NSAC's Blog

$22.6 Million Awarded to Support Organic Farming, Research

September 24, 2020

Researcher writing on paper on plot.
Researcher writing on paper on plot.

Research underpins the success of every farm – not least of all for organic agriculture. Cutting-edge innovations and science-based studies continue to advance this multi-billion dollar industry, at times with funding from the federal government.

The National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) recently announced over $20 million in research investments to support organic farmers as part of the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Organic Transitions Program (ORG). These programs play an integral role in the organic community by funding cutting-edge research to fill gaps in skills in knowledge, without which a myriad of barriers continue to hinder the success of organic and would-be organic producers. 

OREI awards support research, education, and extension projects to improve yields, quality, and profitability for producers and processors who have adopted organic standards. ORG grants support similar efforts to delve deeper into the science behind organic agriculture that is needed to help existing and transitioning organic livestock and crop producers adopt organic practices and improve their market competitiveness. Together, these grants will support research to improve the quality and sustainability of organic production as well as reduce barriers to the transition from conventionally-managed to organic farming. 

For more information on OREI and ORG, visit NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.

Critical Analysis

Out of the 32 total projects announced, NIFA awarded 20 grants this year through OREI ($17.8 million, $1 million less than last year) and 12 through ORG ($5.6 million). In a detailed breakdown of project issue areas, Mark Schonbeck, Research Associate with the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), an NSAC member, notes that:

“Funded projects emphasized topics related to soil health, soil biology, fertility and nutrient cycling (10 of the 32 awards); plant breeding and cultivar development (seven); organic livestock (five); economics of organic production (primary focus for five projects, significant component for at least two others)… and six funded projects focus on organic grains.”

USDA appears to be increasing funding for organic livestock and socioeconomic-related projects, a shift to traditionally underinvested areas that is welcomed by NSAC. “The one low point,” Schonbeck adds, “[is] that there were again no educational [or] curriculum development projects, though… some of the conference grants have a strong educational component.” 

OREI Awardee Highlights

We are happy to announce that one member of NSAC, the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), has been awarded $77,015 this funding cycle to implement two novel projects, both designed to advance the long-term success of organic agriculture. Carla Loriz, executive director of OSA, says: “We are grateful to NIFA for recognizing the importance of investing in organic seed through these awards.” 

Connecting Community to Strengthen Organic Seed Breeding and Research” will expand the reach and impact of the Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS), an annual networking and research event for graduate students working in organic plant breeding and seed systems now in its tenth year. The $41,910 grant will in part fund public outreach and travel grants to recruit a more diverse pool of SOSS participants and ultimately increase the visibility of organic seed research across the wider scientific community. 

In addition, OSA received $35,105 to develop a full research and educational proposal for OREI to assess the state of research needs around organic seed production. This project, “Planning for Organic Seed Production Research,” will include organic seed producer and industry surveys, a review and compilation of existing research on organic seed production, and a review of capacity and interest among affiliate researchers.

“Organic Seed Alliance is excited to be leading and partnering on new OREI projects that aim to meet the seed needs of organic farmers,” says Loriz. “At a time of historic demand for seed, these projects will provide timely research and education to increase the diversity and quantity of organic seed available.”

A wide range of topics are explored by additional research projects, ranging from a Cornell University project to catalyze the adoption of organic no-tilling cropping systems and a New York University proposal for a national agenda for applied economic research and extension to address the challenges facing the organic sector. 

Other notable awardees include:

  • University of Wisconsin; $999,714 – “Collaborative Plant Breeding Network Development for Organic Systems in the Upper Midwest” will build capacity among a network of farmers, plant breeders, organic seed companies, and organic inspectors across the Midwest to develop crop varieties which meet the evolving needs and unique knowledge of farmers.This collaborative model is lauded by NSAC, and we are proud the team behind the project includes our past policy intern, Julie Dawson.
  • University of Florida; $1,999,317 – ”Plant Safety, Horticultural Benefits, and Disease Efficacy of Essential Oils for Use in Organically Grown Fruit Crops: From the Farm to the Consumer” will evaluate the effectiveness of organically certified plant essential oils in treating pathogens and arthropod pests common in organic fruit production. The four-year project will be conducted across five states: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, California, and Hawai’i. 
  • Pennsylvania State University; $500,000 – ”Decision Support to Reduce the Nitrogen Yield Gap in Organic Agriculture” concerns the development of an online tool enabling organic farmers to choose the optimal type and amount of fertilizer needed to improve environmental quality and maximize profit. Tests will be conducted in corn fields across Pennsylvania with a variety of soil types and cover crops to enhance the model as part of this three year project.
  • Oregon State University; $46,699 – “Developing the Organic Medicinal Herb Industry” will provide a roadmap to industry research needs which will support the organic medicinal herb industry, which has seen a fall in profits in recent years. This aim shall be achieved through the convening of an industry stakeholder group and the identification of promising herb crops for production as well as barriers to widespread adoption which may then be further explored. 

A full listing and descriptions of the OREI awards can be found here.

ORG Awardee Highlights

While OREI focuses on more applied and farmer-driven organic research to help organic farmers boost their production, ORG supports integrated research, education, and extension efforts that will ultimately improve the competitiveness of organic producers in the U.S. In recent years, ORG has focused its research efforts on the environmental services provided by organic farming – including soil health, pollinator protection, and climate change mitigation / adaptation.

This year, twelve ORG grants totaling $5.6 million will fund projects ranging from research around the soil biochemical process, strategies to advance organic dairy production, and innovations to extend the use of biobased mulch to high-density, direct-seeded vegetables like spinach and carrot. Schonbeck remarks that:

“The Organic Transitions (ORG) program continues to award many highly innovative projects, many of which show potential to make important advances on modest budgets ($500 thousand or less).”

Notable ORG awardees include: 

  • Researchers at Kansas State University received an ORG grant for their project, “The Development of Whole Farm Organic Transition Tool to Help Advise Producers.” This project will produce a whole farm transition profitability tool by identifying organic production practices as well as calculate estimates of transition and input costs. The tool will be unique in part for its capacity to examine profitability over time instead of just a given year, aiding aspiring-organic farmers in planning the timeline for their transition.
  • North Carolina State University’s “Rapid Return on Investment: Defining Rates of Soil Health Improvement During Organic Transition in the Southeast” aims to address challenges of conventionally managed soils in the southeastern Coastal Plain region when transitioning to organic management. To overcome the short-term limitations in soil health and productivity before longer-term benefits are experienced, researchers will compare and assess soil carbon and health across the region as well as create an outreach program to share methods which have attained accelerated transition improvements. 

See a full list of ORG awards and project descriptions here.

NSAC will continue to advocate for increased federal investment in research and development. That way, when future non-organic farmers ask “Is organic farming risky?”, they can be confident that there is space for them in this industry, too. 

Categories: Carousel, Grants and Programs, Organic, Research, Education & Extension

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