Gordon’s Policy Corner

Updates and a Hard Look at Organic Agriculture Research in the 2024 Farm Bill

As active participants in the 2023-2024 (and maybe into 2025?) Farm Bill process, we work diligently to stay informed and active in developing legislative proposals that affect organic agriculture research, but also the organic ecosystem at large. Part of what we do is participate in coalition lobby days, like earlier in May where OFRF joined members of the Organic Trade Association, like Stonyfield, to make sure we are all consistently engaged with legislators and the organic sector. Two significant developments took place the past two months: Senator Stabenow unveiled the Section-by-Section (SBS) of the Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act, and the House Agriculture Committee passed the Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024 (FFNSA). Now that the initial positions have been struck, we’re at a critical juncture in advocating for robust organic research programming.

Dana Bourne, sustainability program manager for Lactalis (Stonyfield)
and OFRF’s Executive Director, Brise Tencer at the OTA Organic Week in DC, May 2024.

Despite some significant improvements included in the Senate SBS for the organic industry at large, including the Coordinating Organic Research Initiative, this framework does not address the critical need of increased budgets for organic research programs. The FFNSA misses its mark even further, only providing flat funding for USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative. Although the safeguarding of agricultural research programs is always important, flat funding at 2018 levels is equivalent to a nearly 25% cut in the program’s effective budget in the current economy due to inflation. 

Organic farming systems are inherently designed to enhance local ecosystems through practices like cover cropping, crop-livestock integration, and the use of perennials. These methods have been scientifically proven to increase soil organic matter, improve soil structure, and foster robust microbial communities—all of which are essential for long-term fertility and productivity. Beyond ecological benefits, organic agriculture is a vital economic driver for rural economies, generating higher revenues and supporting local businesses at a rate far exceeding that of conventional farming.

Despite organic products making up 6% of the total food market and over 15% of the produce market, less than 2% of USDA-REE agencies’ budgets are allocated to organic topics. This persistent underfunding risks stifling the growth potential of the organic sector and jeopardizes the competitive edge of the United States in global organic markets.

In light of the demonstrated positive impacts and the increasing consumer demand for organic products, we have authored a letter that over 80 organizations have joined to reiterate the need for the following provisions in the upcoming Farm Bill:

  • An annual increase of $10 million for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).
  • Congressional authorization of the Researching the Transition to Organic Program, starting at $10 million a year and increasing to $20 million in the third year of the Farm Bill.
  • An increased budget for the Organic Markets and Data Initiative, along with a mandated report on the economic impact of organic farming on communities.
  • The creation of an Organic Research Coordinator position within the Office of the Chief Scientist to enhance the organization and communication of organic research at the USDA.
  • The inclusion of climate change adaptation measures and the facilitation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, ensuring the respect and consent of tribal communities, into legislative priorities for OREI.

As we navigate the legislative process, it is imperative that we, alongside our partners and policymakers, ensure organic agriculture research receives the attention and funding it critically needs. We urge all supporters of sustainable agriculture to join us in advocating for a Farm Bill that reflects the significance of organic farming in today’s food system.

We are grateful for the leadership shown by legislators like those who have cosponsored the SOAR act in the House and the OSRI Act in the Senate addressing these issues, and we look forward to seeing increased collaboration to strengthen organic agriculture research.

We invite you to join us in this critical advocacy effort. Here’s how you can get involved:

Contact your legislators: Urge them to support increased funding for organic research programs. Use this easy Action Alert from the National Organic Coalition!

Spread the word: Share this blog post and information about the Farm Bill with your networks.

Stay informed: Follow our updates on the Farm Bill process and other legislative developments affecting organic agriculture.

We are grateful for the leadership shown by legislators who have co-sponsored the SOAR Act in the House and the OSRI Act in the Senate. We look forward to increased collaboration to strengthen organic agriculture research.

