An organic researcher perspective on organic check-off funds

By Dr. Kathleen Delate, Organic Ag Program, Iowa State University, and Dr. Jessica Shade, The Organic Center 

As organic researchers, we are very excited about the prospect of organic check-off funds going towards supporting research to help us address U.S. organic farmers’ most pressing needs to increase production of organic food, feed and fiber. For years, we have fought the federal government and our state universities for every organic research dollar. Traditionally, organic research has been woefully underfunded. 

Unfortunately, this lack of funding has a real impact on organic producers, and translates into a lack of methods and tools useful for current organic farmers and reduced support for farmers interested in transitioning. Working side-by-side with organic farmers, many of us volunteered our time lobbying USDA and policymakers to increase the level of support for organic research, resulting in significant increases, but far more funding is needed to address the many research questions organic farmers pose to the research community.

Increasing production of organic products is of paramount importance to meet growing consumer demand and transition more farms to organic practices to decrease environmental problems associated with conventional farming. An example of a farmer-derived, environmental question and the resulting research is the Organic Water Quality project with Iowa State University (Kathleen Delate) and the USDA-ARS National Lab for Ag and the Environment (NLAE) in Ames, Iowa (Cynthia Cambardella). 

Increasing production of organic products is of paramount importance to meet growing consumer demand and transition more farms to organic practices to decrease environmental problems.

Organic farmers asked for proof that their environmentally sound practices of using slow-release nitrogen sources (such as compost and manure) and extended crop rotations that included perennial species (alfalfa and other forages) resulted in water quality that met clean water standards. Two agencies at USDA then funded this research, and an elaborate underground system of tiles and sophisticated monitoring equipment was established under the 32 comparison organic and conventional plots. After three years of monitoring, Dr. Cambardella was able to conclude that the nitrogen loading under organic fields was nearly 50% less than conventional corn-soybean fields. 

This result is particularly important in states like Iowa, where water districts are under pressure to increase regulation on farms that may be adding too much nitrogen to municipal water supplies. We are currently preparing a policy paper showing the benefits of organic farming in helping deal with the problem of nitrate contamination and its negative effects on human health. Unfortunately, USDA funding for this research has ended.

It will take programs like organic check-off funds to help support the continuation of water quality monitoring and other research. New research at this site involves a molecular examination of soil microbial populations critical for nutrient cycling to help lower any potential nitrogen leaching from the system, and identifying microbes with other functions that support healthy crops.

Organic research activity has been greatest in Europe. E.U. studies can offer many relevant ideas for U.S. organic farmers. In the U.S. today, organic research is generally based on a state or regional context, with increased national and international coordination and cooperative efforts sorely needed. An example of international research that has proven useful for U.S. growers is the in-line cultivator implement for the roller/crimper—the subject of Dr. Delate’s 2014 sabbatical research in Italy.

Other obstacles for organic producers include the lack of improved tools for managing nutrients, weeds and insect pests. Improving crop varieties through breeding under organic conditions also is important. Integrating livestock on organic farms and developing recommendations for highly productive, healthy herds and flocks also warrant increased research. The need for solutions to these issues is not unique to organic as conventional and organic farmers often face similar challenges in finding the right combination of tools to protect their products from pests, weeds, and diseases. 

Just as in conventional farming, organic farming faces real and imminent threats from invasive species, and both systems are confronted with the need for maintaining yields while reducing nutrient runoff. Organic farmers, however, face an even harder battle in developing effective protocols without the use of synthetic chemicals. Not only do organic farmers have to find the right combinations of techniques and substances, the pools of available substances (such as organically approved materials) and supplies (such as organic feed and soil amendments) are limited. Additional funding could help develop alternative farming techniques and find new or more abundant sources of organically approved substances.

Two of the main reasons given for reluctance to transition are the three-year transition period and a lack of tools to support transitioning farmers.

 The tools developed would also be critical for encouraging conversion to organic. Several studies have shown that organic production is more profitable than conventional production, and yet there is a lack of producers interested in converting. Two of the main reasons given for reluctance to transition are the three-year transition period and a lack of tools to support transitioning farmers. With additional funding, researchers could partner with growers to develop strategies and techniques to reduce the risk of transitioning, and provide additional support for those interested in organic cultivation.

The currently proposed check-off has up to 75% of the funds designated for research and research-related activities. The funds available from an organic check-off would not only provide direct solutions for current organic challenges, but would permit the leveraging of current federal funding through matching grants, which are increasingly required by competitive granting agencies. The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), helps organic farmers develop pest management strategies, among other research, but funding is limited. On average, funding is available only for 10% of proposals submitted. The 2014 Farm Bill included a requirement that these grants be matched by funds or in-kind support from outside the government. This new policy exempts land grant institutions from matching requirements, but requires all other applicants to come up with 100% matching funds to be eligible to apply for funding. The organic check-off could serve as a source of such funds, increasing access to federal dollars and the reach of every dollar allocated to research. 

Finally, organic check-off funds could allow the organic community to have direct input in federal granting priorities when grant proposal calls are developed. With increased input from organic farmers and researchers, USDA would focus on what is important for the organic community, and potentially secure more organic research funding from the federal government, with the realization that much more support is needed to address the magnitude of critical research needs. 

Currently, some research programs at NIFA allow conventional check-off boards to help set priorities for that particular program. Recognized check-off boards can submit research priority areas and the amount they are willing to contribute, up to $500,000, in each area. A panel at NIFA will evaluate all submissions and select suitable proposals where the funding amount committed by the check-off board will be matched. Research entities, such as land-grant institutions and non-profits, will be able to compete in the normal submission process. In this way, funded research will take into account industry needs, and industry will benefit from the rigorous vetting process which NIFA proposals undergo, ensuring only the most novel and scientifically rigorous studies are funded.

Funding available through an organic check-off is critical for the continued success of organic farming. As researchers, we thank the organic community for supporting an avenue to funnel much-needed funding into research to help organic farmers develop advanced methods and tools to accelerate the adoption of organic practices, and boost organic production and consumption.  //