September 24, 2021
Research investment into the growing organic agriculture sector is a must if organic producers are to keep pace with the growing demand for organic food, fiber, and other organic products. Farmers, especially organic farmers, need new and evolving tools and practices to help them navigate and build on-farm resilience to a changing climate. Research supporting organic systems ensures organic producers remain productive and competitive while building soil, sequestering carbon, preserving water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions – all benefits of organic farming.
This month, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced that it has awarded more than $30 million to 33 projects focused on organic research and education for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021. These projects were awarded under the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Organic Transitions Program (ORG). Both programs fund research, education, and extension projects to improve yields, quality, and profitability for producers and processors who have adopted organic standards. ORG’s focus, however, is on supporting existing and transitioning organic producers to adopt organic practices and improve their market competitiveness.
OREI awarded $23.9 million to 22 projects across the country, ranging from research on organic rice to research addressing food safety management. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) congratulates all recipients including NSAC member, Organic Seed Alliance, and long-time supporter William Tracy, Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who both won OREI awards.
This year’s OREI projects addressed a wide range of commodities including some that have been underrepresented in previous year’s awards. While vegetables and specialty crops, in general, are being studied, other projects will address tree nuts, sweet potatoes, seaweed for feed supplements, and rice. Several projects highlighted aspects of climate resilience and greater emphasis on post-harvesting and food safety issues are also under focus for the awarded projects. Plant breeding and cultivar development remain a priority for organic researchers with the continuation of existing endeavors in carrot, corn, and cover crops that have a good likelihood of yielding new cultivars in this funding cycle. One project of note is one that will focus on tribal agriculture traditions as part of an organic systems approach – bringing together tribal communities and university stakeholders. There were also many strong ORG projects looking at soil health, cover cropping, and composting. Other strong research topics include organic IPM for plant diseases and plant breeding for disease resistance and climate resilience.
Award highlights include:
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR US ORGANIC RICE – University of Arkansas, Fayetteville ($456,111)
To satisfy the growing demand for organic rice, researchers at the University of Arkansas are working to identify and assess the economic impacts of different production practices, investigate consumer attitudes and valuation for organic rice, and develop a multistate outreach program to disseminate the information generated by the project.
EXPANDING THE COVER CROP BREEDING NETWORK: NEW SPECIES AND TRAITS FOR ORGANIC GROWERS – Cornell University ($3,000,000)
Using various plant breeding techniques, this project aims to expand breeding and research for new cover crop species and traits of interest to organic growers. The research team will work with organic farmers and seed companies to breed new varieties of hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), winter pea (Pisum sativum), crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), and cereal rye (Secale cereale). The main goal here is to improve the ability of organic farmers to choose the cover crops best adapted to their region and cropping system.
ADDRESSING INCONGRUITIES BETWEEN FOOD SAFETY MANAGEMENT AND NATIONAL ORGANIC PROGRAM STANDARDS – University of Rhode Island ($49,998)
This planning grant will help identify the specific and unique costs and challenges organic producers face in trying to meet both National Organic Program (NOP) standards and food safety requirements. The project will first conduct a needs assessment utilizing a national survey and convene a multi-stakeholder summit to pinpoint the most challenging incongruities between food safety and NOP policies. The overall goal is to eventually provide organic producers and certifiers with cost-effective and organic-compliant tools to mitigate food safety risks and retain third-party certification.
BUILDING A LASTING SEED DEVELOPMENT NETWORK THROUGH AN ONLINE ORGANIC SEED GROWERS CONFERENCE – Organic Seed Alliance ($46,252)
This funding will be used to convene the organic seed community at the Organic Seed Growers Conference (OSGC), to share innovations, critical needs, and practical experiences to bolster organic seed production and public cultivar development, enhance the supply and resilience of organic food systems.