Eat well and breathe deep,

Gordon

gordon@ofrf.org

By |2024-06-10T20:47:07+00:00June 10th, 2024|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

How Research Helps Farmers

Agricultural Research: Helping Organic and Conventional Farmers Alike

In agriculture, we often draw a line between conventional and organic farming based on their differences. However, organic agriculture research breaks through that barrier, offering benefits beyond the organic sector, which can support both conventional and organic growers. Organic research projects funded through Competitive Grant programs operated by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) like the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Organic Transitions Research Program (ORG), and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and in-house, long-term research conducted by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) offer valuable insights and practices that are adopted universally, by both organic and conventional producers, to enhance sustainability, profitability, and resilience against climate change.

Economic Viability: Shortening the Runway to Profitability

Salvador Prieto uses his front loader to pick up a load of mulch for his Hass avocado and Meyer lemon orchards, in Somis, CA, on Nov 15, 2018. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung. Original public domain image from Flickr

Agricultural research plays a pivotal role in “derisking” agricultural businesses by testing innovative practices that individual farmers might consider too risky to adopt without seeing proven benefits. Organic agriculture research has continuously pushed the envelope on how to optimize resource use and reduce reliance on expensive synthetic inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. For example, an OREI study investigated the economic benefit that wild birds can offer agricultural operations by providing pest management services. Research projects like this have unearthed methods that cut down costs and boost farm profitability through more efficient practices. For conventional farmers, adopting these strategies can and has led to significant savings in materials, fuel, and labor costs. 

Agricultural research is not limited to agronomic practices but extends to market demands and trends that farms should stay aware of. These new markets will generally lead back to agronomic questions of how to grow the crop in a farmer’s region, but knowing that a market exists for a crop is crucial for an agricultural business deciding to invest in production. Research into these questions ensures farmers are well-informed of new opportunities that can influence their business decisions.

Ecological Vitality: Understanding Synergistic Benefits of Organic Management

Organic agriculture research uniquely focuses on the interconnectedness of soil health, biodiversity, and the farm’s ability to withstand climate irregularities. Practices developed in the organic sector, such as cover cropping, reduced tillage, and diverse crop rotations, are proven to enhance soil structure, increase biodiversity, and improve water retention—all contributing to a farm’s resilience against climatic stresses. However, one important piece that research continues to confirm is that organic management is not about one single practice but about the interplay and relationship between all the practices being utilized in a management system. For example, an ORG-funded project looks at a systems approach to day-neutral strawberry production in the Upper Midwest. Research like this underscores the importance of continued investment in understanding each bioregion’s agroecological system and how to manage it effectively.

Federal Funding: The Public Good Nature of Organic Research Requires Public Investment

The broad public-good benefits that organic agriculture research provides underscore the critical need for continued and increased federal funding. Despite a 20% reduction in federal funding since 2000, every dollar invested in agricultural research generates $20 of economic activity. It is essential to not only safeguard but increase this funding to support sustainability, economic viability, and resilience across all agricultural production systems. Federal investment in organic research yields dividends in sustainability, economic viability, and resilience that benefit all forms of agriculture. In April, we worked with our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to publish a blog that laid out the troubling reality of shrinking investment into organic agriculture research within general USDA programming, exacerbating the problem of general funding decline.

Because of its very nature, organic agriculture research is less attractive to private funding sources, which are increasingly funding university research programming. This private funding is generally more interested in marketable products rather than public-good-oriented research that aims to decrease reliance on expensive inputs. By fostering these universally beneficial production systems through robust public investment, we ensure an agricultural future capable of facing future environmental and market challenges.

Get Involved, Share Your Story

Have you utilized a research finding, participated in a research project, or have a question that could shape future studies? Please reach out and share your story with me directly at gordon@ofrf.org. Your experiences are crucial as they help us demonstrate the real-world impact of these research programs to legislators and policymakers. 

Let’s not just tell policymakers about the benefits — let’s show them. 

