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So far Elizabeth Tobey has created 67 blog entries.

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.

Note: all of this information is summarized in printable, downloadable PDFs, available in English and Spanish, at the bottom of this blogpost.

Nota: toda esta información se resume en archivos PDF imprimibles y descargables, disponibles en inglés y español, al final de esta publicación de blog.

Obtain additional translated materials, or schedule interpretation services for phone calls or in-person visits, https://www.farmers.gov/translations, or request personalized Spanish language support for any USDA resource, https://www.farmers.gov/translations#spanish-request.

Important Points:

  • EQIP is a reimbursement program, most operations will have to pay for improvements up-front and get funding to cover those costs.
  • Do not begin reimbursable conservation activities & projects prior to completion of your application process and contract with NRCS.
  • Contacting your local NRCS office is a key step in determining your eligibility and beginning your application process.
  • Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and will be reviewed on the next ranking date for your state. Begin your application process as soon as possible to ensure completion by the next deadline! Applications are prioritized by local resource concerns and the applicant’s level of need.
  • You will need to create a free online account at Farmers.gov and ensure that it is up to date.
  • If you do not own your land, you will need to submit written permission from the owner with your application.

Step 1. Research Your Options. EQIP offers support for a broad scope of conservation activities & projects to producers including both financial and technical support. EQIP provides funds to reimburse costs associated with specific practices or infrastructure projects on a farm. EQIP’s most popular sub-programs include the High Tunnel Initiative, which covers the cost of high tunnel installation for production farms, the On Farm Energy Initiative, which covers the cost of energy-saving equipment and infrastructure improvements such as refrigeration units or greenhouse improvements, and the Organic Initiative, which provides up to $140k to certified organic or transitioning farms to implement conservation practices such as design and installation of efficient irrigation systems, nutrient & pest management strategies, or developing a grazing plan.

Step 2. Connect with USDA. Create or update your account at Farmers.gov, 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. 

Guiding questions for initial contact with NRCS:

  • “I’m interested in applying for EQIP’s  _initiative(s) of interest_ for my farm to help finance _conservation project of interest_. What do you need from me to get started on my application?”
  • “What additional funding opportunities are available to my farm?”
  • “How soon can a conservationist help me set up a conservation plan (AD 1026)?”
  • “When is the deadline for the next EQIP ranking period?”
  • “I am eligible for the increased and advanced payment option for Historically Underserved farmers. How will this change my application process?”
  • “I _(own/rent)_ my land. What documents will you need for completion of my EQIP application by the deadline?”
  • “My farm is _certified/transitioning_ to organic. What additional will you need for completion of my conservation plan and application by the deadline?”

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. You’ll need your: 

  • 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 Farmers.gov or FSA membership).
  • Documentation of organic certification (if applicable).
  • Documentation of your land’s irrigation history (if applicable to project).

Step 5. Complete your application & submit! Your NRCS conservation specialist will complete & submit your application form (CPA 1200) with you using your established conservation plan and the above documents. 

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. Once the work is implemented and inspected, you’ll be paid the rate of compensation for the work.

Apply for EQIP now, and reap the benefits of a more affordable path to sustainable agriculture. Your farm deserves the support it needs.

All of this information is summarized in a printable, downloadable PDF below, available in English and Spanish.

By |2023-12-20T23:07:11+00:00December 20th, 2023|News, TOPP West|

Charlotte Vallaeys

Organic Expert, General Mills

Charlotte Vallaeys is the Organic Expert at General Mills, one of the largest producers of certified organic packaged foods with brands including Annie’s, Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen. She advocates the perspective of the organic community within the company, leads the sustainability strategy for the organic brands, collaborates with partners to advance initiatives that support organic agriculture, and represents General Mills with the organic industry. Charlotte has been deeply engaged in the organic community for nearly 20 years. Prior to joining General Mills, she worked at The Cornucopia Institute, Consumers Union and Consumer Reports, and has served as a consultant for various organizations on a wide variety of food system sustainability issues, including farm animal welfare and regenerative agriculture. She holds master’s degrees from Harvard and Tufts, and is currently working on a dissertation on regenerative and organic agriculture as a PhD Candidate in the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University.

