News

OFRF Awarded USDA NRCS Cooperative Agreement

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

OFRF has been awarded a USDA NRCS cooperative agreement to cultivate conservation excellence and empower organic producers nationwide. The collaborative initiative strengthens NRCS capabilities and enhances support for organic farmers through innovative training, resources, and community engagement.

(May 16, 2024) The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) is pleased to announce its five-year cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to enhance organic agriculture businesses’ access to vital conservation programs.

OFRF will provide expertise in organic research and conservation practices, supporting NRCS in building institutional knowledge of the conservation considerations of organic management at NRCS offices and with regional partners. Additionally, it will increase awareness among organic producers of the technical and financial assistance available through USDA to meet holistic resource management goals. 

“Ensuring federal conservation programs work for and are utilized by organic farmers is an essential way to expand and enhance regenerative organic practices on the ground,” stated OFRF Executive Director Brise Tencer.  

OFRF will work in partnership with Oregon Tilth and other regional partners, representing a combined $5 million investment by NRCS to bolster organic expertise and expand resources for transitioning farmers. 

This cooperative agreement will establish a new NRCS Liaison role at OFRF, who will serve as a critical resource and communicator for the project. The liaison will review NRCS materials, develop educational resources for organic producers, and present at national events.

Additionally, throughout this initiative, OFRF will:

  • Review and improve NRCS resources on organic farming practices and soil health management, and share the latest research on organic agricultural practices.
  • Equip NRCS with a suite of training materials and educational resources that build capacity within the agency and address the priorities and needs of BIPOC farmers.
  • Ensure NRCS organic resources and conservation standards reflect the latest research findings.
  • Engage with farmers, Organic Coordinators, and Certifiers nationwide to increase knowledge of and access to NRCS organic programs and resources.

“This partnership is going to allow OFRF to continue our work of ensuring that NRCS conservation programs recognize the conservation benefits of organic agricultural management while also increasing our efforts to ensure that organic producers are aware of and utilize the significant supports NRCS has to offer,” shared OFRF Senior Policy and Programs Manager Gordon Merrick, who will be acting as lead on this project.

OFRF is uniquely poised to provide training, technical information, and educational resources, including guidance and organic farmer stories, that will improve the capacity of the NRCS staff to assist organic producers in implementing conservation practices.

“We are thrilled to be partnering again with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to further this goal,” Tencer stated.

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About Organic Farming Research Foundation

About OFRF: The Organic Farming Research Foundation works to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems. OFRF cultivates organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production. For more information about OFRF, please visit our website: http://www.ofrf.org/

Media Contact:
Ashley Dulaney, Communications Director, OFRF
ashley@ofrf.orf, ‪(518) 565-0156‬
P.O. Box 440, Santa Cruz, CA 95061

By |2024-05-16T17:20:59+00:00May 16th, 2024|News, Press Release|

Win-Win for Everyone

Today we’re sharing a guest blog post from the Chair of OFRF’s Board of Directors, Keith Richards.

From 1993-2020, Keith worked for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group where he helped strengthen organic and sustainable farming in the Southern U.S. In his capacity as Program Director, he coordinated thousands of conference sessions and training projects to meet the needs of family farmers and community-based organizations. Prior to his work with Southern SAWG, Keith was the marketing manager for the Ozark Organic Growers Association, a coop of small organic farmers in the Ozarks bioregion. In the 1980s he helped develop a sustainable training farm in mid-Missouri and later managed an organic farm in northern California. He grew up in a farming community in northern Iowa.

Why I Support Organic Farming

As an idealist at heart, I’m attracted to pursuits of perfection and can be drawn into discussions of endless possibilities. But when it comes to giving my time or my money, I’m pretty practical. That’s why I chose a career in sustainable agriculture early on. A healthy agriculture that makes good use of resources and sustains life seems like a “no-brainer” for a civilized society, and it appalls me to see us get it wrong. So I’ve been working for 40 years to make it right. 

It’s also why I support OFRF. This organization is making it easier for farmers to use organic methods by elevating organic research as a priority in our national consciousness, in our universities, and on farms across America. Through research, education and advocacy, OFRF takes a holistic approach that produces practical results in ways that directly help farmers become better stewards and produce safer food. That’s a win for everyone… and something that feeds my idealism.  