Eat well,

Gordon

By |2024-05-10T12:01:21+00:00May 10th, 2024|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Organic Research Funding

Examining & Refuting USDA’s Justifications for Decreasing Dedicated Organic Funding

This blog was co-written by OFRF’s Senior Policy and Programs Manager, Gordon Merrick, in collaboration with our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), and is available on their website here as well. We are grateful to work alongside our coalition partners to amplify and strengthen the organic movement.

As the world becomes increasingly attuned to the sustainability and health implications of our food systems, the role of organic agriculture has never been more crucial. Organic management has been shown to not only build resilience in ecological systems, but also in economic ones. However, recent developments in the Presidential Budget Request for fiscal year 2025 (PBR25) reveal a concerning decrease in funding specifically allocated for organic-dedicated competitive grant programs. This shift requires a closer look and a strong response from the scientific community, policymakers, and funding agencies alike. In this blog, we aim to look at the justifications given for these policy changes, and discuss the impacts that will follow if these changes are made.

A Closer Look at the Funding Shift

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) proposes to reduce funding for the Organic Transitions Research Program, opting to include more organic research through broader programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and the Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI). The rationale provided for this shift hinges on two main points. First, that NIFA is transitioning away from its integrated (§406) authority* to focus on congressionally authorized programs. Put simply, NIFA’s integrated authority is a method for NIFA to answer research and extension questions related to issues not sufficiently covered by existing programming. Second, and relatedly, that several initiatives already support organic research at a substantial level. Despite these justifications, there is substantial evidence to suggest that AFRI and SCRI have historically not allocated adequate resources specifically to organic agriculture research, even with Congressional direction to do so.

The Gap in Organic Research Funding

While it is true that the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) exists to support organic agriculture, the decrease in dedicated funding for organic research in the PBR25 undermines the growth of organic farming practices, which are vital to addressing environmental challenges and health concerns. A review of the research projects awarded through SCRI and AFRI from 2009-2023 shows that the allocation for organic research does not meet the ongoing need. Within AFRI, funding levels have been historically substantial but have been falling short recently, while organic continues to grow its market share and presence. Through SCRI, funding has been sporadic and ultimately makes a small dent in the total funding for organic research topics. This underinvestment can lead to limits on the ability of these sectors to thrive or innovate at the pace required to address pressing agricultural challenges.

The % of funding from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), and the total between the two programs that went to a project with an organic agriculture component. This does not mean the entire project was dedicated to organic agriculture topics, but rather they were investigating a topic that involved organic so this is an overestimation of funding.

The NORA-22 report confirmed that there are persistent challenges that also possess regional wrinkles and peculiarities. Without robust, consistent investments into organic agriculture research projects investigating these topics, the Organic Sector will not be able to reach its full potential or meet the need for a climate-resilient food and farm system. Given all of the investments being made by the USDA to support transitioning growers into organic farming through the Organic Transition Initiative, there is a significant need to make sure that when producers have questions, they can readily find the answers. Additionally, even those that are not transitioning into organic certification have time and again been interested in adopting organic practices that are shown to be ecologically sustainable and economically viable.

Given these circumstances, it is essential for the scientific community, legislators, and NIFA itself to take proactive steps:

Engage with Researchers:

The scientific community should be encouraged to apply for more grants that focus on organic agriculture. Increased participation will not only highlight the demand for such funding but also push agencies to allocate more resources toward these areas.

Take Legislative Action:

Congress must play a pivotal role by explicitly directing NIFA to prioritize and expand funding for organic research within AFRI and SCRI programs. Clear legislative directives can realign priorities and ensure that organic agriculture receives the attention and investment it rightly deserves.

Increase Agency Accountability:

NIFA should refine its Request for Applications (RFAs) to emphasize the importance of organic agriculture. By making organic agriculture a highlighted topic in RFAs, NIFA can communicate its significance to the research community and ensure that it is treated as a priority area for funding and development.

The decision to underfund organic research is more than a budgetary adjustment—it’s a statement about priorities. As participants in the formation of a sustainable future, we must advocate for a recalibration of these priorities towards a more robust support system for organic agriculture. Through collective action and a unified voice, we can ensure that organic research is not only preserved but enhanced, fostering an agricultural system that benefits our health, our environment, and future generations.

