Exploring the world of organic agriculture at Iowa State

Karenna Petersen standing in a soybean field, using a cloth net to sweep for insects.
Karenna Petersen, senior in horticulture, sweeps for insects in a soybean field as part of her work as a student assistant with Iowa State University's Organic Agriculture program.

By Whitney Baxter, CALS Communications, and Kathleen Delate, Organic Agriculture Program

Organic agriculture can provide many benefits to humans and the environment. Teaching students and the community about those benefits is one of the Organic Agriculture program’s goals.

Kathleen Delate, professor of horticulture and extension specialist, has operated Iowa State University’s Organic Agriculture program for the past 25 years. The program aims to educate the public, including Iowa State students, about the latest research and activities related to organic agriculture.

Every other spring in odd-numbered years, students can enroll in the Organic Agriculture: Theory and Practice course, which is offered either in-person or online. Topics discussed in the course include:

  • the history of organic agriculture in the United States and the world;
  • social and economic impacts of organic agriculture; and
  • required practices to become certified organic, including nutrient and pest management practices for crops and livestock.

Iowa organic farmers are guest speakers in the class, providing insight into their practices and marketing strategies.

Students select a project related to their interest area within organic agriculture and present their findings at the end of the semester.

Josiah Pollock, program specialist for the Organic Agriculture program, took the course during his master’s program at Iowa State. He chose to investigate the historical role of crop rotations and manure usage as nutrient management techniques – knowledge he uses in his current position.

“Recently, I was completing organic certification forms for our certifier, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, describing the crop rotations we will have at Iowa State’s Neely-Kinyon Farm this year,” he said. “The Organic Ag class really helped me understand the value of longer rotations, where small grains, like wheat and rye, with interseeded legumes, are beneficial for weed management throughout the entire rotation.”

Four people standing on a stage, all holding one large, framed certificate. They are standing in front of a black curtain.
Merry Rankin, left, director of the Office of Sustainability, and Olivia Miller, right, present the 2024 LiveGreen! Award for Excellence in Sustainability to representatives of the Organic Agriculture program, Karenna Petersen, second from left, and Josiah Pollock.

Karenna Petersen, senior in horticulture, is a student assistant with the Organic Agriculture program. She has worked on two Science with Practice projects made possible through the program – one looking at the effect of chickens on biological pest control in organic vegetable crop rotations, and her current project studying the effect of extending crop rotations to help manage weeds in organic corn and soybean systems.

Petersen enjoys the variety of learning opportunities in her student assistant position.

“No day is ever the same in the Organic Ag program,” Petersen said. “One day we were filming a drone seeding red clover in the hybrid rye plots at the research farm, and the next day we had a Zoom call with an extension director in Waterloo to discuss setting up an organic demonstration plot in one of the urban community gardens there.”

Earlier this year, the program was awarded the 2024 Live Green! Award for Excellence in Sustainability. The award was in recognition of the program’s outreach efforts, which included seven field days, organizing the Iowa Organic Conference and various webinars and trainings with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Their efforts and dedication to supporting sustainability and the Live Green! Initiative through commitment to empowering organic agriculture is impressive and so very impactful to the legacy paid forward for countless generations of Cyclones,” said Merry Rankin, director of the Office of Sustainability. “I am so thrilled to honor their outstanding work.”

Iowa organic agriculture fun facts

  • Iowa ranks sixth in the nation in the number of organic farms.
  • The number of organic acres is steadily increasing as farms change generations and younger farmers are interested in new revenue flows and methods while also lowering their farm’s environmental footprint.