October 19, 2018
When Congress allowed the 2014 Farm Bill to expire on September 30, 2018, a host of important food and farm programs lost their authority to operate, their funding, or both. Among the programs thrown into farm bill limbo by this delay are two competitive organic research grant programs that recently announced what could be their final round of grant awards: the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Organic Transitions Program (ORG).
As one of ten “tiny but mighty” programs that support sustainable agriculture, OREI has neither authorization nor funding to operate following the 2014 Farm Bill’s expiration. ORG can still technically operate, if discretionary funding continues to be provided through the appropriations process, but the majority of organic research grant funding comes through OREI.
On October 19, 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced over $21 million in fiscal year (FY) 2018 grants to support organic research and farming. NIFA awarded fifteen OREI grants totaling $17 million, which will fund research, education, and extension projects to improve yields, quality, and profitability for organic producers and processors. Ten ORG grants, totaling $4.48 million, were also awarded. ORG projects support research, education, and extension efforts to help existing and transitioning organic livestock and crop producers adopt organic practices and improve market competitiveness.
Typically, $21 million in grant funding for innovative projects that promote organic farming practices would be something to celebrate with a press release. However, this most recent award announcement – and the last that OREI is authorized to make under the 2014 Farm Bill – was quietly tucked into the end of a NIFA newsletter.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauds the announcement of funding for these important organic research projects. We are also, however, dismayed that vital programs like OREI has been effectively frozen because of the farm bill’s delay. NSAC urges Congress to move swiftly to pass a new farm bill, one that closely mirrors the bipartisan Senate-passed bill.
NSAC is pleased to see that many of the priorities that we highlighted in our programmatic recommendations on last year’s OREI Request for Applications (RFA) were reflected in the subsequent awards. These priorities include, but are not limited to: continued support for organic crop seed systems and breeding for organic production; the promotion of multi-regional, regional, and targeted projects; and emphasizing collaboration between research entities. NSAC submitted formal comments to NIFA in coordination with the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and other NSAC members who utilize the OREI grant program. To see NSAC’s recommendations for the FY 2019 OREI RFA, click here.
Funding for ORG grants have increased over the last few thanks to robust advocacy from NSAC and the organic community. In FY 2018, for example, ORG grantees received $800,000 more than the previous year. Both the House and the Senate-passed farm bills include substantial funding increases for OREI; however, only the Senate bill would provide permanent baseline funding. NSAC urges Congress to adopt the Senate’s provisions for OREI, which would provide $40 million in each of fiscal years (FY) 2019 and FY 2020, $45 million in FY 2021, and $50 million each year thereafter.
NSAC congratulates all of this year’s OREI and ORG grantees, and would like to specifically acknowledge those NSAC members who were included as project leads or partners. Congratulations to both the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), both grant recipients or partners on OREI projects.
MOSES will use their OREI award to launch the “Mapping the Future of Organic Research 2051” (“Organic 2051”) conference. Organic 2051 is described as an innovative conference where the goals, needs and plans of the organic community can be established and put forward into the broader conversation for the next 30 years. According to the project description, Organic 2051 will address market, policy and other socioeconomic barriers to the expansion of organic agriculture in the US and develop strategies to overcome them. The conference will investigate research needs to strengthen organic cropping systems, particularly in the areas of cover crop development and adaptation, as well as protecting organic crops in proximity to conventional crops.
OSA will be partnering with Oregon State University on their project, which aims to increase grower access to improved vegetable cultivars that are adapted to organic systems as part of the Northern Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) 3. According to the project description, the overall long-term goal of NOVIC3 is to increase the proportion of U.S. agriculture that is managed organically. To achieve this goal, OSA and Oregon State seek to provide organic growers with greater access to improved vegetable cultivars that are adapted to organic systems. Such cultivars should be productive, robust (stable across environments), relevant (meet growers’ market needs), high quality and nutritious.
Other FY 2018 projects include research that aims to advance grass-fed organic dairy production, improve consumer quality of organic produce, improve strategies for weed management in organic systems, and optimize organic management for fire blight disease.
Organic agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry that has been responsible for creating jobs at a rate above the national average. Though the industry is steadily growing, its market share, organic food still only represents 4-5 percent of total U.S. grocery sales. Organic and would-be organic producers face myriad barriers that hinder their success, including lack of sufficient and relevant research and education programs, as well as extension resources. If the organic industry is to continue growing and providing jobs and economic stimulus to the agricultural economy, continued federal investment in organic research is needed.
OREI and ORG help fill gaps in skills and knowledge by funding emerging and cutting-edge organic research. Awards of up to $2 million are allowed for standard grants; $100,000 for conference and analytical grants; and $50,000 for planning grants. Over the past decade, OREI and ORG have invested millions of dollars into projects that have provided farmers new opportunities to farm sustainably, grow the organic market, and transform agriculture into an industry that improves soil health, conserves water while increasing yield.
OREI funds broad-spectrum organic research, and is open to public and private institutions. ORG grants, however, are available only to colleges and universities leading projects that improve the competitiveness of organic livestock and crop producers. Currently, ORG prioritizes research around soil conservation, pollinator health, and climate change mitigation.
As mentioned earlier, this round of awards is the final round of funding that OREI can provide under the authority of the 2014 Farm Bill. As a tiny but mighty farm bill program, OREI is now stranded without funding or authorization until a new farm bill is put into place. ORG operates with some discretionary funding, which means it can technically still operate if Congress provide funds in the FY 2019 appropriations package, which is still unresolved. Most USDA funded organic research, however, is funded through the OREI program – therefore, even if ORG is able to continue with discretionary funding, only $5 million (compared to the $21 million provided this year) would be available for 2019 organic research grants.
What does this mean for organic farmers who rely on OREI and ORG-funded research to address the pest, disease, supply chain, and other challenges they face every day?
It means that until a new farm bill is signed into law, research for organic farming systems will slow to a trickle, with 80 percent less funding per year available for research and projects.
What can you do to support organic research and agriculture in the next farm bill? Stay tuned to NSAC’s Take Action! page and join family farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates in demanding that Congress pass a farm bill as soon as possible, and that the final bill reflect the Senate’s strong support for organic research programs.