By |2023-12-20T22:37:41+00:00December 20th, 2023|Board|

Mike Dill

Director of Advocacy & Sustainability, Organically Grown Company

Mike Dill oversees organic trade advocacy and sustainability for Organically Grown Company, the Northwest’s largest organic produce distributor. He is the lead coordinator for the Organic Produce Wholesalers Coalition, representing organic wholesalers and growers to the National Organic Program, National Organic Standards Board and Legislators. Mike is also Vice-Chair of the Organic Trade Association’s Produce Sector Council and hold seats on the boards of the Oregon Organic Coalition (OOC), Washington’s Coalition for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (CORA) and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF).

Mike’s 16 years of experience in the organic trade includes eight years managing food safety, compliance and policy and two years managing stakeholder engagement and advocacy for OGC, along with five years working as an organic inspector, Fair Trade inspector and certification officer for Oregon Tilth. Mike received his Food Science and Technology degree with minors in Horticulture and Chemistry from Oregon State University in 2007.

By |2024-01-31T14:39:26+00:00December 20th, 2023|Board|

Nichelle Harriot

Policy Director, HEAL Food Alliance

Nichelle Harriot has over 15 years of federal policy experience working on a range of issues from pesticide regulation to building support for sustainable, organic, and agroecological farming systems and research. As policy director at the HEAL Food Alliance, she brings her learned experiences to enact transformative change to the food and farm movement. Nichelle earned her B.S. in Chemistry and Environmental Science at Morgan State University and her M.S. in Environmental Science and Public Policy at George Mason University. She’s currently based in the DC-MD metropolitan area and enjoys spending time with family and taking trips to the beach.

By |2023-12-20T21:45:35+00:00December 20th, 2023|Board|

Organic Agriculture Shines in the Face of 2023’s Challenges

2023 was a historic year by many measures.  Many of those measures were, for lack of a better word, bad. We’ve written before about the climate effects of this year, and now we have confirmed that we’ve experienced the hottest summer ever recorded, which coincided with record low sea ice levels. In politics, we witnessed a tumultuous speaker election for the first time in nearly a century, followed by the first ever ouster of a speaker just months later. All while narrowly avoiding a government shutdown. We are once again in a political and financial environment that makes work on a new Farm Bill and Appropriations legislation feel somewhat futile. 

But, there were historic movements of progress for the organic sector this year as well: 

  • The National Organic Program has promulgated multiple long-awaited rules: the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards, Strengthening Organic Enforcement, and Organic Livestock Origin Rules, among others. 
  • We at OFRF worked with Congressional partners and organic champions to introduce pieces of legislation that would continue to advance organic agriculture research by doubling the funds available to OREI and ORG research programs. 
  • Because of past efforts of OFRF and our allies, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative’s mandatory funding level was not at issue in Farm Bill extension negotiations, ensuring that this program is insulated from political turmoil. 
  • And OFRF board member April Thatcher was named “Organic Farmer of the Year” by the Organic Trade Association, which is a piece of history that hits close to home for us!  

Sometimes paying attention to the current events can lead to getting lost in the noise, but for every headline-warranting piece of bad news there’s certainly a positive development or generous act of kindness that goes unnoticed. As we enter the end of year period and reflect over the past year, try to take a moment and revisit some of those positive moments or acts of kindness.

As Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series put it: “happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Wishing you all many moments of light and happiness this winter. 

Eat well,


By |2023-12-11T16:36:36+00:00December 11th, 2023|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

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.

Note: all of this information is summarized in printable, downloadable PDF’s, available in English and Spanish, at the bottom of this blogpost.

