GAINESVILLE, Fla. - In response to the boom in organically grown foods, the University of Florida is one of the first universities in the nation to start a research and education center for organic agriculture.

The new Center for Organic Agriculture, which is a public-private partnership between the university and organic farmers, will lead to improved production practices that will help producers and consumers, said Mickie Swisher, an associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Land at UF’s Pine Acres Experimental Station near Gainesville will be used for research.

Swisher, an expert on sustainable agriculture and small farms, said one of the center’s goals is to create a minor in organic agriculture and a certificate in organic agriculture to be offered through UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Rose Koenig, owner of Rosie’s Organic Farm in Gainesville and co-director of the center, said agricultural research and education have always been the key to increasing food production in traditional, large-scale farming operations.

“There are many opportunities for research. For example, some people feel that organically produced foods offer health benefits. But no one knows if this is true or not - there is no scientific evidence for this one way or another,” Koenig said. “We have UF experts in many areas, ranging from agronomy and soil science to food science and human nutrition. This gives us a great opportunity to answer complex questions like this one.”

Organic foods, which used to be a small part of the nation’s annual $460 billion food market, have become mainstream as more consumers opt for change, Swisher said.

Sales of organically grown fruits and vegetables have increased 10 percent a year for the past 10 years, and almost three-quarters of all supermarkets in the United States now carry organic foods, she said. The U.S. organic market is expected to reach $20 billion by 2005.

The organic boom isn’t limited to the United States. In the United Kingdom, organic food sales are expected to increase by 75 percent over the next 5 years. In China, farmers are getting 30 percent to 50 percent more money for their organic food exports.

“People associate organic foods with freshness, better health and food safety, and they’re willing to pay a premium price for organic produce - especially for produce that is grown locally,” Swisher said.

Florida organic farmers are concerned about three major production problems: Insect pest and disease management, controlling weeds and managing soil fertility, she said.

“We need to apply the same science-based approach to solving the problems that organic producers face,” Swisher said. “Of course, before we initiate any research on organic farming, we have to make certain that no prohibited substances, such as synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, have been used within the past three years.”

She said organic farming is environmentally friendly. “It doesn’t just protect the soil, but actually improves the quality of soil.

Discussions with UF about creating the center date back to 1997, according to Koenig.

“The need for organic farming research was confirmed in 2002 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture established national standards for certifying organically grown food,” she said. “The USDA action stimulated consumer interest in organic products. The establishment of USDA standards, which was a key event in the history of this nascent industry, really validated the value of organic products. The USDA standards help assure consumers that the organic products they buy are really organic.”

Koenig said the USDA standards for organic produce also pointed to the need for research, “bringing organic producers and researchers to the same table so that cooperative projects could be developed for the benefit of growers and consumers.”

There are 2.23 million acres of organic farmland in the U.S., including about 12,059 acres in Florida, said Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers and Consumers in Gainesville.

Patti Bartlett is a writer for the University of Florida.

e-mail: grutz@primediabusiness.com