For the past 10 years, I’ve contributed to OFRF through annual donations and as a board member, serving as treasurer, and now, as chair of the board. I invite you to join in this exciting work with me. You may not have the time or inclination to serve on the OFRF board, but you can still support our work in ways that fit your giving preference, including:  

And if the traditional cash donation route is what you prefer, you can always do that on the OFRF website at any time.

I hope you’ll join me in pursuit of organic perfection,

Keith

By |2024-05-16T18:23:21+00:00May 16th, 2024|News|

Farmer Led Trials Program Spotlight: Green Things Farm Collective

Written by Jose Perez, OFRF’s Research & Education Engagement Coordinator

Nathan Lada is one of the four co-owners of Green Things Farm Collective, a diversified vegetable farm located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The farmers produce an array of fresh market vegetables and cut flowers for CSA memberships, farmers’ markets, small grocery and small wholesale markets. The bulk of the production takes place in five acres of permanent no till/low till, deep mulch bed system from early April to October. The farmers also raise beef cattle and manage 40 acres of woods.

Nathan and his wife Jill started farming in this farm location in 2011, but the farm became what it is now when a longtime employee and two other independent farmers joined them in 2020. Since then, they have managed the farm as a single-unit LLC. The farm has been certified organic under the USDA since 2015, and has been Real Organic Project certified since 2020.

At right: Collective Farmers in 2020: Eric Kampe (left the farm in 2022), Hannah Weber, Jill Lada, Nate Lada, Michelle Brosius.

Figuring out plant spacing and densities

“Our primary focus is producing high-yielding species and varieties with lots of hand labor,” said Nathan. The farm operation employs between 15 to 20 people in the main season with the goal of maximizing production. “It’s hard to find information from other growers about their trials on spacing and plant densities, especially for high organic matter, high fertility, and fast turnover bed systems,” continued Nathan. When he heard about OFRF’s Farmer-Led Trial program from one of his employees, it immediately piqued his interest. 

While the farm has done some limited experiments, they do not have comprehensive data to help them determine which row spacings are best for their production practices. Nathan and his colleagues hope that maximizing yield per bed will help the farm increase production without needing to develop new growing spaces. Nathan is excited to see the results and share the outcome of this trial with other growers looking for similar information.

“I think it is important that farms can conduct their own trials and research in a practical way to figure out what will work best under their cultivation systems.  Our opportunity to work with OFRF will not only inform us about specific densities to improve production on our farm, but will also hopefully inform a repeatable pathway for us and others to make small improvements to our production based on practical farm-based trials that are simple and bring value to the farm.” – Nathan Lada

Farm trial plan

Beets and radishes are the focus of the farm trial because they are among the most produced crops at the farm, being planted in succession every week or every other week during the season. Although the farm already collects yield and some crop quality data per bed, conducting the on-farm trial with OFRF will provide the direct technical support to be more methodical and comprehensive in designing the farm trial, conducting data collection, and drawing trustworthy results. 

Preliminary farm trial plans include comparing two crop configurations for one beet variety and two crop configurations for two varieties of radishes for yield and crop marketability. Potential measurements identified include overall yield (bunches per bed, pounds per bed), losses due to undersized or oversized crops, losses to disease, days to maturity, and crop quality.

The farmers have participated in on-farm research in the past, but felt that those trials did not reflect farm working conditions. One goal Nathan expressed was to integrate the trial into their existing production plan, so OFRF is working with Nathan and his team to design an on-farm trial that is both useful and practical for the farm without disrupting their seasonal production. At OFRF, we are excited to be a part of Green Things Farm Collective’s journey, and hope that their work will inspire more farmers to conduct research trials on their farms.

