Introducing the Organic Researcher Spotlight Series

Written by Brian Geier

OFRF recognizes the power of stories to affect change. We have embarked on a project to collect and share the stories of researchers, specifically those whose work is embedded within the organic community. In this effort, we are happy to introduce this first Organic Researcher Spotlight. Our Researcher Spotlight Series showcases current research being done on some of the toughest challenges faced by organic producers across the country. Through a series of interviews, OFRF is sharing updates and results from exciting collaborative research projects currently being funded by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Organic Transitions Program (ORG).

Organic farmers consistently report that pests are one of the most challenging aspects of organic production, especially in the south. For farmers producing small fruits like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and stone fruits like peaches or cherries, the Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD), an invasive fly of Asian origin, has been causing damage to crops since its first documented presence in the United States, in 2008. 

Photo: University of Georgia Department of Entomology

Dr. Ash Sial, University of Georgia blueberry entomologist, has heard and seen this damage first-hand working with farmers in the region. To respond to this emerging pest and to provide answers to how to control the pest organically, Dr. Sial leads the “SWD Organic Management” grant, collaborating with researchers across the country and with farmers in the south.

This OREI-funded research focuses on understanding the life-cycle of this pest, and builds a groundwork of understanding of how the fly is (or is not) surviving on farms. Working collaboratively with organic farmers in the region, Dr. Sial’s research is identifying how certain cultural and physical controls, like pruning strategies and mulches, can effectively control this newly-introduced pest. Watch OFRF’s interview with Dr. Sial from early 2023:

For more information about SWD, check out OFRF’s factsheet, watch this SWD presentation by Dr. Sial, and learn more about his work on SWD at the University of Georgia.

By |2024-06-18T18:19:11+00:00June 7th, 2023|News|

OFRF Planted the Seed and a Research Network Grew

Nothing says summer like fresh picked sweet corn. That’s why organic farmers consider it crucial for attracting customers to their market stands and CSAs. However, farmers growing sweet corn in cool climates face unique challenges. They need varieties with superior cold germination, disease and pest resistance, early vigor to out-compete weeds, and of course, flavor.

When Martin Diffley couldn’t find an organic sweet corn variety that would tolerate his Minnesota farm’s cool soils, he contacted Dr. Bill Tracy in the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin for help. The university was working on sweet corn breeding and the meeting with Diffley led to a grant proposal to OFRF requesting funding to conduct trials on Diffley’s farm. In 2008, OFRF awarded Tracy and his team a $14,795 grant for a participatory plant breeding project to improve sweet corn for organic farmers in cool climates. This initial grant led to several additional research projects with significant impacts in the world of organic seed breeding and an important research network that continues today.

The effect of OFRF’s grant program is like one kernel of corn. A single seed grows into multiple cobs and from there it grows organically and exponentially. From one seed arises the potential for so much sustenance.

Tracy worked with three organic farmers to evaluate a methodology for participatory plant breeding to improve farmer skills and involvement in on-farm breeding. The farmers who partnered with Tracy gained the skills to initiate and manage on-farm breeding projects themselves and have been sharing this knowledge with other growers through organic breeding workshops.

OFRF grants to researchers at the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Washington in 2010 (Micaela Colley, $15,000) and 2011 (Jared Zystro, $12,000) funded the development of a toolkit to help farmers and researchers succeed in participatory organic plant breeding projects. Tracy and Diffley collaborated on both projects. Jim Myers at Oregon State University also collaborated on the research. The toolkit they developed is available at

OFRF grants paved the way for a new open-pollinated sweet corn variety called, “Who Gets Kissed?” that arrived on the market in 2014. This best-seller yields well, tolerates cool soils, resists common rust and corn smut, and is absolutely delicious. Because it’s an open-pollinated variety, growers can save and select seed from their “Who Gets Kissed?” harvests to adapt the variety to their own conditions and market needs.

The new variety is just one of the positive outcomes of the work that grew from OFRF’s initial grant.

Funding innovative work at the early stages becomes enhanced and very impactful when researchers are able to continue to work at a larger scale. Outcomes from the OFRF-funded projects helped leverage $2.3M in funding from USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) to establish the Northern Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC). The research collaborators include Dr. Bill Tracy and Dr. Erin Silva from the University of Wisconsin; Dr. Jim Myers and Lane Selman from Oregon State University; Laurie McKenzie, Micaela Colley, and Jared Zystro from Organic Seed Alliance, and Dr. Michael Mazourek from Cornell University. These researchers engage farmers around four hubs (OR, WA, WI, and NY) in breeding and trialing of a variety of vegetables. Results include a new multiple-disease-resistant tomato “Iron Lady,” several other vegetable varieties, increased markets for varieties that performed well in on-farm trials, as well as many advanced breeding lines with improved tolerance to temperature extremes and other desired traits.

NOVIC Impacts
2 New commercial organic varieties released
8 Crops being developed for organic agriculture
8 Graduate students trained in NOVIC who now work in the organic seed industry
19 States reached with in-depth trainings
40 States where new NOVIC organic varieties have been sold
80 NOVIC events and presentations

With another OREI grant of $2M, NOVIC II continues working to improve the profitability of organic farmers and the quality of organic produce for consumers.