Nota: toda esta información se resume en archivos PDF imprimibles y descargables, disponibles en inglés y español, al final de esta publicación de blog.

1. Start with Research

Before diving into the application process, it’s wise to build up some knowledge of the program and who you will apply to. The OCCSP is administered by the USDA, and their website provides a wealth of general information. Additionally, some states have their own supplements to the program. If you’re in Arizona, California, or Texas, consider checking your state’s agriculture agency website for state-specific resources.

Below are factsheets from the USDA about the OCCSP, one in English and one in Spanish.

2. Finding the Right Application 

Certified organic operations can apply for OCCSP assistance through their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office or, in some cases, through a participating State Agency. Here’s how to proceed:

Through FSA: If you choose to apply through the FSA, you’ll need to use their specific OCCSP application form and follow the instructions provided. This ensures that your application is processed smoothly and efficiently.

Through a State Agency: If your state participates in the OCCSP, you likely have the option to apply through your state agency. In this case, use the application form provided by your state’s program. States like Arizona and California have their own forms, while Texas offers an online application platform along with a Request for Assistance (RFA) providing information.

3. Gathering Financial Information

To access government payments through OCCSP, you’ll need to provide certain financial information. The information must be provided in the correct format, depending on how you are applying. Here’s a brief explanation of the options in the Southwest: 

FSA: If you’re applying through the FSA, they typically require an IRS W-9 form as part of your application.

California: In California, you’ll need to complete a Payee Data Record Form as part of your application.

Arizona: In Arizona, they require an AZ W-9 form to be submitted along with your application.

Texas: If you’re applying through Texas’ online platform, you’ll need to provide a Tax ID to operate on their system, obtain one here.

4. Compiling Required Documents

Alongside your application and financial information, you’ll also need to include certain documents:

  • A copy of your organic certification.
  • Proof of payment for your certification fees.
  • Itemized receipts for any other covered expenses related to organic certification that you’re seeking reimbursement for.

Covered expenses under the OCCSP include application fees, inspection costs, fees related to equivalency agreement/arrangement requirements, travel/per diem for inspectors, user fees, sales assessments, and postage. However, covered expenses do not include equipment, materials, supplies, transitional certification fees, late fees, and inspections necessary to address National Organic Program regulatory violations.

5. Submission

Once you’ve gathered all the required information and documents, it’s time to submit your OCCSP application. Double-check your application to ensure everything is complete and accurate. Ensure you send this information to the appropriate state or federal agency office based on your chosen application method.

The OCCSP can be a valuable resource for farmers and technical service providers seeking financial assistance for their organic certifications. By following these steps and meeting the program’s requirements, you can access up to $750 to support your commitment to organic farming practices.

For more detailed information and access to specific application forms, be sure to visit the OCCSP USDA website or consult your state’s agriculture agency website if they operate their own OCCSP program (Arizona, California, Texas). Your organic journey just got a little more affordable.

Apply for OCCSP assistance now, and reap the benefits of a more affordable path to organic certification. Your commitment to organic farming deserves the support it needs.

All of this information is summarized in a printable, downloadable PDF below, available in English and Spanish.

By |2023-12-20T23:15:27+00:00December 1st, 2023|News, TOPP West|

Conservation Agriculture webinar series

OFRF, in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), has co-created a webinar series focused on soil health and organic farming. This series is facilitated by Jennifer Ryan and Lindsay Haines of NRCS and Thelma Velez and Mary Hathaway of OFRF. Each of the webinars is led by Mark Schonbeck, OFRF’s Research Associate. Topics covered in this series include soil health, nutrient management, weed management, cover crops, plant genetics, water management, conservation tillage, and climate resilience. Each webinar shares organic farming practices and research findings, and many share stories of farmer experiences in organic farming as they pertain to the topic of the specific webinar in the series.

The USDA has made all the recordings available for free, you can find them here.

