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Organic Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Dil Thavarajah

A breeding pipeline is developing improved pulse crops for organic farmers in the southeast

Written by Brian Geier

New cultivars of pulse crops (lentils, chickpeas, and field peas) may soon be available to organic farmers! These improved varieties, under development through a project led at Clemson University (CU), will: 

  1. be suitable for crop rotations with cash crops currently being grown on organic farms in North and South Carolina,
  2. have high protein content and quality, and 
  3. be climate resilient (to heat, drought, and cold stress). 

The Principal Investigator on the project, Dr. Dil Thavarajah, is an internationally-recognized leader in pulse biofortification (breeding for nutritional traits) who leads CU’s Pulse Biofortification and Nutritional Breeding Program. Her project, Sustainable, high-quality organic pulse proteins: organic breeding pipeline for alternative pulse-based proteins, is funded by USDA/NIFA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), a program OFRF’s advocacy work aims to bolster and protect. 

Dr. Thavarajah brings an extensive background in pulse breeding and an international focus to the effort to develop organic cultivars for farmers in the southeast.

 “I think the international component is very important because pulse crops especially are inbred and they are not very genetically diverse. Major universities with pulse breeding programs in the US are all conventional. We need to exchange material because the material they develop for conventional is not going to work with organic. Organic is a whole different ball game.”  -Dr. Dil Thavarajah

The project builds on a previous OREI grant that helped to identify varieties that worked well in organic crop rotations with sorghum. These varieties are now being evaluated to identify those with higher protein and sugar content, and better protein quality (measured both by digestibility and consumer preference). Dr. Thavarajah calls her approach “participatory breeding” that includes both consumers and farmers in the process. Interestingly, higher sugar content not only makes pulse crops sweeter and preferred by consumers, but also makes the plant more climate resilient. Having more sugar alcohols in the plants means the plants are more likely to remain healthy through drought stress, extreme heat, or cold snaps.

Ultimately, though, the farmer-collaborators are the centerpiece of the breeding program. “I don’t think I could be successful without my growers,” she admits. The willingness of farms like W.P. Rawl and Sons to trial new varieties and crop rotations led to successful grant proposals and may very well lead to new cultivars being released to farmers very soon. To acknowledge this, Dr. Thavarajah looks forward to releasing new varieties that bear the names and legacies of the farmers involved in the project. 

Learn more about Dr. Thavarajah’s work (including advice for fellow researchers applying for OREI funding) by watching the following short video interview with OFRF, and follow her work to stay updated on the release of biofortified pulse crops for organic farmers in the southeast!

This research is funded by the USDA/NIFA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative. To learn more about OFRF’s advocacy work to protect and increase this type of funding, and how you can help become an advocate for organic farming with us, see our Advocacy page.

By |2024-04-01T19:10:53+00:00March 20th, 2024|Education, News|

Organic Transition Initiative (OTI) Deadline Announcement

Thanks to the Organic Transition Initiative (OTI), USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has made $75M in cost-share grant funding available to certified organic and transitioning-to-organic growers under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to meet the Conservation Practice Standard for Organic Management (CPS-823).

This post and the PDF below provide step-by-step instructions for contacting your local NRCS office to inquire about available financial and technical assistance programs available to you.

OFRF has developed a PDF to help farmers communicate with NRCS about accessing the Organic Transition Initiative.

It is available in both English and Spanish. >>>

“How to talk to your NRCS office about the
Organic Transition Initiative (OTI) resources available for you”

“Cómo hablar con su oficina del NRCS sobre los
programas de apoyo para la transición a orgánico”

Organic farmers must manage their land without prohibited inputs for 3 years for their products to be certified. This transitioning period can be incredibly challenging as farmers and their land adjust to new production practices. OTI is intended to help producers implement conservation activities required for certification, receive expert technical support, and recover foregone income due to reduced yields during the transition period through EQIP.

Important Note: Although the national deadline has been extended to March 1, 2024, states set their own ranking dates independently. 

  • State Deadlines:
    • Arizona: Feb 2, 2024(General EQIP ranking date)
    • California: Feb 16, 2024 (General EQIP ranking date)
    • Hawaii/Pacific Islands: Mar 8, 2024
    • Nevada: Mar 29, 2024 (General EQIP ranking date)
    • New Mexico: Fall 2024 (General EQIP ranking date)
    • Texas: Jan 26, 2024
    • Utah: Mar 29, 2024 & June 28, 2024 (General EQIP ranking date)

Step 1. Research your options.

Step 2. Connect with USDA. Create or update your account at, and contact your local NRCS office to get started. Your conservation specialist will confirm your eligibility and help you identify which projects & practices best suit your operation. Directing the agent to NRCS-sponsored webinars and training modules the Organic Farming Research Foundation and Oregon Tilth have developed for NRCS field agents may be helpful.

