UI celebrates new Sandpoint organic agriculture center

SANDPOINT, Idaho — A new University of Idaho center devoted to organic agriculture is a new “gem” within the UI’s statewide network, the agricultural dean says.

The university held an open house Oct. 23 at the Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center. The center is the first in the UI system to focus on organic farming.

Michael Parrella, dean of UI’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said the center will address organic agriculture, bring back “the wonder and variety” of heirloom apples and educate students and offer outreach to the community.

“Overnight, the Sandpoint organic agricultural center became a gem in our college’s statewide network when we took possession of this property on Aug. 1,” Parrella said.

The center has 640 apple, pear, cherry and plum trees and 1,000 feet of raspberry canes, said orchard operations manager Kyle Nagy. The property is 66 acres.

A dormitory will house 36 students.

Dennis Pence, who donated the Sandpoint Orchard land and buildings, said the center provides the university with a bigger presence in the Sandpoint area.

The orchard grows 68 varieties of apples, most of them heirloom varieties.

“I read that there was once in colonial times 2,000 varieties of apples grown in what is now the U.S.,” Pence said. “And a little over 100 years ago, there were 300 varieties of apples grown in the U.S. What happened?”

Pence began planting heirloom varieties to see what would happen.

“I’m starting to look around and all this organic agriculture, there’s a lot of things you could learn from this,” he said, recalling the germination of the idea.

Pence said Parrella welcomed his ideas for the space, and he credited it to Parrella’s Ph.D., in entomology. Pence and Parrella both cited recent concerns over a study that indicated a 75 percent decline in insects in parts of Germany.

“That is something Michael understood because he is a bug guy. If you’re an entomologist, you know what’s going on,” Pence said. “Something is going on that’s really not healthy.”

The center will research more sustainable approaches to farming, Pence said.

“You have a facility that will be full of energy, intelligence and caring about the kinds of foods we all need for our health, welfare and (to) sustain our society,” Pence said.