Webinar 1: Why “Organic” Matters – Soil Organic Matter, Soil Health and USDA-Certified Organic Farming

Soil is a living system that cycles nutrients and supplies crops with essential nutrients. Organic farmers must focus on building soil organic matter (SOM), returning crop residues to the soil, and using fertilizers of organic origin. After a brief history of organic farming, this webinar focuses on soil organic matter: the nature of soil organic matter, its relationship to organic farming practices, its functions, and practices to build it in agricultural soils. The webinar concludes with the story of Rick and Janice Felker of Mattawoman Creek Farmers in Virginia, and the organic practices they used to SOM and fertility in their sandy soils.

Webinar 2: Soil Life in Organic Farming: The Role of Soil Organisms in Soil Health and Resource Conservation

Although soil life makes up just a small portion of the soil mass, it performs all of the major functions in a healthy soil. Organic farmers understand this point and capitalize on it by feeding their soil to feed their crops. After a brief introduction to the community of life within the soil, this webinar delves into how soil organisms function in crop production, and provides an overview of organic farming for soil biology and its challenges, opportunities, and recent research findings, as well as some guidelines for optimizing practices and outcomes.

Webinar 3: Biological Nutrient Management: Best Organic Practices for Soil Fertility and Resource Stewardship

Nutrient management focuses on production, soil health, and conservation. According to the NRCS, nutrient management criteria is based on the “4Rs of nutrient stewardship”: right source, right rate, right time, right place. After a brief summary of the changes throughout history in organic nutrient management, this webinar focuses on the challenges and opportunities in organic nutrient management, through the use of the 4Rs and offers examples from current research. The webinar ends with a summary of organic nutrient management tips.

Webinar 4: Beating the Weeds Without Herbicides: Soil-Friendly Organic Weed Management

According to the 2022 National Organic Research Agenda report, weeds are the #1 challenge to organic farmers. After defining weeds, this webinar focuses on two tactics in managing weeds: prevention and control. First, five preventive steps for organic producers are presented, each complete with example practices. These steps are followed by a discussion of organic integrated weed management control practices, focusing on practices to increase weed control while decreasing damage to the soil, and sharing farmer innovations and research findings. The webinar concludes with a practical summary of weed prevention and control practices.

Webinar 5: Cover Cropping for Soil Health and Fertility in Organic Production

Cover crops play a multi-functional role in organic farming, as they contribute to all five principles of soil health. This webinar focuses on the challenges and strategies of using cover crops: selecting the best cover crop for a farmer’s objectives, rotation niche, and soil challenges; timely establishment and termination of cover crops, termination without herbicides, and optimizing nitrogen release from the crop; and region-specific challenges and strategies. The webinar concludes with four farmer stories of using cover crops in context.

Webinar 6: The Role of Plant Genetics in Soil Health: Selecting Crop Cultivars for Organic Production

According to the 2022 National Organic Research Agenda report, farmers find it difficult to find appropriate crop varieties and seeds for organic production. Breeding priorities for the organic farming sector include disease and pest resistance, overall vigor, and resilience to drought and other climate related challenges. This webinar discusses the challenges for obtaining seeds and cultivars for organic systems and ways to address these challenges; and organic plant breeding research in vegetable crops, grains, and cover crops.

Webinar 7: Organic Soil Health Practices for Water Management and Water Quality

Can organic soil health practices buffer the farm against drought and deluge? After a brief overview of soil moisture and the effects of inherent and dynamic soil properties on plant available water, this webinar discusses the impacts of climate change on soil health and farm water supply, ways to manage water quantity and quality in organic farming systems, the use of cover crops and soil water in challenging climates, and some irrigation challenges in organic production. 

