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 |2024-06-18T17:59:09+00:00March 20th, 2024|Education, News|

Organic Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Amaya Atucha

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

Written by Brian Geier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By |2024-06-18T18:05:05+00:00November 28th, 2023|Education, News|

Conservation Agriculture webinar series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Webinar 8: Practical Conservation Tillage for Organic Cropping Systems

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

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

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

By |2024-06-18T18:05:17+00:00November 20th, 2023|Education, News|

Farming for the birds

Study shows how organic growers and wild birds can benefit one another

Written by Heather Estrada, OFRF Research & Education Senior Scientist

Organic producers rely on natural biological controls as a key component of their Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies against crop pests. Because wild insectivorous birds play a substantial role in biocontrol of many pests, organic producers often maintain natural areas or install perennial habitat plantings such as hedgerows and field borders to encourage diverse wild bird populations. However, in addition to some birds directly damaging crops, food safety and animal health concerns have been raised because wild birds can carry pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that affect humans and livestock.  

Researcher Jeb Owen holds a yellow Tanager bird in his hands. He is wearing a red raincoat, smiling at the camera, standing in a marshy area in front of a body of water.

Dr. Jeb Owen, holding a Tanager.

In 2015, a group of researchers from Dr. Jeb Owen’s lab at Washington State University received a USDA NIFA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) research grant to investigate the costs and benefits of encouraging wild bird populations on organic farms. The goals of the Avian Biodiversity: Impacts, Risks and Descriptive Survey (A-BIRDS) project were threefold: 1) to identify the relationship between wild bird biodiversity and farm-level management practices, 2) to determine the role of insectivorous wild birds in controlling insect pests, and 3) to assess the risk presented by wild birds in spreading pathogens that endanger human and livestock health.  

Researchers conducted in-depth surveys of species diversity, prey consumption, and the occurrence of fecal pathogens in wild bird populations over a three-year period on 52 organic farms in CA, OR, and WA.  Highly diversified and organic vegetable-only and vegetable-livestock integrated farms with a range of field sizes, proportions of natural areas, and overall diversity of the agroecosystem landscape, were included in the survey. 

Results suggest that more natural habitat in the farm landscape increased the density of native bird species and reduced the density of non-native species, which have the potential to be invasive. Farms with livestock consistently supported greater bird density and diversity, which was most pronounced in farms with the least amount of natural area. The increased bird density and diversity on crop-livestock farms may be attributed to a combination of common factors: smaller farm size, greater landscape diversity, and more integration of woody crops compared to crop-only farms.

The next phase of this project involved the collection and DNA analysis of 1,200 bird fecal samples from participating farms. Results showed that wild birds consumed 30 orders of insects, including 103 insect species that are known to be crop pests, confirming that birds can perform important agroecosystem services through the biological control of insect pests. Finally, some 3,200 samples of bird feces were tested for Campylobacter spp., Salmonella spp., and Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. Bird feces commonly (10% of samples) carried Campylobacter, and rarely carried Salmonella or Shiga toxin-forming pathogenic E. coli (STEC). Campylobacter increased with livestock density but decreased with the extent of natural areas on the farm, which highlights the potential for natural habitat to reduce crop contamination by birds.

Overall, these findings indicate that maintaining natural areas and a patchwork landscape with small fields bordered by natural areas can enhance wild bird populations and potential predation on insect pests without contributing to food safety risks. This research has been published widely in academic journals and shared to farmer audiences through numerous extension talks.

By |2024-06-18T18:08:48+00:00October 19th, 2023|Education, News|
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