This story is part of a series profiling farmers who are taking part in OFRF’s Farmer Led Trials (FLT) program. Farmers receive technical support from OFRF to address their challenges through structured on-farm trials. To learn more about OFRF Farmer Led Trials Program, visit our website page at https://ofrf.org/research/farmer-led-research-trials/

By |2024-05-13T14:01:12+00:00May 10th, 2024|Farmer Stories, 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|

What to Know about High Tunnels for Vegetable Production in the Southeast

Written by Mary Hathaway, OFRF’s Research and Education Program Manager, and based on eOrganic Webinar by Dr. Zhao on Adapting and Expanding High Tunnel Organic Vegetable Production for the Southeast

I am excited to share some new research findings on high tunnel production for organic vegetables in the Southeast region. But before we get into those findings, let’s answer a couple of FAQs: what exactly are high tunnels, and why are they important? High tunnels (HTs), sometimes referred to as protected culture systems, are commonly used for season extension and/or production of high-value crops. High tunnels are increasingly being utilized by organic growers for their many benefits, such as crop protection and improved crop quality. While HTs are generally regarded as a tool for production management, they can also aid farmers with risk management and act as a resource conservation practice. 

One reason why high tunnel use may be growing in popularity is the availability of funding from the USDA-NRCS EQIP High Tunnel System Initiative. This NRCS program has been pivotal in providing the funding and support needed to access this season-extension tool that can be a real game changer for farm operations. As someone who has gone through the process first-hand of receiving and building a high tunnel, I can attest that the program is worth any of the front-end paperwork, and helps growers improve their infrastructure while gaining many positive ecological benefits. High tunnels can provide many benefits, including protecting your crops from extreme fluctuations in weather

Reasons to consider a high tunnel for your operation:

✓ Extend the growing season

✓ Improve plant quality and soil quality

✓ Reduce nutrient and pesticide transportation

✓ Improve air quality through reduced transportation inputs

✓ Reduce energy use by providing consumers with a local source of fresh produce

Unique Challenges in the Southeast

While high tunnels may provide positive benefits, growers in the Southeast face several challenges when implementing HT in their growing systems. These challenges are typically related to airflow and managing excessive heat stress, humidity, pests, and diseases. I have experienced some of these challenges first-hand at my small-scale vegetable production farm in Central Florida. It is no easy thing to deal with the excess humidity and fluctuating pest and disease pressures, so I was excited to see new research led by Dr. Xin Zhao focused on “Adapting and Expanding High Tunnel Organic Vegetable Production for the Southeast” (more specifically, Florida and Georgia). This body of work is thanks to a collaboration by researchers from the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, Florida A&M University, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service.

Findings

Temperature

Anyone who has ever stepped inside a high tunnel knows that air temperatures are higher inside HTs than outside. One part of this research study entailed comparing different types of shade cloth to determine their effect on mean air temperature within HTs. Interestingly, when comparing silver cloth with black cloth, the mean air temperature was higher in HTs with silver shade cloth. In externally mounted shade cloths with the same shade factor, dry nets provide less cooling than wet nets.  

If it gets too hot, expect plants to die. High root zone temperature (RZT) can influence plant growth and function. Increased air temperature and RZT in the unshaded HTs likely increased plant mortality and reduced plant growth, particularly in plants grown with black mulch. 

Shade cloth brings down the temperature inside your high tunnel, but is still hotter in the day than average outdoor temperatures. HTs with shade cloth had similar soil temperature as outdoor soil temperatures, but shade cloth provided reduced soil temperatures during day and night when compared to non-shaded HTs. No air temperature difference was recorded in the night hours between the two types of HTs. During night hours, soil volumetric water content (VWC) was greater in the shaded tunnel than in the non-shaded tunnel. Soil VWC increased in the shaded tunnel between day and night. Shading did not affect average relative humidity (RH) levels during the day or night. However, relative humidity levels were lower outside during the night than in either of the high tunnels.

Insect pressure

Researchers also looked at the relationships between pests, temperature, and shade in high tunnels. They found that in pac choi trials, the major pest problems were whiteflies, thrips, aphids, and Southern armyworms. Though the number of thrips, whiteflies, aphids, leafhoppers, and predatory flies were similar among shade cloth treatments, they found that both black and silver shade cloths harbored more beneficial parasitoids than unshaded conditions in one study season. The high light conditions in the unshaded treatment may have negatively impacted the parasitoid wasps. Temperatures in HTs may not have an impact on insect pressure. Thrips were the only pest that decreased in number with increasing HT air temperatures. Other insect numbers were variable among shade treatments in increasing air temperatures. 

Researchers also found success in attracting beneficial insects by planting Sweet Alyssum, buckwheat, or marigold at the front and back of leafy green beds and corners of each high tunnel. The push-pull system, including companion planting and refuge planting, is worth further research in high tunnel systems.  