Webinar 8: Practical Conservation Tillage for Organic Cropping Systems

Although intense tillage may be costly to a farmer’s soil health, there are methods and tools organic farmers can use when tilling to maintain or improve their soil health. This webinar discusses tools to reduce tillage intensity in organic systems, the organic rotational no-till systems and its four steps, and soil disturbance. The webinar concludes with farmer stories of tillage reduction in organic production, focusing on vegetable, mixed crop and livestock, and grain farms throughout the U.S.

Webinar 9: Sequestering Carbon, Reducing Greenhouse Gases, and Building Climate Resilience through Organic Soil Health Practices

Climate change affects agriculture, and agriculture also contributes to climate change. After sharing some ways in which U.S. agricultural systems can be part of the solution, this webinar dives into organic agriculture as a climate solution: its opportunities and challenges, best practices for carbon sequestration, and best practices for greenhouse gas mitigation. The webinar concludes with a presentation of recent research findings, and their implications for organic agriculture.

By |2023-12-11T19:49:01+00:00November 20th, 2023|Education, News|

Respecting the Roots: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Organic Agriculture

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is a concept that has been gaining attention in non-native communities in recent years, and frequently coming up in conversation at OFRF. It is hard to provide one all-encompassing definition of TEK, but generally TEK references ecological knowledge that is place-based and also inherently tied to a culture. It is not only a system of knowledge that has been handed down generationally, but a holistic way to view all living things in relationship to the landscape; that means not seeing ourselves as separate from it, but as embedded within the ecological system. To some, TEK represents a wholly-separate knowledge system than Western scientific knowledge, or Western Science, which prioritizes reductionism and transportability. Instead, TEK recognizes that there are pieces of knowledge, especially in the agroecological context, that are too complex to be reduced to their specific constituent parts, and that cannot be replicated elsewhere because the ecological and social factors are not the same. 

We recognize that some of the focus on TEK includes examples of white individuals and white-led organizations claiming ancestral and cultural knowledge that belongs to the Indigenous peoples of what is now called North America. As a white-led organization in the agricultural sector, we at OFRF are actively working to properly acknowledge the importance of TEK to organic practices in a way that honors the cultures that hold this deep knowledge and understanding. There are some institutions and communities that are actively trying to facilitate interactions with Western Science and TEK, and integrate this knowledge system and indigenous perspective. Institutions like Cal Poly Humboldt, who are developing and using programming on Place-based Learning Communities. Outside of the agricultural space, arctic researchers are working with tribal nations to gain a better understanding of how the arctic is changing

There are many that claim the knowledge and principles associated with TEK is a crucial piece of meeting the stacking challenges of our time, especially climate change, even the White House has announced guidance on utilizing TEK. That is one reason why we are working with Senators in Washington D.C. to ensure that TEK is not co-opted by academia, but facilitated by it. But, we acknowledge that these are just small steps when large leaps are needed.

As an organization, we are committed to learning and growing by listening to the needs of communities we aim to serve. We are exploring ways to engage in this path meaningfully while also being mindful of the space we occupy. We know we have a lot to learn, and we hope you will join us in this work.

By |2023-11-13T17:20:46+00:00November 12th, 2023|News|

From Farm to Policy: Organic Agriculture and Public Health

This month, Gordon’s Policy Corner has a guest author, OFRF’s 2023 Fall Policy & Communications Intern, Annika La Fave.

Until last year, I could not imagine a career path for myself other than farming. Working in sustainable agriculture for the last 14 years has inextricably linked my profession to my identity. However, after closing my small vegetable farm business in Oregon and moving to Maryland, I realized that I didn’t have it in me to start over. I also knew I was not alone. Many of my fellow small farm owners in Portland had also left farming due to financial hardship and lack of work-life balance. The unavoidable difficulties of farming as a profession was my inspiration for pursuing a graduate degree at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where I now study the intersection of public health, policy, and occupational sustainability and health for the ag community. OFRF’s meaningful work addresses these issues and more, and, as the fall Policy & Communications intern, I’m honored to be part of the team. This month, I’m taking over Gordon’s Policy Corner to talk about a few critical ways organic agricultural research and policy impact health outcomes for farmers.