Contact your state office for additional assistance:

Guiding Questions: Check out our “How to talk to NRCS about the OTI” PDF for additional topics, available above!

  • I __own/rent__ my land. What documents will you need for completion of my EQIP application by the deadline?
  • I am eligible for the increased and advanced payment option for Historically Underserved farmers. How will this change my application process?
  • My farm is __certified/transitioning_ to organic. What additional information will you need for completing my conservation plan and application by the deadline?
  • Can I get financial assistance for conservation work I have already started or completed?
  • Can NRCS help me develop and implement a comprehensive conservation plan that is tailored to my organic operation?
  • When is the deadline for the next EQIP ranking period?

Step 3. Schedule your conservation plan development. Your NRCS conservation specialist will work with you to develop a conservation plan for your operation and complete the AD 1026 form.

Step 4. Gather your application documents.

  • Official tax ID (Social Security Number or Employer Identification Number)
  • Adjusted gross income certification (Form CCC-941), which requires your Taxpayer ID Number and AGI from the previous 3 tax years.
  • Deed, or property lease agreement and written authorization from the landowner to install structural or vegetative practices.
  • Farm tract number (obtained from or FSA membership).
  • Documentation of organic certification (if applicable).
  • Documentation of your land’s irrigation history (if applicable to project).
  • Documentation of previous improvements made to the property.

Step 5. Complete your application & submit! Your NRCS conservationist will assist you in finalizing your application. 

Step 6. Implement your plan. If you’re selected, you can choose whether to sign the contract for the work to be done. You’ll be provided with guidelines and a timeframe for implementing your plan. You will be reimbursed after your work is inspected and approved. Advanced payments not expended within 90 days of receipt must be returned to NRCS.

As essential stewards of the land, organic farmers deserve support. Don’t let funding be a barrier to realizing your farm’s potential. Take the first step towards growth and sustainability by applying for assistance through the Organic Transition Initiative before your state’s deadline.

Note: all of this information is available below in Spanish. Obtain additional translated materials, or schedule interpretation services for phone calls or in-person visits,, or request personalized Spanish language support for any USDA resource,

By |2024-02-26T19:37:20+00:00January 31st, 2024|News|

Reflections on the 2023 Latino Farmer Conference

Kelsey Grimsley, OFRF’s Office and Administrative Manage (left) and Jose Perez, OFRF’s Research and Education Engagement Coordinator (right) at the Latino Farmer Conference.

By Jose Perez, OFRF’s Research and Education Engagement Coordinator 

Lea la versión en español abajo.

I recently had the fortune to take part in the 9th Latino Farmer Conference, November 1st and 2nd, organized by ATTRA/NCAT and NRCS in Stockton, California, the ancestral lands of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, Miwok and Yokuts nations. Along with my OFRF colleague Kelsey Grimsley, I enjoyed making connections with Latinx farmers and introducing our new online Soil Health Course in Spanish, Los Fundamentos de la Salud del Suelo. As a native Guatemalan, it was exciting for me to connect with other farmers in my native language. At least two hundred farmers and farmer stakeholders were present. 

Latinx farmworkers have provided the great majority of labor that make farming possible in US agricultural fields for many decades. But Latinx farmers represent only 3.3% of all US farm owners, according to the 2017 USDA census of Agriculture. In this blog I want to share two themes that resonated throughout this event.

Perseverance and faith

On the first day of the conference, we heard the testimony of various Latinx farmers. Farmer Noel Ledesma, a farmworker turned farmer, shared his farming experiences with brutal honesty, recalling failed crops and ventures in farming that made his family lose everything they had worked for. Instead of giving up, he persisted. Eventually, he found niche markets that were profitable, but then again, the market changed when big operations got in the game. Yet, he persisted, and he learned. Step by step, using trial and error, he and his family found a way to create a successful farming operation.

Participants at the Latino Farmer Conference on a field walk.

Todo es posible cuando hay perseverancia, cuando hay fe

Everything is possible when there is perseverance, when there is faith

– Farmer Noel Ledesma


Farming is a continuous process of experimentation and adaptation to change. The market and the weather rarely forgive a lack of innovation. Farmer Noel Ledesma’s testimony showed how constant dedication and a strong belief that you can make it are critical ingredients in the journey from farmworker to successful farm owner. Now he is passing his wisdom to other Latinx farmers.

Making connections

Jose Perez introducing OFRF’s new online Soil Health Course in Spanish, Los Fundamentos de la Salud del Suelo.

