Why Research Matters – Organic Farmer

Why Research Matters

By Vicki Lowell | Communications Manager, OFRF
Published: August 30, 2019
Graduate student, Tim Jacobs, explains OFRF-funded research on biosolarization at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California. This is a technique organic farmers can implement to control weeds, pathogens, and nematodes. Photo shows bare soil where biosolarization was used and weeds where biosolarization was not used. Photo courtesy of Vicki Lowell.

Organic farming is a more knowledge- and science-based way of doing things. For example, you need to understand the lifecycles and biological interactions of pests and you need to know how soil works. It’s a completely different system than non-organic farming—that’s why research focused on organic is so critical.

 

The goal of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), a non-profit organization founded in 1990, is to advance organic agriculture through scientific research. As a champion of organic farmers across the U.S., we work to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems by cultivating organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production. Through these efforts, we are working to create a more resilient and sustainable agricultural system that values healthy environments and healthy people.

 

So much has changed since we began nearly thirty years ago. Back then, organic farming research was not a well-studied field, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)   was more than a decade away from certifying organically grown products. Here we are today with a Farm Bill that makes significant investments in organic agriculture—including $395 million for organic research and education over the next ten years. This increase in federal funding for organic research makes OFRF’s support of innovative work at the early stages more critical than ever. Our seed grants enable researchers to collect the data they need to leverage much larger federal funding to continue to work at a larger scale.

 

About Our Research Program

OFRF regularly surveys organic farmers about their experiences, challenges, and information needs, using that feedback to determine research funding priorities. The proposals we fund are evaluated for both their scientific merit and ability to address these farmer priorities. We require all research be conducted on certified organic farmland.

 

Close collaboration with farmers as research directors and participants is a hallmark of our program as this tends to ground the work in the real-world challenges facing producers. Farmer involvement also helps ensure results that can be quickly adopted; field days and other types of outreach are also important factors when we evaluate proposals.

 

To date, OFRF has invested over $3 million in 344 research grants. Overall, OFRF grant funding has advanced scientific knowledge and improved the practices, ecological sustainability, and economic prosperity of organic farming. While modest in size, OFRF grants have played a crucial role in advancing the careers of young scientists, many of whom have subsequently advanced to influential research, teaching, and public-service careers in organic agriculture.

 

In April, we announced the first of five grants OFRF will award this year, funded in part by a match from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and aimed at funding research related to improving soil health and reducing the negative environmental impacts commonly associated with agriculture.

 

The grant provides funding to a team of researchers at Montana State University led by Dr. Jed Eberly to evaluate the effects of seeding rates on lentil yields and competition. This project is important to farmers in the Northern Great Plains, where lentils are used for diversifying wheat-based cropping systems, and are one of several pulse crops (legumes such as dried beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas harvested solely for dry seed) used to promote biodiversity, improve soil health, and generate income.

 

Details on all of our 2019 grants will be announced soon. Sign up for our newsletter to hear about the innovative work we’ll be funding this year.

OFRF’s Soil Health and Organic Farming series includes eight guidebooks and webinars on best organic practices for building soil health.

Outreach and Education

Our research grant program is one part of OFRF’s three-pronged approach to supporting the success of organic farmers and ranchers. Providing educational resources is also an important part of our mission. Our recent Soil Health and Organic Farming series of guidebooks and webinars provides an analysis of decades of research related to building soil health and organizes it by topic for greater accessibility and ease-of-use.

The overwhelming response to the series surprised even us, revealing an explicit need for more science-backed education on best organic and sustainable practices for building soil health. The guidebooks have been downloaded over 16,000 times and the webinars have been viewed more than 6,000 times. Topics range from cover cropping to conservation tillage, and all of the guides are available for free at ofrf.org.

Another important vehicle for sharing research is OFRF’s Organic Agriculture Research Forum, an annual event that takes place in conjunction with major farming conferences across the U.S. Most recently, we were in Portland, Oregon at Organicology with a full day of research presentations from across all disciplines related to organic farming and food systems. A poster session immediately following the presentations added to the breadth of topics presented throughout the day. Jim Myers, a Professor of Vegetable Breeding and Genetics at Oregon State University, summed it up best. “I really like the multi-disciplinary approach and format. It allowed me to catch up on a lot of areas.”

On the “Hill”

Our third core area is in policy, where we advocate for federal programs and policies that support the unique needs of organic agriculture, working to ensure the voices of organic farmers and ranchers are heard in Washington, DC.

OFRF-funded researcher, Edmund Frost of Common Wealth Seed Growers in Louisa, Virginia, conducts a field day. His research is focused on developing a pickling cucumber that is resistant to bacterial wilt and downy mildew, which pose a significant and costly production challenge for organic growers. Photo courtesy of Common Wealth Seed Growers.

In 2002, OFRF was instrumental in securing the first dedicated USDA funding for organic agriculture of $3 million annually. In the 2008 Farm Bill, OFRF worked to secure $78 million for organic research, a historic five-fold increase from the $15 million allocated in the expiring 2002 legislation. Now in the 2018 Farm Bill, we can proudly say that USDA’s funding for organic agriculture research became permanent, steadily increasing to $50 million annually by 2023. The bill continues to support the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, provides increased funding and enforcement authority for the National Organic Program, and supports the vital Organic Market and Production Data Initiative.

 

The bill also makes important changes to conservation programs that support organic agriculture. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) organic initiative had a restrictive funding cap that has been raised, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) will provide program funds to states for the support of organic production and transition to organic agriculture. This bill also encourages cover cropping, resource-conserving crop rotation, and advanced grazing systems, which are important tools for organic farmers and ranchers. Additionally, the bill makes important policy improvements to support organic crop insurance education, promotion of organic products, and allows for states to mediate farm disputes impacting organic production.

 

While it is exciting to see this increased level of support for organic farming and organic research in the Farm Bill, its passage is just the first step. OFRF will be working to inform this increased investment by working to ensure future research and programs are relevant and responsive to the top challenges facing organic producers and that education and resources are broadly disseminated. Because we all know that farmers and ranchers have a major stake in curbing further climate change—we need to address the barriers to transition and scaling up.

OFRF puts farmers first—we do not charge an annual membership fee and all of our resources are available for free. Sign up for our newsletter at ofrf.org to get the latest news.