How do policy, research, organic farming, and public health intersect? 

The farming community is affected by many key social determinants of health including:

Farmers are simultaneously among the most vulnerable and most vital members of our food system. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of a food system built within our current market dynamics, there are significant barriers to these circumstances changing. 

How can research guide food system policy? 

The first step toward promoting a healthier, more sustainable food system is ensuring federal and state governments support farm workers and local agricultural markets. Policymakers rely on researchers to demonstrate quantifiable issues within our food system and tangible opportunities to solve them. Only with this evidence, can advocates and policymakers demonstrate a critical need and rally support for meaningful policy development. Additionally, research can provide much needed technical and economic support for farmers to help improve their growing practices, increase yields, and make farming as profitable as it can be in light of the many barriers they face. In OFRF’s 2022 National Organic Research Agenda, which reported on surveys and focus groups conducted with transitioning and certified organic producers across North America, participants named the availability of organic research funds (54%), access to knowledgeable agricultural service providers (53%), and the imbalance of organic supply and demand (58%) among their top concerns.

OFRF’s role in addressing food system complexity: 

The needs of small and organic farmers are still underrepresented in the Farm Bill, but, thanks in part to the work of ag support organizations, USDA is now implementing more programs geared toward small, beginning, and historically underserved communities. Through my internship with OFRF, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how individual organizations can promote policy reform through coalition building. For instance, OFRF’s policy team continues to champion the Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research Act (SOAR Act) as well as the Organic Science & Research Initiative Act (OSRI Act), which both aim to obtain necessary Farm Bill research funding to solidify our path toward a more equitable and resilient agricultural industry.

OFRF is also excited to be part of USDA’s Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP), a program investing up to $100M over 5 years in cooperative agreements with organizations like OFRF to provide technical assistance and mentorship for transitioning and existing organic farmers. Knowing that small, beginning, and historically-marginalized farmers are particularly vulnerable to financial hardship and time constraints, the OFRF policy team has been working with TOPP West to develop toolkits for farmers to mitigate the common barriers they face when it comes to accessing USDA’s grants, loans, and technical support. Lately, I’ve been working to unpack NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in a brief guide to help farmers know exactly when and how to apply for financial assistance.

How can you promote public health and a more equitable food system?

To reduce the impact of global warming, we will need a societal shift toward supporting local food systems and organic farming practices. In doing so, we can also promote a stronger local economy, combat the ongoing health disparities disproportionately affecting the farming community, and ensure that the people growing our food are able to earn a livable wage. Please prioritize buying from local producers using organic growing methods whenever possible. Consider reaching out to your representatives to highlight the need for more financial and policy support to help reshape sustainable agriculture into a tenable profession. And, please join us for an upcoming virtual OFRF event, where you can learn new skills for communicating with legislators or get involved with your own farmer-led research.

. . .

All photos courtesy of Annika La Fave.

By |2023-11-10T15:20:58+00:00November 10th, 2023|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

The Role of Long-Term Research in Sustainable Agriculture

Written by Elizabeth Tobey

The word unprecedented has become tiredly overused, as we weather the storms of one climate-induced disaster after another, and set new records for temperature extremes. Farmers and farm workers in particular are keenly aware of the impacts of this climate chaos; in a profession dependent on and deeply affected by the weather, people working in agriculture are canaries in the coal mines of rapidly changing weather patterns and new climate extremes. Earlier this year farmers in Vermont raced to harvest crops before flood waters overtook fields and contaminated crops, while farmers throughout the west coast donned n95 masks or respirators to work the fields amid hazardous air quality due to a wildfire smoke. These stories are sadly not uncommon; everywhere you look farmers are working hard to stay afloat in challenging conditions. Climate change is impacting farms and ranches across the nation and organic farms are particularly vulnerable; but they are also full of potential for climate adaptation and even mitigation.

