Western Innovator: Organic, sustainable bridge builder

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CAPITAL PRESS – DAN WHEAT – WENATCHEE, Wash. — Discovering that applying mulch to orchards for weed control was actually more beneficial in protecting trees from soil heat and water stress, was just one innovation of David Granatstein’s career.

But he says his greatest contribution to agriculture was bringing people together over controversial issues. The two big ones were organics and sustainability.

Granatstein, 67, retired last fall as Washington State University Extension sustainable agriculture specialist, which included being a lead on organic agriculture. Now he is a professor emeritus.

Years ago, when Granatstein held the first organics session at the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting, the topic was controversial. Organic was seen as a fringe movement.

“It was viewed as a direct attack on conventional, implying it was poisoning the earth. Those feelings were pretty raw,” Granatstein says.

There was division, animosity. Each side had a stereotype of the other. Granatstein believes he helped people overcome that.

Building bridges

“My goal has always been to build bridges and help people see there are things they can learn from each other,” he says. “The world isn’t black and white, but gray.”

Today, many of the state’s tree fruit companies grow conventional and organic fruit. Organics make up about 15 percent of apples and pears and 7 percent of cherries.

“It’s been a 20-year evolution of the industry to accept organics and understand and recognize the benefits. There was a whole discussion on whether organics are sustainable,” he said. “We’re still working on acceptance and definition of sustainability.”

It’s the idea that agriculture should be profitable, environmentally sound and socially acceptable.

“When USDA started its sustainable ag program, it was ‘What the hell,’ people hated it. ‘You say sustainable. That’s implying I’m not.’ People took it really personally,” he said.

Growers thought protecting the environment could only come at the loss of profitability. It was either or. Granatstein helped educate all sides that environmental benefits could pay and that profitability was necessary for growers to invest in their land and people. In short, that practices to guard the environment could also guard the pocketbook.

For example, erosion eventually depletes the soil wheat farmers need. Reduced tillage reduces erosion, which in the long run benefits the farmer. Other examples: biological controls and natural predators reducing pests in fruit trees and therefore reducing use of pesticides.

“David is a key force that put WSU on the map as a leader in sustainable agriculture outreach, research and education. His influence and impacts will be long lasting,” Todd Murray, director of the WSU Agricultural and Natural Resources Extension Program, said upon Granatstein’s retirement.

Tracking organics

In 2000, Granatstein began tracking organic acreage, transition acreage, the number of organic farms and varieties and specifics of organic crops. The main categories are tree fruit, vegetables and forages but he also tracks more than 100 other crops of lesser organic volume.

His annual reports have been used by growers, others in business, academics and policy makers. The reports are in greater depth than efforts by USDA. He gleans the data from state and private organic certification programs in Washington, Oregon and California and, he says, covers about 98 percent of organic farms in Washington.

Organic production has grown from a gross farmgate value of $101 million in Washington in 2005 to $667 million in 2017. That’s 6.2 percent of total farmgate.

Granatstein’s initial motivation in pushing organics was to lessen farming’s impact on the environment. But he knew he also had to show an economic reason for growers to adopt it.

In 2014, production costs of organic Gala apples were estimated at 12 percent higher than conventional Gala, the yield was 8 percent lower but the price was 42 percent higher. That led to a 270 percent higher profit margin for the organic crop.

In fact, he found, in the market price for organic turned out to be 100 percent more than conventional gala, making it even better.

While the profit margin of organics over conventional has been narrowing in recent years, it is still large enough to make organics worthwhile, he said.

Finding his calling

A key moment in Granatstein’s career was during his undergraduate years at Cornell University. He was good in math and science and wanted to become an engineer. But he loved the natural world, hiking in the Adirondack Mountains.

In a biology class, he realized there was a whole science to the natural world and later realized agriculture had a huge impact on the environment. Combining agriculture and the environment clicked for him.

He had been born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., with no farm background. His father helped manage a family clothing business. His mother used her Spanish training to work at the state employment security department.

Upon graduation from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in environmental conservation in 1973, Granatstein worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He was about to join the Peace Corps but thought it “ludicrous” that he was going overseas to teach farming to people who had been doing it for 3,000 years when he never had.

Career path

A friend from college invited him to an alternative ag conference in Ellensburg, Wash. He went and ended up co-manager of Libby Creek Farm, an organic farm in Okanogan County, for the next seven years.

He next spent a year in southern Africa working as an agronomist on a WSU farming systems project while getting his master’s degree in soil management at WSU.

He was farm research director for the Land Stewardship Project, a private nonprofit, in Minnesota for two years. There he tried to find alternatives to address nitrate and herbicide pollution in groundwater.

“It needed to be profitable and environmental at the same time. It was really my first chance to work on sustainability,” he said.

While there he wrote, “Reshaping the Bottom Line,” an early sustainable ag book for farmers.

In 1989, he became project manager of the Northwest Dryland Cereal/Legume Cropping Systems Project at WSU in Pullman. It was one of the first USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension projects in the West.

In 1992, WSU formed the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Granatstein became statewide coordinator and moved to Wenatchee to be more centrally located. He held that position for 26 years until his retirement.

He has been involved in many projects relating to soil, compost, orchard floor management, climate, fruit production and was a founder of the Food Alliance, an ecolabel program in Portland. He has conducted sustainable ag training in Russia, Argentina, Italy, Germany, Taiwan, Ghana, Chile and Canada.

More recently, he spoke in Kyrgyzstan and at an international pear symposium in Uruguay. In retirement, he plans to complete at least the 20th year of his organic farming statistical report.

Concerns, optimism

Looking ahead, Granatstein said the tree fruit industry needs to be mindful of its environmental footprint with the expanding use of orchard inputs such as plastic netting for orchard protection.

There’s a lot of plastic waste when the netting gets old. While netting makes economic sense, “what’s the environmental impact, is use of a non-renewable resource sustainable and is it socially acceptable?” he asks.

Granatstein has held educational forums on the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms.

“Most GMO technology to date doesn’t meet my own personal sustainability perspective, but I suspect that will change,” he said.

Roundup Ready crops help with no-till but weeds become resistant, stronger herbicides are used and more genetic engineering is need for the crop, he said, making it a never-ending cycle.

Genetic modification of apples to resist disease better fits with his sustainability concept but still needs careful evaluation for unintended consequences, he said.

“I’m not suggesting it be allowed in organic at this point,” he said.

“Overall, I’m really optimistic about the future of ag,” Granatstein said. “Particularly our understanding of microbiology and the potential for better microbial management in agriculture leading to breakthroughs similar to what we see in human health with the human microbiome findings.”

Posted by: DAN WHEAT Capital Press, February 15, 2019

Picture: Courtesy of Elizabeth Beers, WSU

David Granatstein, Washington State University Extension sustainable agriculture specialist, in an apple orchard in 2010. He spent a career bridging gaps between conventional agriculture and organic and sustainable agriculture.