Public funding such as OREI—and private funding from organizations like OFRF—are critical to training the next generation of scientists and developing new talent.

The future success of organic agriculture depends on breeders, who will work to develop new varieties for organic and low-external-input systems. Unfortunately, according to Rural Advancement International, public plant breeding programs have been reduced by a third in recent years. Three private firms now control more than half of the global seed market, up from 22 percent in 1996. This is troublesome as the private sector will focus mainly on researching and developing major commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, while ignoring more diversified crops such as fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Tracy and his colleague Dr. Erin Silva, an Organic and Sustainable Cropping Systems Specialist, recently spoke at a Congressional briefing in Washington, DC about the impact public investment in organic research is having on both organic and conventional farmers. Dr. Silva received a $20,000 grant from OFRF in 2016 to research how symbiotic microbes increase plants’ access to vital nutrients. Tracy and Silva join OFRF and other organic stakeholders in supporting the bipartisan Organic Agriculture Research Act, which would raise funding for OREI in the next Farm Bill from $20 million to $50 million annually.

For nearly three decades, OFRF has been at the forefront of the organic movement. Through our advocacy work we’ve helped shape policies and develop programs that support organic farmers. In 2017, OFRF awarded Tracy and his research team a grant of $3,588 to survey sweet corn growers in the U.S. about their strategies for managing corn earworm. The data will be shared in an extension publication and inform longer-term efforts of developing earwormresistant sweet corn cultivars for organic farmers. OFRF has invested $3.2 million in 337 grants. All of our research results and educational materials are available at

By |2020-01-08T18:12:49+00:00September 27th, 2019|Case Study|

OFRF Grants: Participatory Plant Breeding for Organic Whole Grains

Field crops such as wheat, which are grown on large-scale acreage, present organic growers with unique challenges in managing weeds, pests, and fertility. Dr. Stephen Jones, a professor at Washington State University and Director of the WSU Bread Lab, received OFRF research grants between 2001 and 2003 in support of his development of organic wheat varieties. Jones and his team have produced wheat with higher than typical levels of iron and other micronutrients.

Dr. Kevin Murphy, who is also a professor at WSU, received an OFRF grant in 2010 for his farmer-based evolutionary participatory plant breeding project for organic quinoa, buckwheat, and spelt. Murphy’s webinar, Organic Quinoa Production, continues to be a valuable resource for farmers interested in the basics of quinoa production.

Murphy received another grant from OFRF in 2014 in support of his work to identify barley breeding lines most adapted to organic farmers in Washington State and Northern Idaho. This project includes an elite team of chef collaborators that are working with the research team and farmers to test flour from the different barley lines for both performance and flavor.

By |2020-01-08T18:13:18+00:00September 18th, 2019|Case Study|

Research Explores Biological Control Against Fusarium Pathogens in Corn

The pathogenic fungus Fusarium threatens the integrity of corn crops in the form of blights and by producing mycotoxins, which can affect human and animal health if they enter the food chain. Efforts to control its spread are complicated because the fungus often resides in seeds; however, biological control microorganisms offer a promising organic alternative to chemical seed treatments.

In the Fall of 2013, OFRF awarded Lucas Nebert, a PhD candidate at the University of Oregon, a $13,000 grant to explore the use of indigenous seed-inhabiting microorganisms as biological control agents against Fusarium in corn. With field research completed in 2014, Nebert spent most of 2015 processing the seed and plant samples for DNA-based pathogen detection and next-generation DNA sequencing. He submitted his final report to OFRF in January.

Nebert conducted field trials with organic farmers Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger of Adaptive Seeds, and Jeff Bramlett and Carri Heisler of Pitchfork and Crow. The collaborating organic farmers grow Cascade Ruby-Gold, a hardy, open-pollinated flint corn variety that was bred and adapted to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The farms, which were not afflicted with noticeable Fusarium pathogen pressure, were used to test the overall health of treated plants, and the persistence of microbial inoculants across generations. Ultimately, the goal was for the methods employed in this research to be transferrable to other local efforts for preventative management of seed-borne diseases.

“With the advent of better DNA methods such as next-generation DNA sequencing, we are able to study microbial ecology for more depth and clarity than ever before,” said Nebert. “In agriculture, we can use this technology to understand how practices affect the composition and integrity of microbial communities in the soil and inside our crops.”

While research into seedborne microbes is still in its infancy, Nebert and his team hope to generate more interest with the Community Research Network, which enables OP corn seed growers to submit seeds for microbial community analysis. To date, they have received 70 seed samples from over a dozen corn varieties, which are being processed in parallel with seed and crown samples from the OFRF funded experiment. This larger data set, which includes over 10 million DNA sequences, will enable Nebert to conduct broader experiments across cultivars, geographies and farming methods. The data will be shared freely online.

The University of Oregon granted Nebert a full-year fellowship for 2015-2016 to expand the Community Research Network and develop a business or non-profit for testing seedborne microbes. “We will continue to take the methods and insights we learned from the OFRF funded project to build capacity for larger-scale testing of microbes,” said Nebert.

Conclusions from the study are available in Nebert’s report: Managing indigenous seed-inhabiting microbes for biological control against Fusarium pathogens in corn.


By |2020-01-08T18:13:18+00:00September 16th, 2019|Case Study|
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