A recent Civil Eats article showcased how the history of extractive agriculture in Maui set the stage for the devastating wildfires in early August. While it explains the tragic history leading up to the disaster, it also points out that agriculture can be part of the solution. “Basically everything that can be done negatively, agriculture can also do it positively. Agriculture can contribute to soil remediation, improved water quality, and biodiversity.” 

Cultivating corn at the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab in Beltsville, MD, with cultivated beans in the foreground

Because organic farms do not rely on synthetic chemicals, they tend to be more dependent on natural systems than their conventional farming counterparts. This can mean they are more vulnerable and easily impacted by climate change, but organic systems also hold tremendous potential to build climate resilience. Farmers have always adapted, and the unpredictability of our current climate continues to push farmers to seek innovative solutions and evolve their farming practices to help withstand and even mitigate the extremes of climate change. 

Long term agroecological research is critical in order to provide farmers with cutting edge understanding of how climate change affects different production systems and how different production systems can build resilience to withstand climate change. While a lot can be learned in short-term studies, there are things that only long-term observation can reveal. To better understand the role of long term agriculture research OFRF recently spoke with Michel Cavigelli, PhD about his work at the long term agricultural research (LTAR) station in Beltsville Maryland, ancestral homelands of the Piscataway and Nacotchtank. “I was always interested in long-term research because everything changes every year,” Cavigelli said.

Weather patterns can change so much year to year, that a two year study, for instance, may fall over the course of two good-weather years, or even a good year and a bad year, and the results will not accurately represent the full picture of how a farming system behaves over the course of several years and weather cycles. Other elements of agriculture change so slowly that it’s nearly impossible to measure them in a short period of time.

“You need long term data to look at things that change a lot from year to year, and you also need long term data to look at things that change slowly,” Cavigelli explained. “Soil organic carbon changes slowly, that’s probably the most notorious one. You usually need at least ten years of a treatment difference to see those [changes] statistically.”

Dr. Michel Cavigelli

Running a long-term study offered Cavigelli a unique opportunity to study Soil Organic Carbon (SOC). “There’s all this talk now about climate-smart agriculture, and looking at ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. So any increase in soil carbon is a decrease in atmospheric carbon.” 

At the Beltsville research site they have five different cropping systems in place: two conventional and three organic, with a variety of tillage practices and crop-rotations in place. The cropping systems they maintain are:

  • Conventional
    • no-till, 3-year corn-soybean-wheat rotation
    • standard tillage, 3-year, corn-soybean-wheat rotation
  • Organic 
    • standard tillage, 2-year corn-soybean rotation
    • standard tillage, 3-year corn-soybean-wheat rotation
    • standard tillage, 6-year corn-soybean-wheat-alfalfa rotation, with alfalfa as a three-year perennial crop

The conventional systems receive a double-cropping of soybeans after wheat harvest, while the three-year organic rotation gets a hairy vetch planting. “It’s still corn, soybean wheat, and then a legume,” said Cavigelli, of the 3-year organic rotation. “So it’s quite comparable to the two conventional systems.” This variety of cropping systems allows them to compare different production methods.

Along with studying SOC, Cavigelli also looks at crop yield, economic viability, soil quality and soil properties, weed population dynamics, and the overall health of the soil food web. He also explained the long term trial site functions as a base for other researchers to look at things that they don’t study at the Beltsville lab, such as soil invertebrate communities. “We provide the long term study for people to kind of helicopter in and do their specialty, which provides a lot more depth of knowledge of the different systems,” Cavigelli said. 

Organic soybeans at the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab in Beltsville, MD

The results of these studies help researchers like Cavigelli give more accurate and useful advice to farmers and ranchers. Along with publishing scientific reports on their findings, researchers at Beltsville engage in a variety of outreach activities to share their findings with the agricultural community. Prior to Covid, Cavigelli said he regularly presented at ag conferences and hosted field days at the research site that would draw groups of 80-100 farmers and others at a time. He also worked with partners at the local university extension office on a “traveling road show” tour to present findings to ag communities in the mid-Atlantic region, and is eager to reinstate those outreach activities now that the national emergency has ended.