What You Can Do

Join us in urging NIFA, Congress, and the scientific community to bolster their commitment to organic agriculture. Whether you are a researcher, a policymaker, or a concerned citizen, your voice matters. Let’s plant the seeds of change and grow a healthier future together. Here are some ways you can get involved today:

  • If you are a farmer:
    • Reach out to us! If you have a story about interacting with research, from participating in a research project to reading a research paper, and how it impacted your operation, please share it with us!
    • Reach out to your local research institutions to ask if they have any organic research projects involving crops you grow. If you are comfortable, also ask if they are looking for producers to partner with in future research projects and offer your farm as an option.
    • Reach out to your elected officials in DC, (find their contact info here) both your Congressional Representative as well as both Senators, and use this simple script:
      • “Hello, I am [Name], I live in [Town/City] and am a constituent of [Congressperson/Senator]. I am calling because I am an organic farmer and I hope [Congressperson/Senator] can support programs and agencies that answer my production questions. Can you ask the Agriculture and Appropriations Committees what they are doing to support organic agriculture research in the Farm Bill and FY25 Appropriations?”
  • If you are a researcher:
    • Reach out to us! We are always interested in collaborating with researchers on projects, or at the very least can work to connect you with our network of producers and researchers interested in organic agriculture topics.
    • Apply for research funding for organic agriculture research projects through OREI, ORG, SCRI, and AFRI, it is important to make sure that demand for organic research projects is communicated to agency staff in this way.
    • Reach out to your elected officials in DC, (find their contact info here) both your Congressional Representative as well as both Senators, and share what you are working on with this script:
      • “Hello, I am [Name], I live in [Town/City] and am a constituent of [Congressperson/Senator]. I am calling  because I am an organic agriculture researcher with [Institution/Business] and I hope [Congressperson/Senator] can support programs and agencies that fund my work answering producer’s questions and helping them overcome their challenges. Can you ask the Agriculture and Appropriations Committees what they are doing to support organic agriculture research in the Farm Bill and FY25 Appropriations? These opinions are my own, and should not be attributed to my employer. ”

* “The Integrated Research, Education, and Extension (IREE) Competitive Grants Program was authorized in Section 406 (7 U.S.C. 7626) of AREERA to fund integrated, multifunctional agricultural research, education, and extension activities. While the overall approach to solving critical agricultural issues, priorities, or problems will be through an integration of research, education, and extension activities, within IREE individual programs may request applications that are research, education, or extension only, or a combination thereof.” Integrated Applications Information | NIFA, https://www.nifa.usda.gov/integrated-programs-application-information (last visited Apr. 23, 2024)

By |2024-05-01T14:01:09+00:00April 29th, 2024|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Growing Together, one year with the USDA Transition to Organic Partnership Program

Time has a way of slipping through our fingers, yet it leaves behind a trail of achievements and lessons learned. I can’t believe it’s already April! And that means it’s been a year since the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) joined the USDA Transition to Organic Production Partnership in the West/Southwest region (TOPP-W/SW). This month, we are taking a moment to reflect on the journey, the milestones achieved, and the future we’re cultivating together for organic and transitioning-to-organic producers.

Joining TOPP-W/SW wasn’t just a decision; it was a commitment to deepen our roots in the organic farming community and extend our reach to those transitioning to organic practices. Our goal was clear: to bridge the gap between USDA farm support programs and the farmers who need them most. And what a year it’s been! Through dedication and collaboration, we’ve developed an array of deliverables designed to empower farmers at every step of their organic journey.

We recognized early on that knowledge is power. To demystify the process of accessing USDA support, we crafted comprehensive resource guides and toolkits, which are distributed to nearly 30 partner organizations working directly with farmers in the West/Southwest region. These toolkits provide our on-the-ground partners with information and communication materials meant to serve as a beacon for farmers navigating the often complex landscape of organic certification, conservation programs, and other financial and technical assistance programs. Importantly, we have made strides in our efforts to provide these materials in both English and Spanish, recognizing that significant numbers of farmers transitioning to organic are Spanish-speaking. In addition to creating all our TOPP-W/SW toolkits into Spanish, we recently added a Spanish Resources page to our website.