The importance of connections and relationships was apparent in the conference. Farming can be isolating, and there is much value in having a network of peers and service providers that can provide more ideas and resources. Latinx farmers often struggle to get support from farming programs due to additional language, education and immigration status barriers. Not all USDA offices or farming organizations have a Latinx or Spanish-speaking staff member who can connect with the culture, concerns and language of these farmers. The conference was the place to make these connections and facilitate access to farming support programs. Given that this event is the only farming conference conducted in Spanish for Latinx farmers in the country, it is essential for this farming community.

At the end of the day, the health of our farmers and our agricultural sector will be reflected in the health of our society. More effort and investment is needed to support Latinx farmers and farmworkers.

To access and learn more about OFRS’s Soil Health Course in Spanish, visit our website


Starkweather, K., et al. (2011). Improving the use of USDA programs among Hispanic and Latino farmers and ranchers. Center for Rural Affairs and Cambio Center.  201204USDAHispanicFarmersRanchers.pdf

Reflexiones de la Conferencia de Agricultores Latinos 2023

Por Jose Perez, Coordinador de Educación e Investigación de OFRF.

Kelsey Grimsley, Oficina y Gestión Administrativa de la OFRF (izquierda) y José Pérez, Coordinador de Participación en Investigación y Educación de la OFRF (derecha) en la Conferencia de Agricultores Latinos.


Este pasado Noviembre 1 y 2, tuve la fortuna de participar en la Novena Conferencia de Agricultores Latinos organizada por ATTRA/NCAT y el Servicio de Conservación de Recursos Naturales (NRCS) en Stockton, California, que son tierras ancestrales de las naciones Villas Confederadas de Lisjan, Miwok y Yokuts. Mi colega Kelsey Grimsley y yo disfrutamos conectando con agricultoras y agricultores latinos. Además, tuvimos la oportunidad de presentar un nuevo curso gratuito en línea llamado Los Fundamentos del Suelo, que es un curso totalmente en español. Al menos doscientas personas participaron en este evento. 

Trabajadores agrícolas Latinos han proveído la mano de obra necesaria para que la agricultura funcione en Estados Unidos por muchas décadas. Por otro lado, solo el 3.3% de productoras y productores agrícolas de todo el país son latinos, de acuerdo al censo de agricultura del USDA del 2017. En este artículo quiero compartir dos temas que resonaron en este importante evento. 

Perseverancia y fe

En el primer día de la conferencia, escuchamos testimonios de varios productores latinos. Entre ellos estaba el productor Noel Ledesma, que comenzó en la agricultura como trabajador agrícola y ahora es un productor. Noel compartió sus experiencias con una honestidad rotunda, pues contaba sobre cultivos y cosechas perdidas, proyectos agrícolas que no fueron exitosos, que hicieron que su familia perdiera todo lo que habían conseguido hasta entonces. Pero en lugar de rendirse, él perseveró. Eventualmente, encontró un buen mercado produciendo cultivos para minorías étnicas. Cuando este mercado creció y otras empresas más grandes entraron a competir, las cosas se complicaron otra vez. Aun así, él perseveró y aprendió de estas experiencias. Paso a paso, probando varias cosas y aprendiendo de los errores, él y su familia encontraron una forma de crear una operación agrícola exitosa. 

Participantes de la Conferencia de Agricultores Latinos en una caminata por el campo.

Todo es posible cuando hay perseverancia, cuando hay fe

– Farmer Noel Ledesma

La producción agrícola es un proceso de experimentación y adaptación al cambio. El mercado y el clima casi nunca perdonan cuando hay falta de innovación. El testimonio del agricultor Noel Ledesma muestra que una dedicación constante y una fe sólida son ingredientes esenciales para convertirse de trabajador agrícola a productor agrícola exitoso. Ahora Noel comparte su sabiduría con otros productores latinos.

Creando conexiones

José Pérez presenta el nuevo curso en línea sobre salud del suelo de la OFRF en español, Los Fundamentos de la Salud del Suelo.

La importancia de crear y mantener buenas conexiones y relaciones con otros productores y organizaciones que asisten en la agricultura fue muy aparente en este evento. Los productores agrícolas pueden sentirse muy solos a veces, y es claro que tener una red de apoyo donde encontrar recursos e ideas puede ser de mucho valor. Para los productores latinos es muchas veces difícil

acceder a programas de asistencia agrícola, ya que enfrentan barreras adicionales de lenguaje, educación y estatus legal. No todas las oficinas de USDA y de otras organizaciones de apoyo al campo tienen algún personal latino o que pueda comunicarse en español, para poder conectar con el lenguaje, cultura e intereses de estos productores. Esta conferencia fue el lugar para hacer esas conexiones y facilitar el acceso a financiamiento y apoyo técnico. Dado que esta es la única conferencia agrícola llevada a cabo en español en todo el país, es de suma importancia para esta comunidad.