Image credit – ICIPE

The ‘push-pull’ strategy,  uses a combination of behavior-modifying stimuli to manipulate the distribution and abundance of insect pests and/or natural enemies. Pests are repelled or deterred away from the main crop (push) by placement of plants that mask the host or are repellent. The pests are simultaneously attracted (pull), using attractive plantings, to other areas such as traps or trap crops where they are concentrated, facilitating their control.

Photo Credit – UGA Extension

Fogging 

Like shade cloth, water fogging is a technique used to reduce air temperatures in high tunnels and provide evaporative cooling. Fogging systems differ from misting or sprinklers in that they produce a much smaller droplet, and operate at a higher psi. Fogging systems operating at 700-1000 psi produce droplets around 25 microns – as fine as the point of a needle. The smaller the droplet the more quickly it can evaporate. In this study, fogging did not affect average soil temperatures or average air temperatures during the day or night. Plots that received water fogging did show greater soil volumetric water content than those without fogging. Even though fogging systems did not run during night hours, fogged plots also had significantly greater leaf wetness than non-fogged plots in evening hours, which may be a major consideration for disease management in humid climates. Fogging had no impact on average photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD), (a measurement of the amount of light in the portion of the light spectrum utilized by plants for photosynthesis that actually reaches your plants). 

Shade and Light

Shade cloth reduced air temperature, root zone temperature (RZT), and photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD). Tomato plants in HTs need to receive sufficient PPFD to maximize fruit yields, and under the shade cloth the PPFD was below the requirements for tomato leaf photosynthesis, decreasing the marketable tomato yield. To avoid this reduction in necessary PPFD, researchers recommend that externally mounted shade cloths are removed once high air temperatures are no longer a limiting factor, or when daylengths are short and irradiation is low. 

The plastic films that cover HTs do age, and with age the level of light transmittance can change, depending on the quality and plastic film composition. In this study, the HT plastic without any shade cloth reduced PPFD by 36%. It is recommended that the plastic film is washed to prevent excessive light reduction in your HT. 

Finally, when selecting your shade cloth, remember that the net shade factor provided by the manufacturer is based on the photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) transmissivity rather than the solar transmissivity. 

There is more to explore in these research papers, and I am looking forward to more findings and recommendations on the effects of a combined use of compost, cover crops and fertilization to improve long-term soil fertility while supporting the immediate nutrient availability needs of the current crop; more on effective and economical push-pull systems; and how shade and moisture can help expand our growing season. 

This blog used the following sources: 

Díaz-Pérez, Juan Carlos, Sudeep Bag, Timothy Coolong, Xuelin Luo, Amanda Hodges, Mamata Bashyal, Hayley Milner, Naga Charan Konakalla, and Adam Pitcher. “Plant Growth, Fruit Yield, and Tomato Leaf Curl Disease of High Tunnel Organic Tomato Affected by Shade Net and Plastic Mulch Color”. HortScience 59.3 (2024): 323-331. < https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI17516-23>. Web. 5 Mar. 2024.

Laur S, da Silva ALBR, Díaz-Pérez JC, Coolong T. Impact of Shade and Fogging on High Tunnel Production and Mineral Content of Organically Grown Lettuce, Basil, and Arugula in Georgia. Agriculture. 2021; 11(7):625. https://doi.org/10.3390/agriculture11070625

Tian, Shufang, Jeffrey K. Brecht, Bala Rathinasabapathi, and Xin Zhao. “Influence of Soil and Nutrient Management Practices on Crop Productivity and Quality in High Tunnel Organic Leafy Green Production”. HortScience 58.12 (2023): 1610-1621. < https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI17327-23>. Web. 5 Mar. 2024.

By |2024-05-13T13:56:46+00:00May 3rd, 2024|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|

Farmer Led Trials Program Spotlight: Colby Farms

Written by Jose Perez, OFRF’s Research & Education Engagement Coordinator

Tim and Becky Colby own Colby Farms, a 14 acre farm in Papillion, Nebraska, where they produce vegetables, fruits and some livestock products for their community. As beginner and veteran farmers, they are in their second year of transitioning a historically conventional farm to organic production. Having previously farmed in Arizona for 3 years, they came back to Nebraska to tend the land where Becky’s grandfather once farmed.

