Tucked away off of a gravel road just 18 miles north of Western Illinois University’s campus sits the Allison Organic Research and Demonstration Farm, a unique 77-acre tract that was pesticide-free for decades, even before it was used for official organic production. Today, this privately-owned farm is the primary research station of the WIU Organic Research Program, which was established in 1992. The farm “happens to be one of the largest certified organic research farms in the nation and is largely funded by the sale of crops,” said Andy Clayton. Clayton began working on the farm as a student worker in 1995. He has been the full-time Farm Manager since 2001. Clayton works with Dr. Joel Gruver, Associate Professor of Soil science and Sustainable Agriculture in the WIU School of Agriculture and Director of the WIU Organic Research Program.
Organic farming requires special certification for the products to be sold at premium prices. Clayton describes the certification process as follows: “Since 2009, the whole farm has been certified organic by Midwest Organic Services Association. Being certified organic means we have to follow a set of organic standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. The annual organic certification process includes submitting a whole farm plan, paying fees, and having the farm and farm records inspected by an accredited third party inspector.”
According to Clayton, the number one goal of the WIU Organic Research Program is “to do practical sustainable/organic agriculture research that will educate the public (including students) and benefit organic and conventional farms. We hope our research will result in farmers adopting sustainable/organic practices that result in improved profitability and environmental quality.” As a student worker for the program since October of 2016, I can personally attest to the farm fulfilling this mission.
I began working with the program during the beginning of harvest season in the fall of 2016. We harvested pumpkins, popcorn, food grade corn, and soybeans. I also helped with the labor intensive, time consuming, and careful collection of data for many research projects. Clayton remarked on this aspect of the farm: “Even though research on the organic farm can be very challenging and strenuous, I enjoy seeing the results of the many studies we do each year. It is especially rewarding when they can be applied to another farm with success that ultimately improves the net income on the farm while being sustainable.”
Participating in farming practices, like drilling cover crops and harvesting crops during the fall was valuable to my education. This winter was spent learning about behind-the-scenes farm management, marketing, and analyzing research data. Creating the plan for each research plot is one of the most eye-opening jobs that I have been able to be a part of. Crafting a farm plan that is beneficial to organic farmers and is profitable to the Organic Research Program is something that I underestimated before getting involved as a student worker.
The dedication showed by those involved in the program has been paying off. “In recent years we have been receiving a significant amount of phone calls and emails from land owners, organic farmers, and conventional farmers wanting to learn more about organic farming,” remarked Clayton.
Every August the farm hosts a Field Day that draws 150-190 people (farmers and others interested in learning about organic farming practices) from throughout the Midwest. The interest and desire for education on organic farming has increased. This has allowed additional educational events to be hosted by the program. The first Annual Winter Meeting was held this January at WIU. It was rewarding for me to play a part in working towards its success and to see it benefit about 20 farmers. Other outreach activities include Twilight Tours, conducted in the fall, and personal tours throughout the year.
As a student worker with the program, I am looking forward to learning more about the seasonal duties that are characteristic to the farm. We are beginning to plant cover crops already, in early March. Spring planting, summer management, and the Field Day in August are all activities that I am looking forward to being a part of. One new project that I am looking forward to being part of is an organic, no-till corn trial.
Learn more and keep up with Andy Clayton, Joel Gruver, and the student workers by visiting our Facebook page, WIU Organic Research Program.