La salud de nuestras granjas y del sector agrícola tiende a ser reflejado en la salud de la sociedad. Más esfuerzo e inversión son necesarios para apoyar a productores y trabajadores agrícolas latinos.

Para acceder al nuevo curso de Salud del Suelo en Español, visite nuestro sitio web:


Starkweather, K., et al. (2011). Improving the use of USDA programs among Hispanic and Latino farmers and ranchers. Center for Rural Affairs and Cambio Center.  201204USDAHispanicFarmersRanchers.pdf

By |2023-12-11T00:49:02+00:00December 8th, 2023|News|

Organic Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Amaya Atucha

Federal support is bringing new production systems and researchers to organic agriculture in the upper Midwest

Written by Brian Geier

Dr. Amaya Atucha is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), specializing in crop ecophysiology and production of small fruit and cold climate viticulture. Until recently she had not worked with organic production systems. “One of the reasons why I was not working on organic production,” she explains, “is because of the difficulty of being able to produce organic fruit in climates like the upper midwest.”

While strawberries represent the third largest fruit crop in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin ranks in the top 10 states for organic production in the United States, organic strawberry production is negligible in the region. This is despite what preliminary research shows: that there is an interest among growers in organic strawberry production, there is an excess demand from consumers in the region, and premium prices are being fetched for organic strawberries at local markets.

Dr. Atucha’s current research project, Transitioning to organic day-neutral strawberry production in the upper midwest – A systems approach, funded by USDA/NIFA’s Organic Transitions Program (ORG), has provided opportunities for her to expand her research into organic production and is providing growers with research-based information on the profitability of new production systems for organic strawberries.

 “Something that I would share with other researchers like me who were not doing any research on organic production is that if you want to expand on organic production and you might not feel that you are an expert, the ORG is a wonderful opportunity to get your foot into doing organic research. It will allow you to become an expert and become familiar with organic practices, and then to expand into these great production systems that can have fantastic benefits for our stakeholders.”  -Dr. Amaya Atucha

To help increase organic production of strawberries, the project is taking a systems approach. The production system currently used in the region is a perennial matted row system that increases weed, insect, and disease pressure over multiple seasons that are challenging to control with organic practices. Her project proposes a shift from a perennial to an annual production system, and is evaluating yields, pest pressure, fruit quality, and profitability of day-neutral strawberries grown on four different mulches.

To keep up to date on this research project, visit UW’s Fruit Program website. See an excerpt from OFRF’s conversation with Dr. Amaya Atucha about the importance of the ORG program for her research and farmers in her region here:

This research is funded by the USDA/NIFA’s Organic Transitions Program. To learn more about OFRF’s advocacy work to protect and increase this type of funding, and how you can help become an advocate for organic farming with us, see our Advocacy page.

By |2023-12-06T20:47:16+00:00November 28th, 2023|Education, News|

TOPP West Resources

Federal funding is available to help agricultural producers transition to an organic system of production.  As part of the larger $300 million USDA Organic Transition Initiative, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has begun to make $70 million available to help producers adopt organic management systems in pursuit of certification.  The following resources provide information on specific USDA technical assistance and funding support programs available to farmers. We will continue to update this with additional resources, so be sure to check back often. 

The Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP)

Farmers across the U.S. may now receive up to $750 per scope for organic certification costs

As a farmer or a technical service provider to farms, you understand the importance of organic certification. It not only adds value to your products but also opens doors to a growing market of health-conscious consumers. However, the process of obtaining and maintaining organic certification can be costly. The good news is that financial assistance is available through the Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) to help ease this burden. In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the basic steps to access up to $750 in financial assistance for each organic certification scope, covering expenses paid between October 1, 2022, and September 30, 2023. Learn more

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

Farmers across the U.S. are eligible for significant technical and financial assistance from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Farmers and technical service providers know first hand that the most significant barriers to developing sustainable infrastructure and production practices are due to time and resource scarcity. NRCS’ EQIP program offers financial assistance and technical support to implement new conservation practices on your farm, with additional support for historically underserved applicants including socially disadvantaged, beginning, veteran, and limited-resource farmers and ranchers. In this blog post, we’ll provide an overview of what EQIP has to offer, and the steps to utilizing this program… Learn more.

Organic Transition Initiative (OTI)

$75M in cost-share grant funding is available to certified organic and transitioning-to-organic growers under EQIP to meet NRCS’s Conservation Practice Standard for Organic Management (CPS-823).

Organic farmers must manage their land without prohibited inputs for 3 years for their products to be certified. This transitioning period can be incredibly challenging as farmers and their land adjust to new production practices. OTI is intended to help producers implement conservation activities required for certification, receive expert technical support, and recover foregone income due to reduced yields during the transition period through EQIP.

By |2024-01-31T22:51:26+00:00September 26th, 2023|News, TOPP West|
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