Organic Transitions Research, Education, and Extension Program


Supporting organic research to increase the competitiveness of organic farmers

As organics have grown from a $1 billion industry in 1990 to over $26 billion in 2010, so has the interest in organic farming. One challenge to the continued growth of organics is research into organic production methods, including the transition from conventional to organic farming. Organic Transitions (ORG) helps fill that knowledge gap to help people overcome barriers to the transition to organics, and be successful organic farmers.

This program provides critical federal funding to colleges and universities to conduct research that helps organic farmers and livestock producers be more competitive and understand the economic and environmental benefits that organic production can offer. Ultimately, the projects funded by this program help to improve adoption of organic practices on farms of all types across the county, for the good of farmers and the environment.

Learn More About Organic Transitions!

Program Basics

For over a decade, ORG has supported the development and implementation of research, extension, and more recently education programs to improve the competitiveness of organic livestock and crop producers, as well as those who are newly adopting organic practices.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a USDA agency formerly known as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, administers ORG. NIFA administers a variety of formula funding and competitive grant programs in the research, education, and extension fields, including ORG and OREI.

As an integrated program, all ORG projects must include at least two of the following components within the proposed project: research, education, and extension activities. All project applications are expected to show evidence of stakeholder (including farmer) involvement in problem identification, and 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.

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

  • Evaluating the impacts of organic practices on the environment;
  • Optimization of environmental benefits;
  • The impact of organic agriculture on water quality; and
  • The ability of organic systems to sequester carbon.

As a specific example, the Request for Applications for Fiscal Year 2016 prioritized these four areas:

  • Documenting and understanding the effects of organic practices on ecosystem services, greenhouse gas reduction, soil health, and biodiversity;
  • Improvements to technologies and models that optimize the environmental services and climate change mitigation ability of organic farming systems;
  • Develop cultural practices and other allowable alternatives to substances recommended for removal from NOP’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances; and
  • Projects to address major barriers that limit the transition to organic agriculture in a given region or specif ic crop or animal production systems.

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 are the only entities eligible to apply for funding through the ORG program. This includes land-grant institutions, Hispanic-serving agricultural institutions, and other private and public academic institutions.

The new matching grant provision written into the 2014 Farm Bill applies to OREI grants. Previously, the matching requirement could be waived if the project was likely to benefit agriculture generally rather than for a specific commodity or specific state; or if the research was on a minor commodity, was important scientific research, and the applicant could not provide the matching funds.

The 2014 Farm Bill changed this to limit the wavier to situations where one of the entities that is part of the project is eligible to receive capacity funds (i.e. a land grant or non-land grant college of agriculture). That partner must have a “substantial” roll in the project.

The match can also be waived one year at a time for projects whose focus is consistent with the priorities of the National, Agriculture Research, Education, Extension, and Economic Advisory Board (NAREEEAB) as explained in the 2014 Research, Education and Economics Action Plan.

The Program in Action

ORG has funded a variety of projects across 21 states. In total, ORG has funded 48 projects since 2002.

  • The University of Illinois received a 4-year ORG grant in 2010 to quantify the carbon sequestration potential of organic grain production in the Midwest in order to assess the potential for their participation in carbon trading markets. The project is measuring the carbon sequestration potential of different organic grain production systems using several different tools for measuring the level of carbon sequestration. The project will also disseminate research results, and promote awareness and knowledge of carbon sequestration issues among Midwest organic grain farmers.
  • Michigan State University received a 3-year ORG grant in 2013 to study the management of Fire Blight without antibiotics. The Organic Program’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances allows the use of antibiotics on organic orchards. This grant is being used to investigate alternatives to the use of antibiotics including bacteria, copper, yeast and other materials. The results will be shared with growers through extension activities across the state.
  • The University of New Hampshire received a 4-year ORG grant in 2010 to research greenhouse gas emission by dairies during the transition to organic production. The grant is being used to model greenhouse gas emission during the organic transition period and to develop a decision aid that will help quantify the ecosystems services and environmental benefits of organic dairy systems in the Northeast United States.

How to Apply and Program Resources

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

Applications are reviewed as part of a 2-part process: an administrative review for compliance with the RFA and then a technical peer review. The review process involves assigning points to each project, with the highest scoring projects being funded.

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

Read NSAC’s blog posts about the program and other research programs

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

ORG is authorized under a broad authority in the Agriculture, Research, Extension, and Education Act of 1998 that was reauthorized by Section 7306 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. The 2014 Farm Bill establishes a universal matching grant requirement for all competitive research programs – including the Organic Transitions Program. While prior funding cycles have allowed NIFA to waive the matching funds requirement if the benefit of a specific project is likely to be applicable to other commodities, a minor commodity is involved, the research is scientifically important, or the grantee cannot provide the matching funds, future RFAs will likely include a 1:1 matching funds requirement for all projects. However, this new policy will exempt land grant institutions and other institutions that are eligible to receive capacity funds from this matching requirement.

The program does not have a mandatory appropriation so its funding is subject to the annual appropriations process. The chart below shows what the program has received in recent years.

Historically, the program has received approximately $4 to $5 million per year, with individual awards capped for Fiscal Year 2014 at not more than $200,000 per year and not more than $500,000 in total over a three year grant period.  The cap can change annually. In Fiscal Year 2013, 38 percent of applications were funded.

Historic Funding Levels for ORG 

Fiscal Year Total (in millions)
FY 2012 $4
FY 2013 $3.7
FY 2014 $4
FY 2015 $4
FY 2016 $4

Authorizing Language

Section 406 of the Agriculture Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 (AREERA) 7 U.S.C. 7626, reauthorized by Section 7306 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (FECA) P.L. 110-246.


Last updated in September 2016.