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New $22 million Investment in Organic Farming Research

October 22, 2012

On October 22, USDA announced the latest round of awards for organic research, education, and extension as part of two competitive grant programs administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  Over $22 million in federal grants were awarded under the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Organic Transitions Program to help organic farmers grow and market organic agricultural products.

Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative

Last week, NSAC highlighted OREI as one of several programs that are on the line with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill.  This program was established in 2002 and is USDA’s largest competitive grants program with a funding stream dedicated to research that addresses the needs of organic producers.

Over $18 million was awarded to 15 projects in this latest round of OREI grants for fiscal year 2012.  This funding cycle represents the last round of funding provided in the now-expired 2008 Farm Bill.  As of October 1, this successful research program – along with several other innovative grant programs – has been at least temporarily defunded due to Congress’s inability to reauthorize or extend the farm bill.

Of the OREI grants announced this week, $14 million was invested in new projects, including the following:

  • Washington State University – In order to meet the existing and growing demand for quinoa, this research project seeks to develop adapted varieties and optimal management practices for domestic organic production of this highly nutritious grain.  Current domestic supply of quinoa is essentially nonexistent primarily due to the lack of information on regionally adapted varieties.
  • University of Minnesota – This research team will work with organic dairy farmers to conduct on-farm field research that will lead to increased organic pasture productivity, improved cow health, and improved milk quality.
  • Rutgers (NJ) – This project will develop whole-farm pest management strategies for the brown marmorated stink bug – an invasive insect causing severe economic loss for organic and conventional farmers alike in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states.  Whole-farm pest management will aid organic growers in planting trap crops, enhancing natural enemies, and implementing other cultural pest controls to mitigate damage from this invasive species.
  • North Carolina State University – This research will support the creation of an organic plant breeding center that ultimately aims to improve farmer access to cultivars adapted to organic systems.  This project seeks to directly address farmer concerns over the increased privatization of breeding, decreased availability of GMO-free varieties, and the lack of breeding under organic conditions.

Organic Transitions Program

In addition to funding organic research and extension projects, the Organic Transitions Program also funds projects with an education component, and seeks to improve the overall competitiveness of organic farmers as well as those adopting organic practices.

The FY12 grant program focused on research, extension, and education projects that investigate environmental services provided by organic farming systems that support soil conservation and contribute to climate change mitigation.  Previous funding cycles have focused on other topics relevant to organic agriculture, such as improved water quality.

USDA announced $3.8 million in funding through Organic Transitions in this latest round of awards – the bulk of which went to new grant recipients.  Examples of new projects include:

  • University of Maryland – This project aims to improve farm management impact on greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration in organic grain production systems, especially in systems that include long and diverse crop rotations.
  • Texas A&M University – This project will quantify the combined effects of cover crop, organic soil amendments, and variety selection on organic rice yield and milling quality, as well as determine the ecological services provided by organic rice farming such as carbon sequestration and water quality improvement.
  • Washington State University – This project will measure the sustainability of three different farming systems that include organic and conventional production, and integrated crop-livestock and single crop production systems, in order to improve the competitiveness and adoption of organic mixed crop-livestock farming systems.

Future of Organic Research

Unlike OREI, the fate of the Organic Transitions Program is not doomed by the expiration of the farm bill, as renewed funding at current levels was included in the recent six month continuing resolution (CR) passed by Congress earlier this fall.

Why was Organic Transitions included in the CR and OREI wasn’t?

Although both programs are authorized in the farm bill, funding for Organic Transitions is discretionary and is determined by annual appropriations, whereas funding for OREI is mandatory and is determined directly by the farm bill.  (OREI can also receive funding through the annual appropriations process, but Congress has never funded the program through appropriations.)  Appropriations bills typically do not deal with mandatory funding, hence programs like OREI lost their future funding, at least temporarily, when the farm bill expired on October 1.

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Categories: Organic, Research, Education & Extension

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