With TOPP-W/SW so far we have provided resources on the Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) in English and in Spanish, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) in English and in Spanish, and the Organic Transition Initiative (OTI) in English and in Spanish, which includes a general guide for How to Talk to Your NRCS Office. We are looking forward to continuing to develop and disseminate toolkits like these to help farmers and ranchers access much-needed support in their organic journey. All of the TOPP-W/SW resources are available on the Organic and Transitioning Resources page of our website.

These toolkits and explainers are just the beginning, we are also working to amplify the stories of organic producers who have utilized financial and technical assistance programs. Information is important, but stories provide a spark to action that information doesn’t often offer. If you are a farmer in who has used USDA support programs, please reach out! We would love to hear your story, and we have stipends to offer as compensation for your time speaking with us. 

As we celebrate this one-year milestone, we’re reminded of the journey ahead. The seeds we’ve planted together with our TOPP-W/SW partners are beginning to sprout, but there’s more work to be done. We’re committed to expanding our resources and continuing to be a science- and research-equipped partner in this work. The feedback and stories from the farmers we’ve worked with will continue to guide our path forward.

Whether you’re a seasoned organic farmer, in the midst of transitioning, or simply exploring the idea, we’re here for you. Our journey with TOPP-W/SW is just one chapter in a larger story of growth, resilience, and community. We invite you to join us, share your experiences, and together, let’s continue to cultivate a future where organic farming thrives.

As we reflect on this past year and look to the future, our gratitude goes out to each farmer, partner, and supporter who’s joined us on this journey. Your dedication to organic and transitioning-to-organic production is the true force behind our collective achievements. Here’s to another year of growth, challenges, and triumphs in the organic farming community. For more information on accessing our resources or getting involved, visit our website or reach out directly (gordon@ofrf.org). Your journey to organic farming is one we’re eager to support.

Eat well,

Gordon

By |2024-04-04T20:52:45+00:00April 4th, 2024|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Shaping Agriculture Policy for a Sustainable Future

At OFRF, we continue to work closely with coalition partners to remain aware of the ever-evolving landscape of agriculture policy at the federal level. For this March’s Policy Corner, I wanted to share all of the work we’ve been up to this year and what we’re looking forward to. 

Earlier this month, OFRF submitted comments on the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Practice Standards (CPS) and the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Specialty Crop Competitiveness Initiative (SCCI). These are significant opportunities to highlight the conservation and economic benefits related to organic management. You can take a look at our comments on our advocacy page. Please reach out if you have any questions!  

Along with this advocacy related to the executive branch, we’ve continued to be engaged in the legislative process related to our priorities. The Farm Bill, the everlasting gobstopper of a policy topic, continues to lurch from hopeful timelines in the spring to calls to extend the 2018 policies another year. We will continue to engage on this crucial piece of legislation as it is one of the most essential policy-drivers in the United States food system. That’s why we were in DC last month with our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. We talked with Representatives and Senators about the importance of organic agriculture research, continuing to build momentum for the Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR) and the Organic Science Research Investment (OSRI) Acts.

Similar to the agriculturalists up in the northern part of the country, now is also the time we are planting seeds for FY25 appropriations, even as we rapidly bring a close to the FY24 Agriculture Appropriations process. We’ve been sending detailed requests to legislators’ offices about the impact of organic agriculture research on their districts and states. We have also been busy drafting written testimony that will be submitted to both chambers’ agriculture committees, making sure that the case for expanded organic research is put on record. Lastly and most importantly, we’re scheduling meetings with appropriators to ensure they understand the importance of organic agriculture to their states and the country. Once these documents are submitted, we will share them with you all!

