UC’s Houston Wilson directs new Institute of Organic Agriculture

Houston Wilson was named the first director of UC’s new Institute of Organic Agriculture in May 2020.

Over the past several decades, as the organic farming industry in California has grown, education and research into specific organic farming practices has in some cases lagged behind this. area growth. The University of California (UC) now has a specific institute dedicated to organic agriculture in the new UC Organic Agriculture Institute (OAI). OAI is housed within UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and was established through endowments from Clif Bar and UC President Janet Napolitano. These endowments will provide the initial annual funds to support OAI’s efforts, which will focus on developing research and extension programs for the organic production of nuts, tree fruits, raisins and rice.

These efforts will be led by new director Houston Wilson, a UC Riverside agricultural entomologist and cooperative extension specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier.

Resource for organic farming

One of the first steps for Wilson and OAI will be to conduct a statewide needs assessment to determine the most critical research areas to focus their efforts on.

“Through a series of surveys, focus groups, cost studies, and analyzes of existing data on organic crop production, we will characterize the current state and needs of organic agriculture in California” , Wilson said.

This assessment, Wilson said, will also help OAI identify relevant expertise within the UC system to develop multidisciplinary research teams to solve specific problems in organic agriculture. OAI will also organize and facilitate regional crop-specific extension meetings, as well as an annual organic agriculture conference, to bring together producers, researchers, extension staff and other industry players focused on on nuts, fruit trees, raisins and rice.

“Some other potential activities include a small grants program to help initiate new projects and research fellowships for undergraduate students to gain experience in organic agricultural science,” Wilson said.

Wilson seeks to quickly establish OAI as a focal point for the organic agriculture industry and to create networks for collaboration and business development.

“We are currently seeking to build relationships with the many organizations and stakeholders in the organic agriculture community across California, as well as relevant growers, marketing boards, and programs within the UC and CSU system. “Wilson said. “As we design OAI, we build multiple ways for these stakeholders to interact with and provide feedback on our programmatic activities (such as creating an advisory committee.)”

Organic experience

While Wilson was only recently appointed as the new director of OAI, he is no stranger to organic farming practices. As a principal investigator (PI) of the Wilson Lab at the Kearney Ag. Center, much of Wilson’s vineyard and orchard research has applications in organic agriculture.

“Many of the pest control practices we focus on fall under the National Biological Program, such as crop sanitation, biological control, mating disruption, cover crops, improved trapping methods, and sterile insect technique. , but many of these practices are equally important for conventional crops and organic growers,” Wilson said.

Although Wilson’s research and extension program goals are often relevant to OAI, he views these focused entomology activities as distinct from his role at OAI, which will encompass many additional target disciplines and cultures. . As director of OAI, Wilson said, his primary role is not as a researcher, but rather to facilitate the development of a multidisciplinary research and extension program for organic agriculture.

“Research and extension needs in our focal crops will likely span multiple disciplines, including pathology, weed management, crop nutrition, soils, irrigation and entomology,” Wilson said. “Thus, as director, my job is to bring together the most relevant experts to respond to the issues in these different fields.”

Although Wilson has come into contact with many organic growers over the course of his career, he has never done so in such a focused way as he is now director of OAI, he said. Nevertheless, he is always looking forward to entering an organic framework.

“I look forward to meeting and working with new producers, organizations and other stakeholders,” Wilson said. “Previously, I never had a mandate to focus on organic, but now I have the opportunity to fully immerse myself in this sector of agriculture.

“California has always been a leader in organic agriculture, and as such there is a rich history here that involves many great people who have worked for decades to develop, define and promote agriculture. biological,” Wilson continued. “In this way, it is an honor to have been selected for the position of inaugural Director of OAI and to now have the opportunity to interact and learn from all these different people.”

Organic farming will thrive

While California is already a thriving organic powerhouse, with 3,000 certified organic farms growing crops on 21% of all certified organic land in the United States, there is much more room for growth. Certified organic products are in demand and UC OAI will provide guidance not only to currently certified organic producers, but also to farmers looking to transition from conventional to organic farming.

“We will likely hold annual and/or regional extension meetings for our flagship crops,” Wilson said. “These will provide a training opportunity for currently certified growers, as well as those wishing to transition to organic farming.

“We can even schedule events that specifically target producers looking to transition,” Wilson continued. “There are grants available for projects that target producers in transition, which could be a good place to find financial support for these efforts.”

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