Organic Broadcaster

Nonprofit supports farmers with resources, access to organic farming research

By Vicki Lowell, Organic Farming Research Foundation

Organic agriculture has been shown to alleviate many of the pressing environmental issues we face today, such as climate change. However, given the small amount of land under organic production, its true impact has yet to be realized. That’s why it’s critical to invest in research, education, and policies that encourage more farmers to transition to organic.

The goal of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), a nonprofit organization founded in 1990, is to advance organic agriculture through scientific research. As a champion of organic farmers across the U.S., we work to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems by cultivating organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production. Through these efforts, we are working to create a more resilient and sustainable agricultural system that values healthy environments and healthy people.

So much has changed since we began nearly 30 years ago. Back then, organic farming research was not a well-studied field, and the USDA was more than a decade away from certifying organically grown products. Here we are today with a Farm Bill that makes significant investments in organic agriculture—including $395 million for organic research and education over the next 10 years.

This increase in federal funding for organic research makes OFRF’s support of innovative work at the early stages more critical than ever. Our seed grants enable researchers to collect the data they need to leverage much larger federal funding to continue to work at a larger scale. One example is the research project led by Dr. Carol Shennan and Dr. Joji Muramoto at the University of California-Santa Cruz to examine organic management of soilborne diseases in strawberry production. This project, initiated with $28,000 in OFRF grants, eventually received $2.8 million in USDA funding.

OFRF is committed to supporting the research needed to meet the current challenges of organic farming and grow the number of organic acres in the U.S.

In 2016, OFRF updated its National Organic Research Agenda (NORA). The report, based on an online survey and listening sessions with over 2,000 organic farmers, provided a comprehensive analysis of the challenges facing today’s organic farmers and the top priorities for future research—soil health emerged on top. The findings of this report not only informed the research projects we selected for funding, it led us to develop a comprehensive educational series of guidebooks and webinars designed to help organic farmers and ranchers enhance soil health and the overall resilience of their operations.

Organic agriculture has long emphasized healthy, living soil as the foundation of sustainable and successful farming. Through research, we now have a better understanding of soil dynamics, soil organic matter (SOM), and soil health. Since 2002, over 100 USDA-funded organic agriculture research projects have addressed soil health and soil management, the findings of which largely validate the four NRCS management principles for soil health:

• Keep the soil covered as much as possible.
• Grow living roots throughout the year.
• Use plant diversity to enhance soil microbial life.
• Avoid disturbing the soil.

OFRF’s Soil Health and Organic Farming series includes nine guidebooks and webinars that help farmers select the best practices for their particular circumstances based on scientific research. Each guide begins with tools and practices set in the context of the challenges and opportunities identified by organic producers in the 2016 NORA report. The guides also include reviews of USDA-funded organic research, future research priorities, and scientific literature references. The series includes the following titles.

Building Organic Matter for Healthy Soils
A soil health 101, if you will, the first topic in the series provides a discussion of the attributes of healthy soil, the central role of organic matter, and how to monitor and enhance soil organic matter and soil health in organic production. The guide summarizes research findings on SOM and soil health in organic farming systems, and outlines some practical applications for organic producers.

 

Weed Management: An Ecological Approach
Tillage and weed cultivation can disrupt soil life, degrade organic matter and tilth, and accelerate erosion. While there is no magic formula or recipe to follow, there is this guide, which offers practical tips for taking an ecological approach to weed management, including tools that reduce the need for soil disturbance.

Practical Conservation Tillage
In addition to physically disturbing the soil and exposing it to the elements, excessive tillage accelerates oxidation of soil organic matter and increases carbon dioxide emissions, disrupts the soil food web, and diminishes the soil’s capacity to hold water and nutrients. This guide offers useful ideas for reducing tillage in organic systems.

Cover Crops: Selection and Management
Over the past 30 years, cover cropping has emerged as a key soil health and resource conservation practice for annual crop production. This guide offers a how-to on selecting the best cover crops, and management methods for soil health, including crop rotations and cropping system biodiversity.

Plant Genetics: Plant Breeding & Variety Selection
Crop cultivars can make an important contribution to soil health by making it easier to farm sustainably and by building or protecting the soil directly; however, most cultivars have been bred and selected to perform well in conventional farming systems. This guide provides an exploration of plant breeding and variety selection for performance in sustainable organic systems.

Water Management and Water Quality
Successful farming depends on effective management of water resources when water is both scarce and plentiful. Organic systems have the ability to enhance water use efficiency and reduce the need for irrigation, largely by improving and maintaining soil health. This guide includes best management practices for water management in organic production systems.

Nutrient Management for Crops, Soil, Environment
Organic producers replenish organic matter and nutrients with compost, manure, legume cover crops, and natural mineral fertilizers, relying on soil life to release crop-available nutrients. This guide explores the role of soil health and the soil food web, including practical guidelines for adapting soil-test-based nutrient recommendations (especially nitrogen) for organic systems.

Organic Practices for Climate Mitigation, Adaptation, and Carbon Sequestration
Farmers and ranchers have a major stake in curbing further climate change and enhancing the resilience of their operations to climate disruptions already underway. This particularly timely guide examines research related to the capacity of sustainable organic systems and practices to sequester soil carbon and minimize nitrous oxide and methane emissions, with advice on reducing an organic farm’s carbon footprint.

Understanding and Managing Soil Biology for Soil Health & Crop Production
This guide examines the functions of the soil food web and provides research-based guidance on organic practices and NOP-approved inputs for improved soil food web function.
The response to these resources makes it clear that accessible science-backed information on best organic practices is in high demand. To date, the guidebooks have been downloaded over 16,000 times and the webinars have been viewed more than 6,000 times. The guidebooks are available to download free from ofrf.org; the webinars are on YouTube (search by title).

New Tools to Manage On-Farm Risk
Crop insurance programs can provide an important safety net. This year, OFRF also introduced two guidebooks and webinars created in cooperation with the USDA-Risk Management Agency to help organic and transitioning growers manage on-farm risk through crop insurance programs and sound soil health management.
Introduction to Crop Insurance for Organic and Transitioning Producers provides an overview of coverage types and record-keeping best practices, as well as what to know when working with crop insurance agents. Sample forms for record-keeping are also included.

Reducing Risk through Best Soil Health Management Practices in Organic Crop Production offers practical tools and research on best practices to build soil health and resilience to extreme weather conditions, such as drought and flooding

Both of the guidebooks are available to download free from ofrf.org and the webinars can be viewed on YouTube (search by title).

OFRF puts farmers first—we do not charge an annual membership fee and all of our resources are available for free. Sign up for our newsletter at ofrf.org to get the latest news.

Vicki Lowell manages communications for the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF).

 

 

From the July  |  August 2019 Issue

 

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