But, looking forward to the rest of the year, we’re excited about the opportunities ahead of us. Coming up later this month is the National Organic Coalition’s fly-in, a crucially important venue for the organic movement to use our voice to raise awareness about the bills and programs important to it. Later in May, we will be at the Organic Trade Association’s annual Organic Week, where we’ll be sharing updates on the state of organic research with organic industry representatives and participating in congressional meetings to bring this information to legislators. 

Something we’re very excited about, though, is the upcoming August recess and the ability to not just tell legislators about the importance and impact of research projects but show them. If your institution or farm is interested in organizing an in-district meeting or field day in August/October, let us know so we can work with you to communicate that opportunity to legislators during recess! We’re also interested in hearing about the logistical and administrative burdens of running a successful field day. Please reach out to me at gordon@ofrf.org with insights!

Eat well,

Gordon

By |2024-03-10T17:12:04+00:00March 10th, 2024|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Organic Advocacy in Action: Reflections on NSAC Lobby Day

By Annika LaFave, OFRF Policy and Communications Intern

OFRF Policy & Communications Intern, Annika LaFave in front of the capitol after 8 official meetings during NSAC’s annual lobby day, and a “meet and greet” coffee chat.

Earlier this month, I had the exciting opportunity to participate in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Lobby Day with Gordon (OFRF’s Policy & Programs Manager). As the Policy and Communications intern for the Organic Farming Research Foundation and a recent newcomer to national agriculture advocacy, I have gained a deeper understanding of the Farm Bill and Appropriations processes and still have more to learn.

Our lobby day goals were to discuss the significance of the organic industry and how legislation like the Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research Act (SOAR Act), Organic Research and Science Investment Act (OSRI Act), Continuous Improvement & Accountability in Organic Standards (CIAO), and Opportunities in Organic Act can address common challenges organic producers face. As anticipated, the lobby day underscored the vital role advocates play in conveying farmers’ needs to lawmakers.

Appreciating the intricacies of sustainable agriculture and the barriers farmers face requires a personal connection or lived experience. I was reassured to learn that many congressional agriculture committee staffers seem to “get it” and even have ties to farming in their backgrounds. It is reassuring to know that even with the appearance of continued inaction, there are internal agriculture champions working to help bridge the gap where lawmakers lack such a connection. One thing that stood out to me was the level of transparency staffers had when speaking about the status of the upcoming (delayed) Farm Bill and Appropriations negotiations.

Unifying Nature of Agriculture and Food

In a tumultuous global landscape grappling with climate change, social inequities, and political unrest, we all share a collective need for safe and reliable healthy food access. In this lies a belief widely held by many farmers and consumers regardless of party affiliation: a resilient food system is one that values conservation, ecologically-sound practices, human and animal welfare, and equitable access to basic needs. In most of our eight meetings with congressional staffers from both political parties, there was consensus that the needs of our vulnerable farms and food systems must be addressed. For me, these earnest interactions confirmed that sustainable agriculture, encompassing organic and regenerative practices, seems to have recognition as a nonpartisan bright spot in a difficult Congress.

Prioritizing Farmer-Driven Research Through Legislation

During the lobby day, OFRF staff and members of NSAC met with Leslie Deavers, Chief of Staff to the Associate Chief and Rebekah Lauster, Chief of Staff for the Office of the Regional Conservationists to discuss NRCS’ strategies on field staff recruitment and retention. OFRF is proud to be able to work with these partners to ensure high quality services for farmers.

A recurring topic of conversation in our meetings was how organic agriculture research overlaps with the needs of nonorganic producers. If we relate food systems policy initiatives to formative research principles and human-centered design, it’s clear that research objectives and dissemination methods should explicitly fit the needs and capacity of the “end user”. While trending tech-research exploring artificial intelligence and precision agriculture has the potential to transform our foodscape, it is essential that we recognize the immediate limitations of small and mid-sized producers’ ability to access such technologies. I appreciate the University of South Dakota’s researchers’ policy advice to approach agriculture research with a social justice framework, ensuring that we do not leave behind the farming communities most in need. Amid the complex challenges we face in today’s food system, we must prioritize farmer-centered approaches to address wicked problems.