Tim and Becky have exciting plans for their farm. They hope, in time, to create a farm-to-school program, offer value-added food classes, and build a commercial kitchen. They hope to establish a fruit orchard with apples, peaches and other stone fruits to offer u-pick, as well as raise chickens, goats, bees, and perhaps cows. 

Dealing with soil compaction

The farm is located in a floodplain with clay heavy soil vulnerable to compaction. Decades of conventional corn and soybean rotations have contributed to this problem. Tim and Becky knew from the beginning that they needed to improve soil structure to produce quality crops. A USDA representative also noticed soil compaction and recommended using deep taproot cover crops to address this challenge. 

In their first year at their Nebraska farm, they planted a sorghum sudangrass cover crop, which resulted in a lot of organic matter produced. However, they quickly noticed that the cover crop roots had failed to penetrate the soil beyond the hardpan. 

Tim and Becky had a lot of questions to address regarding the use of cover crops to reduce soil compaction: What cover crop species should they use? How many cover crop cycles are needed? And, would there be any potential weed or pest concerns? Weed pressure is very high due to continuous use of the same crop rotation in the land for over 30 years. Sorghum sudan appeared to provide very good weed suppression but only after mowing three times. On the other hand, they are concerned about possible infestations of Japanese beetles, which have occurred in the past on soybeans. How would the cover crop respond to such an infestation?  This is where their interest in OFRF’s Farmer Led Trials (FLT) Program came in.

Q: What motivated you to apply for the FLT program?

“Being part of the FLT program was a no-brainer for us on our farm. The land on our farm is in desperate need of rejuvenation and planting cover crops is the obvious solution. By partnering with OFRF, not only do we get some funding but we get to create a project that will help us determine the very best cover crops to solve some of our soil health issues. We get expert advice and feedback through all stages of the project from planning, implementing, data collection, and interpreting results. Then, at the end, not only does our Farm get answers to legitimate questions that will improve our soil, but we get to share this data with others that might be asking the same question. FLT’s are a win-win-win scenario for the farmer, the research group, and future farmers that will be able to learn from the data.”   Tim Colby

Farm trial plan

OFRF staff is currently working with Tim and Becky to figure out the best way to establish a cover crop comparison trial that can point towards the best cover crop options for reducing soil compaction at the farm. Using a 2 acre area, preliminary plans are to plant a mix of peas, oats and vetch during spring and make the comparison for the fall season using daikon radish, tillage radish, rye and canola cover crops. Preliminary measures include soil compaction, weed suppression, and soil nutrient levels through lab analysis.

Tim and Becky know that dealing with soil compaction goes beyond just planting deep-rooted cover crops. They have plans to use reduced tillage practices, and create permanent beds and living walkways in order to minimize soil compaction. All these measures will contribute to a healthier soil structure. At OFRF, we are excited to be a part of the Colby’s learning journey, and hope that their work will inspire more farmers to conduct research trials on their farms. 

This story is part of a series profiling farmers who are taking part in OFRF’s Farmer Led Trials (FLT) program. Farmers receive technical support from OFRF to address their challenges through structured on-farm trials. To learn more about OFRF Farmer Led Trials Program, visit our website page at https://ofrf.org/research/farmer-led-research-trials/

By |2024-05-10T12:33:56+00:00April 8th, 2024|Farmer Stories, 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|

Beyond Buzzwords: Organic is Regenerative

You may have heard the term “regenerative” a lot lately in agricultural circles or on food labels at the grocery store. The term has caught the attention of consumers interested in the impact of their food choices, and farmers and policymakers looking for ways to adapt to or mitigate climate change. We are at a unique moment to promote transformative farming practices, but it’s critical to understand what we’re rooting for.

Although the term ‘regenerative’ has gained widespread traction, definitions of the term vary widely. Unfortunately, in some cases, it is used to describe conventional agriculture that adopts a single conservation practice, such as no-till, and labels it regenerative. Changing one practice and calling it regenerative drastically misses the mark of what truly whole-system, regionally-adapted, thoughtfully-practiced organic and regenerative agriculture can be.

Organic farmers have been using regenerative organic practices since long before the terms “organic” or “regenerative” were coined. Yet, as a wave of climate-change awareness sweeps over decision-makers in food and agriculture policy, organic farming is often overlooked as a climate solution. 

