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2014 Farm Bill Drilldown: Sustainable and Organic Research

February 12, 2014

With the 2014 Farm Bill recently signed into law, NSAC is doing a blog series that delves into the details of the bill for sustainable food and farming systems.  Previous posts in this farm bill series dove into the overall farm bill by the numbers, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer issues, working lands conservation programs, the linkage between conservation and crop insuranceeasement, land retirement, and energy programs, and local food systems and rural development.  This blog post will focus on the research provisions that support organic and sustainable agriculture.

Federal policy has helped shaped our nation’s agricultural research agenda since the Morrill Act was first signed into law over 150 years ago and created the land-grant university system to carry out agricultural research and education in every state across the country.  Since 1862, several other pieces of legislation have passed through the halls of Congress that have profoundly affected the type of agricultural system we have today and the research innovations that have been developed to foster that system – including most recently the new farm bill. 

Over the past few decades, strong consumer demand for sustainably and organically produced foods has fueled strong, continued growth in these sectors of agriculture, yet federal investments in sustainable and organic farming research have not kept pace with this growth.  There are some long-standing research programs, like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, that have been at the forefront of farmer driven research for the past twenty-five years, though chronically underfunded, and there are also newer programs authorized in more recent farm bills that have begun to make progress in closing this research gap.

Over two years ago, NSAC launched a campaign to increase federal investments in future agricultural innovations by strengthening research programs for beginning farmers, organic agriculture and specialty crops, reinvigorating funding for public plant and animal breeding leading to the release of farmer ready varieties, and supporting local and regional food systems by creating new research, extension, and data collection initiatives.

Our campaign began in 2011 when we published dozens of Farm Bill proposals which aimed to level the playing field for organic and sustainable producers and ensure they have access to research innovations and reliable data that is relevant to their farming systems.  Many of these proposals were later included in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act and the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, which were both introduced in the House and Senate in early 2012.  Together, these bills included several research-oriented policy proposals aimed to support the next generation of sustainable food producers, including organic, diversified, and specialty crop growers, and those growing for local markets.

With the support of congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, and hundreds of community and farmer-based organizations, we were able to restore funding in the new farm bill for key research programs that will underpin the success of these producers for years to come.  In total, the new farm bill will invest $1.2 billion into agricultural research, with the majority of that funding dedicated to specialty crop research, but with significant sums also for  research on organic agriculture and for educating the next generation of farmers.  The bill represents an increase of $867 million over the next ten years, including the establishment of a brand new Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research intended to leverage private funds for agricultural research.

Summary of Additions to Mandatory Funding for Research, Education and Extension Programs

(5-year totals in millions of dollars)

Farm Bill Program 2008 Farm Bill  2014 Farm Bill
Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative $78 $100
Specialty Crop Research Initiative $180 $400*
Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program $75 $100
Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives** $5 $5
Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research n/a $200
Total $338 $805

* The new farm bill provides $80 million per year for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and establishes permanent baseline funding for this program in future years. The total ten-year cost of the program is $800 million.

** While this program is not included in the Research Title of the new farm bill, the Organic Data Initiative does provide funding for data collection and other economic research analysis through USDA research agencies.

The final 2014 Farm Bill is clearly far from perfect, and there is certainly more that could have been done to ensure sustainable, diversified, and conservation-oriented farmers have the research innovations they need to address the specific challenges they face on their farms that are not readily addressed by conventional research findings.

The final farm bill does, however, restore a commitment to supporting the continued growth and success of our nation’s organic and sustainable farmers, including much needed support in growing the next generation of land stewards who will need to have tools at their disposal to confront a changing climate, higher input costs, less reliable water resources, more regionalized food markets, and increased demand for sustainable and organically produced foods.

Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Research

A major barrier facing organic farmers and ranchers is the lack of sufficient, appropriate, and relevant research, education, and extension resources.  We are very pleased that the final farm bill reauthorizes the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and provides $100 million over the life of the farm bill to support competitive research, extension, and education grants that address key issues facing organic producers.  Although this investment is less than what we believe is needed to close the research gap between conventional and organic-oriented research, the influx of funding into a program that has been stranded without funding for over a year is certainly welcome news.

The final bill also adds several new priorities within OREI, as NSAC advocated, that will fund research projects that examine food safety issues specifically related to organic production systems, the potential benefits of organic agricultural production on rural communities and rural economic vitality, and the research needs of organic producers in complying with various regulations such as the National Organic Program.

There are two changes to OREI that may, however, change the direction of the program substantially.  The first will add a new priority on farm financial benchmarking, which may prove useful but could potentially divert critical research dollars away from projects that confront key pest, disease and other production issues organic growers face.  The second policy change will require researchers not at universities to match the entire grant amount with funds from other sources.  For some non-profit and farmer-driven research organizations, this burdensome anti-competitive requirement may mean that they will no longer be able to successfully compete for organic research dollars – to the detriment of the farmers and communities they work with.

Finally, the new farm bill also reauthorizes the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (more commonly known as ATTRA) and the Organic Transition Program.  It also removes the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program’s permanent authorization and now only authorizes the program through 2018, at which time it will need to be renewed in the next farm bill.