There have been a lot of studies on no-till conventional agriculture, which allowed people to develop some robust conclusions early on. “That’s why no-till became the focus of what farmers ought to do to sequester carbon,” Cavigelli said. Based on this he explained that his initial hypothesis was that the organic systems would retain soil carbon at a rate somewhere between the conventional tillage and conventional no-till systems, taking into account the added organic matter from the organic systems but the disturbance from tilling.

Some of the initial results they’ve found in studies have surprised even Cavigelli. He initially expected the no-till systems to have higher SOC levels because of the decreased soil disturbance. However, when they looked at the findings after 11 years, the organic system actually had more soil carbon than the no-till system, although he made sure to point out that their latest study on SOC has not been fully vetted by peers yet; they will be submitting the paper soon. 

Farming Systems Project, Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab in Beltsville, MD

“A critical part of the story is that when the experiment was started we had relatively high SOC because the site had been planted to perennial alfalfa for at least 14 years,” Cavigelli said. “This also points to the value of perennials.” When Cavigeli’s team compared their results to archived soil samples from 1996, before the long-term systems trials began, the only cropping system that was not losing soil organic carbon over the long term was the 6-year organic rotation. As noted above, this rotation differs from the others by adding a three-year planting of perennial alfalfa before going back into an annual corn-soybean-wheat rotation. “It’s not a tree, it’s not the native perennials, but it’s still a perennial,” Cavigelli explained about the alfalfa. “And during the three years that it’s in there you’re not tilling, and you’re increasing root biomass and all that.” As a legume, the alfalfa roots have a symbiotic relationship with rhizobial bacteria that pull atmospheric nitrogen from the air and fix it in the plant, while the perennial root systems and the lack of tillage or soil disturbance for those three years support the soil in sequestering carbon. Alfalfa is also a valuable cash crop in itself, providing high quality livestock feed. 

“When we look at the difference between time-zero, 1996, and all five of our systems they all lose carbon except for the six-year organic system,” Cavigelli said. “It’s not just that it’s organic, but it’s that we have a perennial in there. So it looks like the story is that perennials are the best way to either maintain or increase soil carbon.” 

As we head into the unknown of our changing climate, long-term research will be increasingly important to help farmers and ranchers make informed decisions about their management practices and to help policy makers respond to the climate crisis with effective programs. However, funding for these long term projects is precarious. All the funding comes from Congress, and Cavigelli explained that it can be tough to make the case for long-term research. “They like to see more quick results, and it’s not quite as sexy as developing a new technology,” he laughed. Researchers like Cavigelli are limited by Congress’s funding decisions.  “It’s a harder sell,” Cavigelli continued. “And it’s a sustainability sell. The only way to measure our sustainability is doing things long-term. And the amount of money we get is directly related to how much research we can do.”

. . .

Dr. Michel Cavigelli is a Co-Director of the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, providing expertise on cropping system management and impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. He is also a Research Soil Scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service at the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab in Beltsville, Maryland. He serves as Lead Scientist of a research project that includes evaluating the long-term impacts of organic and conventional cropping systems management on sustainability. His areas of expertise include organic and conventional cropping systems, nutrient management, and environmental and microbiological controls on soil nitrous oxide production and emissions. He received a B.A. in Biology at Oberlin College in 1984, a M.S. in Agronomy at Kansas State University in 1990, and a Ph.D. in Crop and Soil Sciences and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Michigan State University in 1998. OFRF is grateful to Cavigelli for taking the time to speak with us about his work.

By |2023-12-06T20:49:03+00:00October 25th, 2023|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|
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