The research sector represents an ever-important industry whose work directly impacts the economic and working lives of farmers and rural communities. It is essential that investments in agriculture research reflect both the economic and production needs of the farmers it aims to support. One particularly salient issue is the dwindling number of new small and midsize farmers—how can advocates and researchers best meet the needs of smallholder and beginning farmers, and ensure that they have a viable path forward? 

81% of BIPOC farmers and 63% of beginning farmers surveyed in OFRF’s 2022 National Organic Research Agenda specified that “managing production costs” is a significant production challenge. Among non-production challenges, “accessing labor” and “finding and developing markets for organic products” were among the top concerns for all surveyed farming demographics. A study from the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) on the Profit Potential of Certified Organic Field Crop Production and University of Vermont’s study on labor management decisions for small and mid-sized farms are just two examples of how federally-funded research can address these key challenges.

Closing Thoughts

Advocating for farmers requires more than rhetoric; it requires tangible action and systemic change. Following the lobby day meetings, I feel inspired to dig deeper into USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) local food systems and organic production data as a means of informing my own advocacy work. You can get involved too, simply by calling your Representative and Senators to ask their offices to check in on the status of Organic Research in the upcoming Farm Bill and Appropriations negotiations. You can find their contact info here! Small actions by many people are what make this work possible. And if you’re interested in getting more involved, reach out to Gordon at gordon@ofrf.org!

By |2024-02-12T14:19:15+00:00February 12th, 2024|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

From Regulations to Legislation: Advocating for Organic Agriculture in 2024

The dawn of a new year always brings new opportunities. This year, we are continuing our work to advocate for expanded public investments in organic agriculture research. To be honest, 2024’s political landscape is admittedly daunting:

  • FY24 appropriations still need to be passed by the end of the month.
  • The Farm Bill is running up against a new March deadline.
  • The FY25 appropriations process is about to begin.
  • There’s a Presidential election on the horizon.

That being said, at OFRF, we see these events as opportunities to ensure organic agriculture gets the recognition it deserves.

As we highlighted last month, 2023 was a momentous year for organic policy development in the regulatory space. In 2024, we hope to bring that momentum to the legislative body and work with our coalition partners to amplify our voices and call for increased public investments in organic agriculture research.

To do this, we have two primary initiatives. First, we will continue to build broad support for the Organic Science and Research Investment (OSRI) Act in the Senate and the Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR) Act in the House. If you still need to get familiar with these significant marker bills, check out those links for an overview and some information on how you can help spread awareness about them. Second, we are committed to ensuring that appropriators comprehend the urgent need for increased funding in agricultural research and the far-reaching impact these investments have on the nation- economically, ecologically, and socially.

Including the SOAR and OSRI Acts in the 2024 Farm Bill is more than just a step forward in achieving parity between organic agriculture’s share of USDA research funding (currently <2%) and its market share (>6%). More importantly, these investments will touch the lives of communities nationwide.

Agricultural research programs extend beyond answering producers’ queries or supporting early-career scientists—although they excel at both. These programs significantly benefit the rural communities actively participating in and hosting vital research projects. Notably, every dollar invested in public agricultural research generates an impressive $20 of benefits. Despite this documented impact, public funding for agricultural research has seen a 20% decline since the turn of the century, in stark contrast to increased funding in other research areas during the same period.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, we are intensifying our efforts in appropriations advocacy, ensuring that the offices of appropriators understand the critical importance and impact of the programs under their control.

However, for us to maximize our effectiveness, we need your help! If you have a story involving a research finding, participation in a research project, or a persistent research question that needs answering, please use our story form to contribute and help us raise awareness!

As always, please reach out if you want to get involved or are curious about our work! gordon@ofrf.org

Eat well,

Gordon

By |2024-01-12T15:01:07+00:00January 12th, 2024|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

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,

Gordon

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