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What’s at Stake: Organic Research

October 16, 2012


Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place.  In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding.  This is the third post in our 10-week “What’s at Stake?” series that highlights expired farm bill programs and what that means for farmers and communities throughout the country.


 Lee Rust, a farmer in Monroe County, NY, with the harvest from his emmer trial.  Photo Credit: Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network

There is a wheat revival happening in the Northeast.  Demand for organically and locally produced wheat has skyrocketed, particularly among regional bakeries, breweries, and distilleries.  Farmers in the Northeast are trying to meet this demand but they lack some basic tools – such as regionally adapted varieties and information on growing practices – to produce enough supply.

Elizabeth Dyck – a researcher with the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN) in New York – says that she frequently fields questions from consumers and food businesses throughout the Northeast asking why they can’t buy wheat that is produced locally and organically.

“There simply is not a lot of information on wheat or other small grains – like spelt, emmer, and einkorn – that are well-suited to thrive in the Northeast climate, particularly those that perform well using organic practices,” says Dyck.

Since the vast majority of wheat produced domestically is grown conventionally and is concentrated in the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, it isn’t surprising that most federally funded research on wheat production has focused on varieties and agricultural practices appropriate for those regions.  However, there’s need for more research like Dyck’s.

Since 2008, Dyck and other organic researchers, farmers, and community partners have been seeking to close this research gap with help from a USDA research grant funded through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).  Through on-farm experiments and demonstration sites, this Cornell University-led* research team has worked with farmers in the region to test several modern and heritage small grain varieties to see which ones perform the best in the Northeast and to develop best management practices for growing these varieties organically.

“Farmers are looking for opportunities to add value to every acre, and are very interested in getting involved in this research,” says Dyck.  “Right now, we’re working with close to 80 farmers, and are hoping to get over 200 involved in this project.  Because much of our research is done in farmers’ fields, we’re able to conduct research that is directly relevant to the problems they face every day.”

This research has led to the development of improved varieties and organic management practices that have helped growers in the Northeast begin to tap into the high demand for value-added, organically grown grains in the regions.

“This research has shown that high-quality wheat can be grown organically in the Northeast,” says Julie Dawson, an organic researcher with Cornell University.

Thanks to federal funding for this research project, local bakeries, restaurants, breweries, and distilleries are now able to source more locally produced wheat, spelt, and other grains.  Farmers are starting to produce more wheat and small grains to meet at least some of the consumer demand that is driving the growth in this emerging regional market.  This translates into increased opportunities and improved profitability for farmers in the region.

*The following NSAC Members are also collaborating on this OREI research project:  Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society.  Other project partners include Pennsylvania State University, North Dakota State University and Greenmarket NYC.

How OREI Supports Organic Farmers

A major barrier facing organic producers is the lack of sufficient, appropriate, and relevant research, education, and extension resources they need to successfully compete in the agricultural sector.

OREI is USDA’s flagship competitive grants program with a funding stream dedicated to organic research and extension.  Over the past decade, the program has invested millions of dollars into research that has helped farmers grow and market organic agricultural products and has helped to underpin the tremendous growth the organic sector has seen over the past ten years.

Organic agriculture continues to be one of the fastest growing sectors of agriculture in the United States, creating jobs at four times the national rate (Organic Trade Association), and keeping over 14,540 family farmers in business and on the land.  Before the recession, the organic sector grew at an average annual rate of 15-20 percent, and continues to experience growth during one of the worst economic downturns in our nation’s history.  In 2011, the U.S. organic industry grew by 9.5 percent to $31.5 billion in sales (Organic Trade Association).

Strong consumer demand for organically produced foods has fueled this strong, continued growth in the organic sector and has increased its retail market share – yet federal investments in research that is relevant to organic farming systems have not kept pace with this growth.

In 2011, USDA only dedicated roughly 2 percent of its total Research, Education, and Extension (REE) portfolio to research and extension for organic systems, compared to the over 4 percent market share of the organic sector.

A strong investment in research underpins growth in any sector, as all farmers – organic, conventional, or otherwise – need cutting-edge research that is easily accessible and relevant to their farming systems.  And since 2004, OREI has been uniquely and critically positioned to close this gap between the growth of the organic sector and research investment.

