The challenges facing agriculture in Washington State reflect global concerns about food production, climate change, soil and water protection, farm profitability, and rural communities. Many farmers are actively seeking alternative practices to improve their stewardship of agricultural resources while maintaining profitability. The term “sustainable agriculture” emerged in the late 1980s in response to these issues and needs. Sustainable agriculture provides a conceptual framework and key principles to guide future development of farming practices and systems that are economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible.

Prior to the advent of the “sustainable agriculture” focus, farmers and scientists had developed a number of other concepts or regimes to address some of the same issues. As far back at the late 1800s, Oregon wheat growers were talking about the need for a “permanent agriculture.” Nature Farming emerged in Japan in the early 1900s, as did Biodynamic farming in Europe. Organic farming was coined as a term in the US and Britain around the same time. Integrated pest management (IPM) came on to the scene in the 1960s in part due to major problems with the use of pesticides in agriculture.  Integrated production was an outgrowth of IPM from European scientists in the 1970s.

These alternative systems have expanded in acreage and public awareness over the past decades. In part, farmers have found that IPM often saves money and improves pest management, that organic systems work well biologically and bring premium prices in the marketplace, and that integrated fruit production is a message understood and accepted by a large number of consumers. With current trends regarding personal wellness and environmental protection likely to continue, farming systems that address these issues may benefit from increased consumer support and regulatory relief. As the agricultural support sector (research, extension, production supplies, etc.) puts more focus on these alternative systems, we can expect accelerated gains in the performance of these systems, both biologically and economically, that will make them more appealing to a larger number of growers.

History of Organic Farming

Organic farming as a definable production system dates back to the 1930s and 1940s. Prominent spokespersons such as J.I. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, and Rudolf Steiner advocated farming methods that maintained their reliance on biological processes, especially a “healthy” soil. Their comments appeared just after the “Dust Bowl” and at the time when growers were first adopting commercial fertilizers and pesticides. The general philosophy suggested that natural products for food production were desirable and synthetic ones were not; and healthy soils led to healthy plants that resisted pest attack, while healthy plants led to healthy animals, including people.

After the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the consuming public became increasingly aware of issues regarding modern farming practices. A small percentage of consumers began searching for food products grown with the organic philosophy. The environmental awareness of the 1970s led to increased demand for such “organic” foods, although the aggregate production was a fraction of 1% of the total food supply. During this period, buyers of organic food began to see the need for a system to verify the claims of “organically grown,” as these products usually were sold at a substantial premium price. This led to the development of the early organic certification systems, including one developed by Tilth Producers Cooperative in Washington State.

Washington State Organic Program

State legislatures began passing laws defining and regulating organic farming in the 1970s, starting with Oregon in 1972. The Washington State Legislature passed the Organic Food Products Act in 1985, and in 1987, authorized the creation of an organic certification program to be managed by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). The WSDA Organic Food Program began certifying farms in 1988, representing the starting point for records on organic production in the state. The WSDA program works with organic growers, processors, handlers, and retailers to ensure the validity of the claim of “organically grown.” Program personnel process applications, inspect farms and facilities, collect samples for pesticide residue analysis, and assist with the development of rules. The Organic Food Program, based in Olympia, WA, can be reached at (360) 902-1877.

National Organic Program

In 1990, the US Congress passed the “Organic Foods Production Act” as part of the federal Farm Bill. This bill directed the federal government to develop an organic certification system at the national level to standardize procedures among the 46 public and private certification groups in existence. The core definition of organic production includes the following language: “..using cultural, biological and mechanical methods to fulfill any specific function within the system so as to: maintain long-term soil fertility; increase soil biological activity; ensure effective pest management; recycle wastes to return nutrients to the land; provide attentive care for farm animals; and handle the agricultural products without the use of extraneous synthetic additives or processing..” To be sold or labeled as an organically produced agricultural product, an agricultural product shall (1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided; (2) except as otherwise provided and excluding livestock, not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products; and (3) be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent.

The National Organic Program is based in the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA. Program staff drafted an initial rule that was released for public comment in 1998. The final rule for the National Organic Standards was released by the USDA in December 2000, with a phase-in of implementation scheduled for the next 18 months. Existing certification programs, such as the one at WSDA, must comply with the national standards and must receive accreditation from the USDA to act as a certifying body.

Integrated Production

European pest management scientists working with IPM found a number of constraints for its adoption and expansion that indicated the need to take all relevant farming activities into account. For example, the success of an IPM practice for a specific pest might be negated by a fertility management practice. This realization led to the development of Integrated Production as a systems approach to agriculture. The International Organization for Biological Control (IOBC) has provided the leadership for developing the Integrated Production philosophy, general guidelines, and crop specific technical guidelines. The IOBC defines Integrated Production as a “farming system that produces high quality food and other products by using natural resources and regulating mechanisms to replace polluting inputs and to secure sustainable farming. Emphasis is placed on a holistic systems approach involving the entire farm as the basic unit, on the central role of agro-ecosystems, on balanced nutrient cycles, and on the welfare of all species in animal husbandry. The preservation and improvement of soil fertility and of a diversified environment are essential components. Biological, technical and chemical methods are balanced carefully taking into account the protection of the environment, profitability and social requirements.”

A set of guidelines for Integrated Production were developed by the IOBC. These then provide the basis for and commonality among crop-specific technical guidelines, including stone fruits, pome fruits, and grapes in Europe. These guidelines have been used to launch Integrated Fruit Production (IFP) programs in a number of European countries. Programs may be country-wide but more often are tailored to the specific conditions of a growing region. Oversight of IFP programs is generally done in a public-private partnership and requires rigorous recordkeeping by growers. Europe has led the way for marketing IFP labeled fruit as well. In Switzerland, major grocery chains were integrally involved in promoted IFP fruit. This increased the market demand for such fruit, but without a consistent economic benefit to the grower. About 85% of the apple acreage in Switzerland is under IFP management.

With the increased awareness of IFP fruit by consumers, and the very high prices for organic fruit, some grocery chains have moved to preferential or sole sourcing of IFP fruit to replace undifferentiated or “conventional” fruit. This has led a number of exporting nations to develop their own IFP programs to maintain market access. New Zealand launched an industry-wide IFP program for export apples in 2000 to satisfy demands of the British market. Argentina, Chile, and South Africa are all developing IFP programs. Stemilt Growers created its own Responsible Choice program to position for this market. However, to date, the markets have provided growers with little or no financial benefit from all these efforts. Government subsidies in Europe do provide a monetary incentive.

The IFP guidelines generally contain the following sections: definitions; professional trained and environmentally and safety conscious growers; conserving the orchard environment; site, rootstocks, cultivar and planting system for new orchards; soil management and tree nutrition; alleyways and weed-free strip; irrigation; tree training and management; fruit management; integrated plant protection; efficient and safe spray application methods; harvesting, storage and fruit quality; post-harvest chemical treatments; mode of application, controls, certification and labelling. Most guidelines have a list of crop protection materials that is organized according to allowed, permitted with restrictions, and not permitted.