Organic Transitions Research, Education, and Extension Program


Supporting organic research to increase the competitiveness of organic farmers

Since the 1990s, the organic market has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. As the market has grown, naturally so too has interest in organic agriculture. One core challenge to the continued growth of organic agriculture is the limited availability of research into organic production methods, including the benefits of transitioning from conventional to organic farming. The Organic Transitions Research, Education, and Extension program (ORG) helps farmers fill their knowledge gaps, overcome barriers in transitioning to certified organic, and become successful organic farmers.

ORG provides critical grant funding to colleges and universities conducting research that helps organic farmers and livestock producers become more competitive and better understand the economic and environmental benefits of organic production.

Learn More About Organic Transitions:

Program Basics

For nearly two decades, ORG has supported the development and implementation of research, education, and extension programs to improve the competitiveness of organic and transitioning-to-organic livestock and crop producers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers ORG, as well as other competitive research, education, and extension grant programs, including OREI.

As an integrated grant program, all ORG projects must include at least two of the following components: research, education, and/or extension. All project applications are expected to show evidence of stakeholder (including farmer) involvement in problem identification, project planning, implementation, and evaluation. Projects should address practices associated with organic crops, organic animal production (including dairy), and systems integrating organic plant and animal production. Projects are expected to deliver production information to producers, students, extension agents, and other service providers.

Each year, ORG focuses on a discrete set of research topics that are relevant to organic production. In recent years, the program has focused on:

  • Documenting and understanding the effects of organic practices.
  • Improving technologies, methods, model development, and other metrics to optimize ecosystem systems.
  • Developing cultural practices and other allowable alternatives to substances on the National Organic Program’s (NOP) National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
  • Overcoming barriers to organic transition.

Certain research areas are prioritized by ORG, including: research around the impacts of crop rotation, livestock-crop system integration, soil health, and cover crops; optimizing ecosystem services and the ability of organic crops to adapt to, and mitigate climate variability; development of cultivars or breeds suited to organic production; region specific production challenges, infrastructure constraints, marketplace solutions, and other policy or administrative barriers to organic production.

All research activities on organic practices must take place on certified organic land or land in transition to organic production unless the non-certified land is being used for comparison purposes.

Eligibility

Colleges and universities – including land-grant institutions, Hispanic-serving agricultural institutions, and other private and public academic institutions – are the only entities eligible to apply for funding through ORG. However, ORG strongly encourages applicants to develop partnerships that include collaboration with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that are engaged in organic agriculture research, education, and outreach, as well as small or mid-sized colleges and universities; 1890 Land-Grant Institutions, 1994 Land-Grant Institutions, Hispanic-serving institutions, and/or other institutions that serve high risk, under-served, or hard-to-reach audiences.

ORG requires a 100 percent match if the project provides “a particular benefit to a specific agricultural commodity.” NIFA may waive the matching requirement if the agency determines that the: (1) Results of the project, while of particular benefit to a specific commodity, are likely to be applicable to agricultural commodities generally, or (2) Projects involve a minor commodity, the projects deals with scientifically important research, and the grant recipient is unable to satisfy the matching fund requirement.

The Program in Action

Since 2002, ORG has funded 93 projects and awarded over $44 million in grant funding to support organic research, education and extension. Recent project highlights include:

  • Cornell University received a grant to develop a new storage technology (known as dynamic controlled atmosphere) for Northeastern-grown organic apples. This technology is meant to address long-term, non-chemical storage needs of organic growers in the region by determining extremely low oxygen tolerance levels of selected apple cultivars.  The project aims to provide confidence in the technology by the organic apple industry and meet consumer demand for organic fruit year round.
  • To overcome barriers to transitioning small ruminants to organic production, West Virginia University’s ORG grant will study the potential of birdsfoot trefoil (BFT) to combat gastrointestinal parasite infections. The project will evaluate agronomic practices to improve BFT establishment in pastures, the ability to increase tolerance in organically managed lambs, and the effects of BFT diet on infected animals. The researchers intend to host workshops, conduct on-farm grazing trials, and organize field days and pasture walks to demonstrate improved practices.
  • Researchers at North Carolina State University are investigating how organic farming promotes soil microbial communities with high nitrogen use efficiency in acidic soils across the southeastern United States. The goals include identifying the driving factors that impact nitrogen-cycling microbes and organic practices. Through training and an active outreach program, the project will educate researcher and farmers on the results.
  • University of California, Davis, received funding to optimize the establishment and management of alfalfa trap crop to control the lygus pest in organic strawberries. Currently. organic strawberry growers do not have effective strategies to control the pest. However, alfalfa is more attractive to lygus and introducing alfalfa as a perimeter crop might be a strategy worth pursuing, including the educational component for organic farmers.

To read summaries of more ORG projects online, visit NIFA’s website, or check out NSAC’s blogs on recent awards:

How to Apply and Program Resources

NIFA typically issues a Request for Applications (RFA) once a year, usually in early spring. Projects are funded for up to three years. The total project cost cannot exceed $500,000 (or $200,000 in any one year). The program favors integrated projects, but will fund single function projects. Applications must be submitted electronically through grants.gov.

ORG applications are reviewed as part of a 2-part process: first an administrative review for compliance with the RFA is undertaken, and then a technical peer review which evaluates the scientific merit and relevancy of each proposed project. The review process assigns points to each project, and the highest scoring projects are ultimately funded.

More details about ORG and its application process are available on NIFA’s Organic Transitions Program page.

To learn more about how ORG has helped to advance organic research, see the following NSAC blogs and resources:

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

ORG is authorized under a broad authority in the Agriculture, Research, Extension, and Education Act of 1998, which was reauthorized by the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. The 2018 Farm Bill also repealed a universal matching grant requirement established in the 2014 Farm bill and reinstates NIFA’s authority to waive the matching funds requirement for ORG proposals.

ORG does not have any direct funding through the farm bill and instead, relies solely on annually appropriated funding. Historically, ORG has received approximately $4 to $5 million in discretionary funding per year. In FY 2019, ORG received $6 million, its highest funding to date.  The chart below shows the appropriated dollars that the program has received in recent years.   

Historic Funding Levels for ORG 

Fiscal Year Total (in millions)
FY 2015 $3
FY 2016 $4
FY 2017 $4
FY 2018 $5
FY 2019 $6

Authorizing Language

Section 406 of the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 (AREERA) (7 U.S.C. 7626), as reauthorized by the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018


Last updated in May 2019.