Organic agriculture is grounded in principles that collaborate with nature, foster healthy soil, and contribute to clean water, biodiversity, and thriving farm communities; it encompasses the essence of holistic and regenerative farming. At OFRF, we recently embarked on a project to map the synergies between organic and regenerative agriculture practices and develop a messaging toolkit to help organic advocates explain how organic is regenerative. We found three key themes that come together to highlight the critical role that organic agriculture can play in creating a healthy future for people and the planet:

#1 Organic Agriculture Supports a Resilient Planet. It is…

Climate-Friendly:

Nearly 90% of organic farmers use cover crops, which protect soil, help sequester carbon, and prevent erosion. Organic growers also lead the way in crop rotation, intercropping, and green manures, all of which are research-backed methods to improve resilience and increase fertility. 

Healthy for Soils:

Maintaining and improving healthy soil is a core requirement of organic agriculture. The USDA National Organic Program mandates best conservation management practices, including diversified crop rotation, cover cropping, careful nutrient management, and other methods to protect or improve soil health. 

Protective of Biodiversity:

Organic farmers are required to preserve and protect biodiversity and natural resources to replenish or maintain ecological balance on farms. Research has found that organically managed lands have higher rates of both species richness and abundance when compared to conventional cropping systems. Organic farming significantly increases populations of beneficial insects, birds, soil-dwelling organisms, mammals, reptiles, and plants. 

Systems Focused:

Organic production emphasizes overall system health, including clean air, water and soil.  The interaction of management practices is the primary concern, rather than any individual technique. 

#2 Organic Agriculture Builds Healthy Communities. It is…

Good for the Economy:

Organic farms and businesses create jobs throughout the supply chain. In 2022, organic food sales in the United States broke through $60 billion for the first time. And in 2023, total organic sales (including organic non-food products) were a record $67.6 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association’s Organic Industry Survey. The organic sector is expected to remain stable or grow as generations who are conscious about health and the environment prioritize purchasing organic food for their families, especially their children.  

Safer for Farmworkers and Rural Residents:

Organic farms rely on natural inputs, like compost and natural pesticides. Certifiers review all inputs organic farmers plan to use and conduct random tests to ensure no prohibited pesticides are used. These regulations protect farmers, farm workers, neighbors, and nearby waterways from exposure to toxic chemicals. 

Better for People:

Pesticides are designed to be poisons. The properties that make them toxic to insects and weeds can also make them toxic to other forms of life, including people. Eating organic protects people from toxic pesticide and herbicide residue on food products.

Better for Animals:

The use of antibiotics and hormones is prohibited in organic production. Instead, organic producers must use holistic practices to maintain livestock health. Studies show that organic farms harbor fewer antibiotic-resistant microbes than their conventional counterparts, and organic meats are less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional meat products (another health benefit for consumers). 

#3 Organic Agriculture is Trustworthy. It is…

Third-Party Certified:

Organic farming has a legal definition, which makes it a solid tool for holding farmers and food producers accountable to sustainable practices and letting consumers know what they are supporting with their food purchases. To sell products labeled “organic,” farmers and food processors must undergo a rigorous certification process, which includes working with a USDA-accredited third-party certifier which ensures integrity and accountability.

Non-GMO:

Organic is THE choice for consumers wanting to avoid GMOs. Organic certification prohibits farmers from using genetically modified seed and requires practices that prevent contact of organic crops with GMOs.

Tried and True:

Organic farming is not new; many of the methods used in organic farming today have their roots in traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous farming practices. The National Organic Program was created over 30 years ago, informed by decades of experience of farmers and ranchers, soil and plant scientists, food system workers, environmentalists, and consumers. 

Evolving and Improving:

The standards are designed to be responsive to changing needs and continue to evolve. Organic agriculture may not be perfect, but there are built-in pathways for improvement. 

In short, organic agriculture is a powerful tool to address climate change, build healthy communities, and foster a sustainable future that we can trust in. To achieve this future, we must continue to invest in organic agricultural research, products, and farmers. 

By |2024-03-27T20:51:57+00:00March 27th, 2024|News|

Organic Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Dil Thavarajah

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

Written by Brian Geier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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