Three years ago, as Pacific Northwest farmers were reeling from consumer fears about Alar in apples and chemicals in other crops, Washington State University forged a rare union between the agricultural and environmental communities.
After talking with 1,500 citizens in a series of meetings around the state, the university’s agriculture college pulled together traditional farmers, commodity groups, organic growers and environmental activists to support a $7.8 million program on sustainable agriculture and environmental quality.
Combined with a request for research into biological controls for crop pests, it was the largest request ever for a single WSU college. It cleared the Legislature with unanimous votes by Senate and House committees.
But as promising as the marriage seemed, the Legislature paid only part of the dowry. Farmers and environmentalists went their separate ways, with the traditional farm lobby refusing to back the centerpiece of the legislation, the $6.6 million Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Without that support, the Republican-dominated Legislature is unlikely to appropriate the promised money, said Larry Ganders, a WSU lobbyist.
WSU must act as a mediator between its traditional agricultural clientele and a larger public concerned about food safety and environmental quality. In the process, the school faces a critical juncture in its land grant mission.
So far, traditional agricultural interests have pushed to fund only the $1.2 million Food and Environmental Quality Lab in the TriCities, the smaller component of the 1991 state legislation. The lab studies pesticide residues in food and the environment and helps register chemicals used on minor crops.
The Center for Sustaining Agriculture gets by on a diet of grant money and roughly $25,000 from the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. Its single office and storeroom is occupied by its half-time director, soil scientist David Bezdicek. He works with part-time secretarial support and a single statewide coordinator in Wenatchee.
It appears likely to stay that way as long as the center labors under a reputation - ill-deserved, according to its supporters - as an antichemical, pro-organic think tank.
“You’re dealing with nothing but perception,” said Allan Felsot, coordinator of the food quality lab and a member of the center’s 15-member advisory council.
Under its legislation, the center is supposed to test and develop alternative production and marketing systems with an eye toward reducing soil erosion and other environmental impacts. The center’s two-year report describes its mission as fostering approaches that are economically viable, environmentally sound and socially acceptable.
Projects have ranged from a conference on sustainable agriculture to helping test the use of polymers to curb erosion in furrow-irrigated fields. Center-backed scientists have looked at the impacts of sewage sludge on soil quality, the long-term effect of farming practices on productivity. The center also helped to create WSU’s massive composting facility and a community farm in Pullman.
From an academic standpoint, “I’d give them an A-plus,” Felsot said.
But the center has come to be equated in some quarters with stereotypes of farming with mules and manure.
“A lot of what they’re thinking about is basically some antitechnology and anti-big business and anti-mainstream agriculture,” said Dave Roseberry, president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, the industry’s political organization. “They would like to move us back more in a direction of the 19th century.”
By orienting itself toward environmental concerns, she said, the center’s research ends up pandering to “a popular myth” that farmers aren’t already good stewards, said Pomeroy farmer Mary Dye, an advisory council member.
“Some of it comes with kind of a `we in the non-farm public see a better way to do your business’ attitude,” she said in an interview. “It doesn’t have to be that way.
“If it’s a good idea, it should be justified on its own merit.”
“I suppose the term sustainable used in any way - sustainably, sustaining - is a polarizing term,” said Bezdicek. But he insisted the center clings closely to “the middle of the issues.”
On the one hand, he said, some people in the environmental movement fail to appreciate the importance of agriculture and the constraints it faces.
On the other hand, the center can look at alternatives to pesticides and the broader social issues facing rural communities and society at large.
“A lot of our people in agriculture don’t want to face up to the fact that social issues are a part of what we’re dealing with, whether they like it or not,” he said.
The representation of traditional agricultural interests in the center is likely to be increased when its advisory council completes a periodic review, council members said.
But the center will still have to grapple with reconciling the interests of so many different constituents.
For the better part of a century, land grant universities served the citizenry well by concentrating on technical research to improve the productivity of the land, said Lorna Michael Butler, an advisory board member and WSU anthropologist.
Now, said Butler, who has studied the changing land grant mission, the university’s constituents include citizens with more social and environmental concerns.
“We have to respond to that broader community,” she said, “because no longer are the primary citizens in our state farmers and ranchers.”
All these constituents will need to come together if they are to solve the problems they face, she said. In that sense, the center will serve a key role.
But “unlike technical issues,” she said, “human issues aren’t solved overnight.”