OREI-funded research is farmer-driven (instead of farmer application being an after thought as is the case with much federally-funded agricultural research) and seeks to directly address the needs and challenges that organic farmers face in their fields every day.

For example, new seed varieties that are bred and developed for conventional production systems will not have the same success when used under organic systems that utilize an entirely different framework and set of management practices.  Organic producers from all sectors face a host of unique challenges that publicly-funded research has historically not addressed, and OREI grantees regularly report that their research could not have been conducted without funding from this critical research program.

Examples of Successful OREI Projects

OREI has been around for almost a decade, and is having a real impact on the profitability and productivity of organic farms of all kinds across the country – whether they specialize in organic fruit, fresh market vegetables, grains, livestock, or cotton.

Since 2004, OREI has funded 98 projects across 35 states and territories, totaling $65 million in awards.

This program has sparked important innovations in organic production systems and has addressed several critical issues relevant to organic farmers.  Examples of funded research include the following:

  • In Washington, OREI has improved the competitiveness of organic farms by developing systems-based solutions to soil and weed problems.
  • In Texas, OREI helped researchers develop new cotton varieties appropriate for organic production to meet the needs of the country’s largest organic cotton growing region.
  • In Minnesota, OREI funded research and extension project that analyzed the economics of organic transition for conventional dairy farms and potential barriers to organic certification.
  • In Wisconsin, OREI has helped a technical college formalize an organic farming certificate program that trains and certifies students in organic agricultural production practices.
  • In Vermont, OREI is enhancing the adoption of organic apple production throughout New England, which has historically been very difficult due to intense pest and disease pressure in the region.

 Program Funding

OREI was first created in the 2002 Farm Bill thanks to the advocacy of NSAC and the Organic Farming Research Foundation — an NSAC member and longtime OREI champion — and was provided $15 million in mandatory funding, or $3 million to award in research grants per year.  Due to the program’s early success and consistently high demand, the 2008 Farm Bill increased mandatory funding for OREI to $78 million over the next four years.

Since the last farm bill, roughly $20 million has been available each year to fund new and continuing projects through OREI.  However, as of October 1, that funding and program authorization have officially expired, leaving the future of the program and the fate of the organic sector in a precarious position.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives took action to fund OREI in their versions of the 2012 Farm Bill, albeit at decreased levels.  The Senate and House Committee-passed farm bills both provide $16 million per year to fund OREI through 2017, which is roughly a twenty percent cut from current annual funding levels.

What’s Next for Organic Research?

As of October 1, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, along with several other innovative research and rural development programs, has now officially expired with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill.

Congress clearly understands the importance of this program, as both the House and Senate include funding for OREI in their draft farm bills, albeit at decreased levels.  Unfortunately, despite the widespread support for this program across the country and an ever-growing demand for organically produced food, Congress has left town without reauthorizing the farm bill and all the innovative programs that go along with it.

So, what does this mean for all those farmers that are interested in farming organically – whether they are currently certified organic, are interested in transitioning part of their acreage to organic production, or whether they are aspiring farmers wishing to get a foothold into farming by producing a value-added organic product?

Quite simply it means that organic farmers won’t have new tools available to them to combat the many challenges of farming.  Organic producers will have a more difficult time managing pests and diseases, and will be unlikely to see yield increases necessary to meet growing consumer demand.  Fewer farmers will seriously consider transitioning, maintaining, or expanding current organic acreage, and farmers in rural communities will be less likely to capture increased economic returns by switching to organic production.  That means that there will be fewer farmers able to supply strong domestic demand, and that more organic product will have to be sourced from abroad.

Unfortunately, there are real consequences to Congress’s decision to allow the farm bill to expire.  We need to make sure that lawmakers hear this loud and clear when they return to work in November, and that they get back on track and get a farm bill or short-term extension that explicitly provides continued funding for OREI past this year.

To find out when and how to take action in support of organic farmers, sign up for NSAC’s action alerts!


Categories: Farm Bill, Organic Farming, Research, Education & Extension


2 Responses to “What’s at Stake: Organic Research”

  1. [...] Read this week’s Post: What’s at Stake: Organic Research [...]

  2. [...] there are more, less visible pieces of the puzzle as well, like funding for organic research and value-added products (a great way for farmers to scale up their businesses with products that [...]

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