U.S. demand for organic food is growing rapidly, but organic farmers are faced with a host of challenges to keep pace — challenges that demand more research, according to organic proponents.
The Organic Farming Research Foundation was founded 27 years ago to address the need for research funding and the gap in agricultural knowledge as it pertained to organic systems, said Brise Tencer, the foundation’s executive director.
At that time, the organic sector was starting to grow and there was basically no organic research happening, she said.
The foundation not only funds grants for organic research and educational projects, it advocates on behalf of organic farmers at the federal level and disseminates information on growers’ research needs to policymakers and universities.
It lobbied for dedicated organic research funding created in the 2002 Farm Bill, which has grown slowly but steadily from $3 million annually to $20 million annually.
But that’s only a fraction of USDA’s research budget of about $3 billion annually. At a bare minimum, the foundation would like to see research funding at least proportionate to the organic sector’s market share, which is about 5 percent to 6 percent of U.S. food sales, she said.
There is some organic research happening outside of the federally dedicated funding, but it’s still incredibly small, she said.
The organic sector is thriving, and there is boundless untapped opportunity for more production. U.S. supply isn’t keeping pace with demand, and imports are filling some of the gap. More organic farmers and acreage would be a win for farmers, U.S. agriculture and the environment, she said.
But research is needed for new practices and tools to address the challenges in organic farming systems, she said.
“The only way to address these research needs is by additional investment,” she said.
To help significantly increase funding for research and to guide that research, the foundation has developed new recommendations to meet the evolving needs of organic growers based on feedback from organic producers.
The foundation’s survey of farmers found soil health and weed management are the top research priorities nationwide, followed by fertility and nutrient management, nutritional quality of organic food and insect management.
In its 2016 National Organic Research Agenda report, the foundation provides comprehensive recommendations for investment in research into those areas. It also includes recommendations for addressing other concerns such as climate change, food safety, GMO impacts and seed availability as well as regional priorities, including pollinator health and barriers to market entry.
Needs out West
In the western region, a top priority is research on irrigation efficiency and coping with drought.
“Many growers, especially those in California, listed the impact of the drought as their biggest production challenge. Growers also expressed concerns about weather fluctuations and unpredictability caused by climate change,” the report states.
Western organic farmers identified needed water-related research in the following areas:
• Tracking water quantity, increasing soil water retention, water storage grant funding, and design for drought resistance
• Coping with high salinity soils caused by drought
• Absorption and soil moisture maintenance
• The impact of drought on pasture management
• Increasing compost to reduce water use
• The correct timing and type of irrigation to reduce water use
• Drought and pasture management
• The effects of drought on soil and grass health.
Western producers also shared concerns voiced nationwide, stating a need for research into soil health and the management of nutrients, weeds, insects and disease.
The foundation’s regional recommendations for western research, extension and education include continuing long-term research on soil health with a focus on nutrient and water management and prioritizing research on production practices that increase carbon sequestration.
It also recommends prioritizing research on sustainable weed control, especially for resistant and invasive weeds, noting the use of tillage and plant and animal rotation are of special interest.
Investment in research on disease and pest problems of high importance in California and continued efforts in plant breeding specific to organic production and management of disease and insects are also on the foundation’s advisory list.
Also recommended are increased research and extension efforts to provide for all aspects of animal production, especially in rotational and grass-fed animals.
Finally, the foundation recommends providing beginning and transitioning organic producers with the tools, knowledge and ongoing mentoring to be successful.
To view the full report, visit www.ofrf.org