by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Successful organic farming depends upon keeping pace with new development in research. But how useful is the research? How can researchers know that their efforts are helping organic farmers profit? Recently, e-Organic presented a webinar, “Taking Stock: Analyzing and Reporting Organic Research Investments, 2002-2014” to present their findings on the topic.
Drs. Diana Jerkins, Joanna Ory and Mark Schonbeck presented the webinar. Jerkins is the research director for Organic Farming Research Foundation. Ory is a research associate and Schonbeck is a research consultant with the organization.
“When we were founded, the organic industry was still at its beginnings,” Ory said. “Research is critical to organic advances. It’s not only valuable for organic producers. Traditional growers can learn from organic advances.”
The organization researched 189 organic agriculture research, education and extension projects funded by the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Organic Transitions (ORG).
“We wanted to do a deep dive into these projects to answer our research questions,” Ory said. “These projects have had a very valuable contribution to organic farmers. There was a very high demand for organic research which is why the OREI has been continued and expanded in the farm bill.”
She said U.S. organic sales demonstrate the increase in the industry. For example, from 2005 to 2015, retail sales of organic foods grew from $12.5 billion to more than $35 billion and the largest category of organic foods purchased are fruits and vegetables. Produce also showed the greatest growth during that period.
Ory added that because organic produce demand has grown so dramatically, the benefits for growers are stronger than ever. Sales of organic fruits and vegetables were $43.3 billion last quarter.
“These programs have created and strengthened community practices,” Ory said.
She added they have brought:

  • New information, tools, techniques, seeds, and materials for organic producers.
  • New outreach opportunities or methods to deliver project outcomes to producers and other stakeholders.
  • Intermediary research outcomes that are not yet ready for delivery to farmers but provide a foundation for additional research and development of new tools or practices.
  • New or strengthened networks or communities of practice comprised of producers, researchers, service providers and other stakeholders.

To properly evaluate the merit of organic agriculture studies, her organization examined what the USDA-funded research has accomplished the past 12 years, what organic research priorities were addressed, whether organic growers were engaged as equal partners in the research, if the projects yielded practical outcomes for farmers and other stakeholders and if project products were effectively delivered to producers.
Ory said evaluating previous organic research projects can help researchers plan future projects that will benefit organic growers, as well as help the USDA plan fund distribution better. From 2002 to 2014, USDA funding favored land grant universities and the west, north central, and northeastern regions.
Most research has targeted organic crops — 71 percent — with only 19 percent focusing on feed crops and livestock and 10 percent on livestock and poultry. Most research projects have studied soil, such as fertility, nutrient management, soil quality, soil life and crop nutrition.
Organic livestock and poultry studies focused on animal nutrition and health, pasture and grazing management, livestock-crop integration, NOP-compliant systems, and multi-systems.
While these areas of research resonate with many farmers, Ory and her fellow researchers wanted to see “which are areas where additional research should be done.”
Breeding and genetics were among the research projects, including crop breeding and livestock and poultry breeding.
The subjects of study among crops include vegetables (64 projects), fruit (31), nuts (1), cut flowers/ornamentals (1) and medicinal and culinary herbs (1).
Jerkins said the “highest level of research reflects the type of organic farming nationwide. From an agronomic standpoint, soybean, corn and wheat received the majority of funding, so in addition to vegetables, these are the next highly produced organic crops.”
She added cotton and rice are increasing in demand for organic production and this is “significantly underfunded for crops increasing in volume and demand over time.
“Much fewer grants were funded compared with plants. Dairy received much higher, which is appropriate with the demand and high production across the country in most regions.”
She hopes student research projects on working farms, monthly grower-ag professional tele-conferences and farmer-designed and farmer-led “farm walks” help farmers engage more with research and with the public.
Jerkins said the OFRF recommends “increasing investment, especially in the areas of public crop cultivar development for organic systems, livestock health and breeding and soil health, weed management, and climate change mitigation in organic systems.”
She recommended for USDA research funding a continued encouragement of innovative approaches to farmer engagement, more representation of commodities like pork, beef, rice and cotton which at present receive little representation, and under-served regions like the South and minority constituencies.
Jerkins hopes the USDA will “review efficacy of large, complex projects versus smaller projects in yielding farmer-ready practical outcomes.”
Schonbeck noted that organic research benefits all farmers.
“Even if a farmer chooses to not be organic and wants to use synthetic chemicals as a last resort” they can still benefit, he said.
He pointed out the South has less agricultural research to help organic farmers because it’s harder to go organic in the region. But perhaps because they lack research specific to their region, they don’t use the most effective growing practices.
“It’s like which came first, the chicken or the egg?” he mused.