FINDING COMMON GROUND – MERGING TRIBAL LIFE WAYS WITH MODERN ORGANIC AGRICULTURE PRACTICES – University of Wisconsin, Madison ($49,254)
To continue to support the ongoing growth of Tribal food sovereignty and food production initiatives, particularly in the context of organic production, this project will bring together a working group of Tribal community leaders and each of the 1862 and 1994 Land Grant Colleges and Universities in the state of Wisconsin to conduct a needs assessment that will contribute to the development of a white paper outlining a roadmap of activities that will support Tribal agriculture programs and education, particularly in the context of organic agriculture while fostering relationship building and collaboration among this community and expand the UW-Madison/Native Nations Agriculture Working Group.
CREATION OF REGIONAL AND LOCAL MAIZE FOOD SYSTEMS (PRODUCTS INTEGRATING BREEDERS, GROWERS, SUPPLY CHAINS AND END-USERS) – University of Wisconsin, Madison ($42,749)
This project will convene an online series of planning sessions bringing together stakeholders from throughout the organic culinary maize value chain to identify opportunities and challenges for expanded production of organic, value-added food maize. This would provide organic growers, end-users, and consumers with nutritious, high-value maize and systems that are economically rewarding and sustainable.
For the full abstracts of all 22 OREI projects, visit NIFA’s website.
Eleven ORG projects were funded at $6.14M this year and include:
INTEGRATED DISEASE MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES FOR KEY DISEASE(S) IN ORGANIC TOMATO PRODUCTION SYSTEM – North Carolina State University ($600,000)
Due to the need for disease management practices for organic tomatoes, this project will work to develop sustainable approaches in disease management for organic production by integrating resistance breeding and grafting methods adapted to organic growing conditions in the Southeast and more specifically, for small acreage producers.
COVER CROPPING AND CROP ROTATION STRATEGIES IN ORGANIC VEGETABLE PRODUCTION SYSTEMS TO BUILD SOIL HEALTH AND IMPROVE YIELD AND PROFITABILITY – Lincoln University ($500,000)
The project will evaluate the potential of using perennial grass/legume cover crop mixes in the travel paths between production rows of vegetables to build soil health and suppress weeds during the three-year organic transition period within a vegetable family crop rotation. In doing so, researchers hope to learn the extent to which ecosystem services including soil health improvement, weed suppression, etc. from the use of perennial grass/legume cover crop mixes, and increase the use of perennial cover crop-based alternative as a weed management practice in vegetable production systems in the North Central Region.
TRANSITIONING TO ORGANIC DAY-NEUTRAL STRAWBERRY PRODUCTION IN THE UPPER MIDWEST – A SYSTEMS APPROACH – University of Wisconsin, Madison ($525,000)
To increase and sustain organic strawberry production in the Upper Midwest, the project will implement a systems approach to address challenges faced by growers when transitioning to organic strawberry production in the Upper Midwest by shifting from a perennial to an annual production system, generating information on organic-approved management practices to reduce insect, disease, and weed pressure, and evaluate pest and disease pressure during the growing cycle to determine the overall profitability for small-scale farms.
To see all 11 ORG abstracts, visit NIFA’s website.
Over the past decade, OREI and ORG have invested millions of dollars into projects that have provided farmers new opportunities to farm sustainably, grow the organic market, and transform agriculture into an industry that improves soil health, conserves water while increasing yield. First created in the 2002 Farm Bill, OREI was first provided $15 million in mandatory funding over five years or $3 million for research grants per year. Due to the program’s early success and consistent high demand, as well as advocacy efforts led by NSAC and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) – an NSAC member and longtime OREI champion – the 2008 Farm Bill increased mandatory funding for OREI to $20 million each year. With new investments made in the 2018 Farm Bill, OREI will see $25 million in 2021, $30 million in 2022, and $50 million in 2023. A much smaller grant program, ORG is funded at $7 million for FY2021, and grants are available to colleges and universities leading projects that improve the competitiveness of organic livestock and crop producers.
Along with the market, policy, and production needs of organic producers, NSAC continues to urge NIFA to focus on organic research that finds solutions for mitigating and building resilience to climate change. Other research to consider as part of this broader theme include organic crop seed systems and breeding for organic production, and integrated livestock research and development. NSAC will continue to advocate for these recommendations to be incorporated throughout the OREI and ORG programs. More information, as well as additional resources about the ORG and OREI programs, can be found on NIFA’s website, or through our Grassroots Guide