Data Collection on Emerging Sectors

Organic farmers and ranchers and those producers growing for local and regional markets, in common with conventional growers, need sound market information about the agricultural products they produce.  We are pleased that farm bill funding is restored for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives – which has started to fill the gap in organic data by funding basic data collection activities on organic agriculture in order to give policymakers, organic farmers, and organic businesses data needed to make sound policy, business, and marketing decisions.

Additionally, the new farm bill directs USDA agencies that collect data on the organic sector to coordinate with agencies that may be able to use the data, such as the Risk Management Agency’s need for data on organic crop prices which would allow them to develop better crop insurance policies that would more effectively cover the losses of organic crops.

The new farm bill will also create a new data initiative designed to increase USDA’s collection and analysis of data on producers growing for local and regional food markets.  The Local Food Production and Program Evaluation provision directs USDA to collect data on the production and marketing of locally or regionally produced agricultural productions, monitor the effectiveness of programs designed to expand local food systems, and identify barriers to local and regional market access due to regulations aimed at small-scale producers.

NSAC and our allies championed this new initiative in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, and we are pleased to see this provision in the final bill.  However, we are disappointed that no farm bill funding was provided for these additional data collection activities.  In a climate of declining budgets, it is unlikely that USDA will be able to launch this critical new data initiative unless additional funding is secured either through the annual appropriations process or through future farm bills.

Beginning Farmer Education and Extension

Another gold star on the research front is the influx of $100 million into new farmer training and education programs through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).  To read more about the policy changes to this program, check out our previous blog on beginning farmer provisions in the farm bill.

Specialty Crops

Another clear winner in this year’s farm bill are specialty crop producers – or those farmers that grow fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery crops.  The 2014 Farm Bill will invest $800 million over the next ten years into the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and will create permanent funding for the program in future years.  This “baseline funding” is critical to ensuring the longevity of the program in future farm bill debates, as the next farm bill does not need to pay for future funding unless an increase in the annual rate is desired at that time.  Permanent funding was provided for SCRI but not for OREI or BFRDP.

Additionally, within the Horticulture Title, $270 million new, additional dollars is provided for the Specialty Crop Block Grants program, which provides grants to assist State Departments of Agriculture in enhancing the competitiveness of specialty crops – including food safety, child nutrition, and direct marketing projects.  Click here to read more about this program and other local food provisions of the farm bill.

Missed Opportunities

While on the whole, the new farm bill is good news for the organic and specialty crop sectors, as well as for new and aspiring farmers, there are several forward-thinking research proposals that NSAC championed which were not ultimately included in the final bill.

One of these missed opportunities is the lack of support for public plant and animal breeding research that leads to the development of farmer ready varieties that are publicly available and regionally adapted to suit a farmers production needs.  NSAC and our allies within the organic and conventional sectors championed a proposal that would have clarified the priority on “conventional plant and animal breeding” within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), a priority added by the 2008 Farm Bill.  The term refers to research that breeds new crop varieties for local and regional conditions instead of using much more uniform and expensive biotechnology breeding.  We were disappointed that the new farm bill makes no progress on this front and thus fails to take steps to ensure farmers have access to diverse seeds that are adapted to their local growing conditions.

We are also hugely disappointed that the Research Title of the 2014 Farm Bill does its very best to make it nearly impossible for smaller, non-profit and farmer driven research organizations to compete for federal research grants.  In addition to the new matching funds requirement (as mentioned previously), the new farm bill also rejects a Senate-passed farm bill’s clarification that would have allowed non-academic researchers (NGOs, private labs, federal researchers) to apply for integrated research, education, and extension grants through AFRI.  This has been a long-standing issue and one which has been pushed by the land-grant and university establishment to provide itself with an unnecessary and unfair advantage in competing for federal research dollars.


Despite these unfortunate missed opportunities, the new farm bill represents a surge of new funding, after a year’s hiatus, to support our nation’s organic and sustainable farmers who have been struggling to manage productions problems on their farms without the use of conventional methods.  This farm bill will also come to the rescue of many researchers who have invested heavily into long-term systems trials comparing organic, sustainable, and conventional production systems.  These researchers across the country (many within academic settings), have suffered from uncertain funding that would allow them to continue their important research well into the future in order to better understand the long-term benefits of organic and sustainable systems.

The 2014 Farm Bill is not the bill that the sustainable and organic research community would have written in its entirety, and there will be some significant challenges for researchers working outside the university setting in securing funding for their research on organic and sustainable farming systems.  Much remains to be seen with how the new Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is implemented and whether or not private funders invest in sustainable agriculture research priorities, including climate change and conservation-oriented production systems, new farmers and marketing systems, and family farm and rural renewal.

And while the 2014 Farm Bill will in no way solve all of the issues confronting diversified, sustainable, and beginning farmers and those, it will however, make incremental progress towards these goals by investing substantial dollars into the next generation of producers and land stewards who wish to rebuild our food system from the ground up so that a focus on long-term sustainability remains at the core of our country’s agricultural system.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill, Organic, Research, Education & Extension

2 responses to “2014 Farm Bill Drilldown: Sustainable and Organic Research”

  1. […] Research on sustainable and organic agriculture helps drive and highlight on-farm innovation. To learn more about what is in the new Farm Bill for organic research, check out the latest NSAC post: 2014 Farm Bill Drilldown: Sustainable and Organic Research – NSAC. […]