NSAC Visits Organic Farmers & Researchers in Madison

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The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and over 100 member organizations descended on Madison, Wisconsin for the annual NSAC summer meeting August 6th – 9th. NSAC policy covers a wide variety of issues, from crop insurance, to plant breeding, to conservation. Organic production was front and center at the meeting. Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a hotbed of organic research and the surrounding area has hundreds of organic farms. (Pictured right: R&G Miller and Sons, Inc.)

NSAC members visited two unique Wisconsin organic farm operations: Tipi Produce and R&G Miller & Sons, and also toured the organic research plots at the West Madison Agriculture Research Station. 

Tipi Produce, a 45-acre organic vegetable farm near Evansville, Wisconsin, was named 2016 Organic Farm of the Year by Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). Tipi is run by Steve Pincus, who started farming in 1975, his wife Beth Kazmar, who joined the operation in 1999, and their two children. Beth and Steve (pictured right) sell roughly half their produce through a local 500-share CSA and the other half to natural food stores in the region. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

Tipi Produce is also involved in organic research and works closely with Dr. Erin Silva, an OFRF grant recipient who is studying the relationship between the soil and the food we eat. Dr. Silva’s research, Creating Climate Resilient Organic Systems by Enhancing Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi Associations, is looking at how symbiotic microbes in carrot production, specifically arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), increase plants’ access to vital nutrients like nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), as well as water. These fungi can potentially contribute to improved crop yields and soil health. This research can lead to information about AMF and soil health that will be broadly applicable to organic farmers, as well as conventional growers. Upon completion of this study next year, OFRF will publish the final report in our grant database. All OFRF-funded research results are available to download at no charge at ofrf.org.

No trip to Wisconsin would be complete without a trip to a dairy farm. R&G Miller & Sons, Inc., an organic dairy farm that is also part of the Organic Valley Cooperative, has been in operation since 1852. The farm is run by eight family members, along with 6 full-time and a few part-time employees. Certified organic in 1997, R&G manages 1550 acres of certified organic land they use both for their own operation and to grow crops to feed their dairy herd and young stock of roughly 800 head.

As an organic operation, R&G is focused on keeping their animals and their soils healthy and strong without synthetic inputs. In order to grow their crops, R&G practices crop rotation and cover cropping, and reduces waste by using the organic manure produced from their animals as natural fertilizer.

In addition to visiting organic farms, NSAC members also toured the West Madison Agriculture Research Station and heard from Dr. Bill Tracy, Dr. Julie Dawson, and Dr. Erin Silva on the importance of organic research in helping all farmers be more sustainable and successful.

Tracy is a professor and chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he leads the largest public sector sweet corn breeding program in the world. His research produced “Who Gets Kissed,” an open-pollinated sweet corn variety with yellow and white kernels that yields well and is disease resistant. Funding provided by OFRF in 2008 played a crucial role in initiating this participatory breeding project to improve sweet corn for organic farmers. In 2017, OFRF awarded Tracy and his research team a grant to survey sweet corn growers about their strategies for managing corn earworm. The data will be shared in an extension publication and inform longer-term efforts for developing earworm-resistant sweet corn cultivars for organic farmers.

Standing amidst beautiful fields of diverse organic crops on a large university research station, it is easy to understand the importance of public plant breeding programs with the independence to complete longer term and riskier projects, work directly with underserved local markets and minor crops, increase food security by using exotic germplasm, and respond to emerging agricultural threats.

The agricultural research taking place at public research institutions around the country does not happen overnight. It can take anywhere from five to 20 years to develop a new variety of a crop before it’s available in the commercial seed market. Yet, over the past several decades, we have seen a severe downsizing in plant breeding programs housed within our country’s land grant universities. The loss of public plant breeding programs would have severe implications for the U.S. seed system and the future of our food and farming system in the U.S.

OFRF’s membership with NSAC provides an opportunity to collaborate with partners, engage with the broader sustainable agriculture community, and share new thoughts and ideas. By attending these meetings, we get a first-hand understanding of the opportunities and challenges faced by farmers, ranchers, and food entrepreneurs across the country. It is also an opportunity to bring our research and policy expertise to a broad coalition of folks working on a variety of related issues.

This year, it was inspiring to see the role that organic and agriculture research played in the NSAC meeting. As we dive into the next Farm Bill, OFRF is working hard to ensure the voices of organic farmers and researchers are heard in Washington, D.C. and around the country. Please join us in supporting H.R. 2436 – The Organic Agriculture Research Act, which would increase funding for the Organic Agriculture and Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and make it part of the permanent Farm Bill budget.

This blog was submitted by OFRF’s Policy Associate, Michael Stein.