Researchers Growing Organic Wheat in Southeast

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Crop Researcher David Butler, PhD in Organic Wheat Trial Fields
University of Tennessee – Organic Crops Unit

On an overcast April day, blades of wheat were already filling in enough of the field to crowd out the few weeds trying to grow there.  When I noticed a dandelion and some clover, I asked if someone would be pulling the weeds.  “No,” responded the professor, as he explained that in just the right proportion, the wheat plants would thrive, choking out enough weeds to eliminate the need for manual labor or herbicides.  Soon, the fields would be waist high.  

As consumers want to know more about the origins of their food, farmers are faced with new challenges. How do you grow an in-demand crop like wheat with a mindful eye to clean air, water and end product? Assistant professor David Butler, PhD is studying three different varieties of organic wheat in a field test at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  He graciously took me on a farm tour, making this Ozarks farm girl feel right at home.
Lady Beetle or so-called Ladybug on Clover Amid Field of Organic Wheat
University of Tennessee Organic Farm

Butler explained that this current field test at the Organic Crops Unit of the East Tennessee Ag Research and Education Center would help determine which characteristics and varieties are best for growing organic wheat under Southeastern agricultural conditions.  Knoxville sits in a valley area known for moderately high humidity and mostly mild temperatures.  Butler said the research would also help determine the ideal seeding rates for organic wheat.  He said the ideal rate would optimize the current year’s crop by outpacing weeds while also minimizing future weed seeding.  “So we’re trying to look at this at a long-term scale,” explained Butler, “and see how that affects the long–term system if you’re trying to produce organic wheat in this region.”
The University of Tennessee is one of few land grant universities doing organic and sustainable crop research.  Butler says much more work needs to be done to understand the best ways to grow organic crops, especially in the Southeast region of the country.  “I don’t know that we’re there yet in knowing the optimal management practices for a lot of organic crops in this region.”  The field trials on wheat, which could take years for growing, producing enough data and analyzing that data, are a step toward giving modern farmers the information they need to make organics competitive and profitable.  The three varieties currently being tested are:  Agripro W1377, FFR 2239, and Excel BW442.

Trial Field of Organic Wheat
East Tennessee

Consumers often wax nostalgic about organics these days, thinking of them as a throwback to our grandparents’ time. This would have been before the ubiquitous use of inputs like fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and toxic, persistent pesticides in conventional agribusiness. This was also before the erosion and depletion of much of the nation’s prime farmland and the pollution of waterways.  Butler cautioned that growing conditions today are not the same as in our grandparents’ day.  He elaborated, “There are a lot of things that we think about in organic systems, now that the science has evolved, that we really didn’t think 50, 100 years ago before we were using a lot of synthetic pesticides: the best way to design a crop rotation,   what off-site impacts are of certain practices. And we just don’t have the research now on organic systems to say, ‘this is the best way to produce this crop organically.’ We just don’t have that research and I think that’s important to consider.”

Next time:  what’s in it for you when you pick organic food? Plus, how crops you’ll never eat can help organic food grow strong!

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