The success of organic as a production system and the ability to overcome challenges that discourage farmers from transitioning to or expanding organic production rely on connections and communication between multiple groups of stakeholders.
Despite growing consumer demand, the organic system continues to face a variety of challenges that constrain growth. Among the most pressing barriers are agronomic considerations—soil health, weed and pest management—and agro-economic challenges—such as yield constraints, crop failure and supply chain shortages. In addition, organic farmers must farm in a sustainable manner using techniques that decrease the use of off-farm inputs, reduce resource consumption, increase biodiversity, and preserve productivity. To successfully address these challenges, there must be clear lines of communication among researchers, farmers, policymakers, regulators, and educators.
The Organic Center’s annual Organic Confluences Summit addresses this by bringing together organic stakeholders to increase communication across the sector. The overarching purpose of the event is to address constraints in organic production including barriers to increasing adoption of organic practices and expanding organic acreage. Each conference is designed to intensively tackle a focused topic essential to achieving this broader goal, building on solutions and challenges identified by stakeholders.
One of the issues identified as an area of need for the success of organic is improving the impact of organic research. Research must address the obstacles of greatest importance to farmers and other organic stakeholders. In addition, it is important to communicate the results effectively to ensure that the organic community has access to them.
This year’s Confluences Summit tackled that issue, focusing on ways to make research count, bringing together diverse organic stakeholders to explore ways to connect research results with target audiences. The Summit addressed a wide range of communication pitfalls common in the organic sector through panels, case studies and discussions, while providing a venue for organic stakeholders to assess the state of research communication and identify barriers that constrain the organic sector from utilizing research results and adopting new technologies.
One particularly compelling case study presented during the Summit examined the importance of research that led to the development of USDA National Organic Program’s (NOP) Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation Guidance and the importance of communication among farmers, researchers, regulators and non-profits for effective implementation.
Biodiversity and natural resources conservation are among the many complex issues faced by the organic community. Organic farmers rely on biologically diverse agricultural ecosystems to maintain resilient farms in the absence of synthetic chemicals. Although numerous studies show clear benefit to increasing on-farm biodiversity including increased pollination, healthier soils, reduced runoff, and natural pest protection, some research also suggests that there may be tradeoffs associated with some practices depending on the geographic location or commodity produced. This suggests that there is no one size fits all recommendation for the best way to support biodiversity across all organic farms. Furthermore, while the implementation of the biodiversity guidance is a major success in ensuring that biodiversity and natural resources are promoted and conserved on farms, it also poses new challenges for certifiers and inspectors.
During the discussion, case study panelists highlighted the importance of research in developing the official guidance on production practices to support biodiversity and conserve natural resources. They also addressed challenges associated with some biodiversity conservation techniques, emphasizing the need for biodiversity research across the diversity of organic farms and clear and open communication with farmers about their needs and challenges. The panel concluded with a discussion on how best to incorporate biodiversity requirements into existing organic certification programs to promote the most positive change on the farm without overburdening the farmer.
The Organic Center has been deeply engaged in ensuring that the biodiversity guidance can be translated to on-farm practices. For instance, we are collaborating with Dr. John Quinn at Furman University to develop a calculator to assist organic farmers in monitoring and managing biodiversity and ecosystem services and to aid them in making technical decisions to increase on-farm biodiversity and comply with the biodiversity and natural resource guidance. The NOP biodiversity guidance does not provide strict requirements for farmers when it comes to on-farm practices.
While this allows farmers the flexibility to determine the best approach for their farms, it also places the burden of designing and implementing appropriate technical plans on the farmer. The calculator developed with Dr. Quinn’s lab will directly facilitate compliance with new NOP guidance by providing a farmer-friendly tool with an interactive front-end interface that includes the mandates released by NOP to aid farmers in technical decisions to increase on-farm biodiversity. Farmers will be able to enter specific information associated with their farming operations to evaluate numerous conservation techniques to maximize biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Biodiversity conservation on organic farms is just one of the many multifaceted issues faced by the organic sector that requires constant communication and collaboration to develop and implement effective solutions. In 2018, the Center will continue to unite diverse organic stakeholders to resolve challenges in the organic sector. Next year’s Confluences Conference will build on the topic of making research count with a focus on evaluating and advancing knowledge transfer within the organic community. The combination of a rapidly evolving organic sector, new availability of organic farming information, and novel information services demands an updated exploration of the effectiveness of knowledge transfer in the organic sector.
Tracy Misiewicz is the Associate Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center ().
Cover photo caption: Doug Crabtree of Vilicus Farms (microphone in hand) takes part in the discussion on biodiversity and conservation.