Advancing the Frontier of Organic Farming
Demand for organic food is far outpacing supply as U.S. sales in this dynamic sector have quadrupled in the last decade. While many farmers have long been committed to organic production, new ones are joining the fold every day: All 50 states have USDA-certified organic farmland, totaling more than 4 million acres of range, pasture and cropland.
SARE was the first federal program to fund research in organic agriculture, a whole-farm management system that includes replacing synthetic materials with methods that mimic natural ecological processes. An independent study found that the SARE organic portfolio - about 12 percent of SARE's research and education projects - provides what organic farmers need most: practical research and new innovation for best practices.
While early research explored the economic viability and environmental benefits of fledgling organic systems, SARE is now focusing on second-generation research, improving the functioning of organic systems and minimizing risks. SARE's portfolio will continue to evolve to provide high quality research and information to transitioning farmers and ranchers and the ag professionals who work with them
In North Carolina, long-time tobacco grower John Vollmer used a SARE grant to research organic methods and "unhook" from tobacco by growing organic strawberries. Vollmer's successful transition allowed him to keep the farm in the family.
SARE funds training in organic across the country: A two-year effort in Ohio used workshops and farm tours to teach key strategies for successful transition to organic grain and livestock production.
Large-scale vegetable growers in California's Salinas Valley successfully converted to organic, thanks to a SARE-funded research-grower initiative at the University of California. The researchers monitored fields and provided feedback to the growers, who, in turn, adapted their strategies.
SARE-funded research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania is helping solve a conundrum for organic farmers: How to control weeds and add natural inputs, such as compost, without using soil-eroding tillage.
Getting the Word Out
SARE's Professional Development Program has provided Extension training in organic in nearly every state. Further, SARE has published an array of materials on organics, including a 32-page bulletin, Transitioning to Organic Production. SARE books such as Building Soils for Better Crops and Managing Cover Crops Profitably are rich with information on best practices.
|Cornell University's Anu Rangarajan works to advance organic agriculture in the Northeast. |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
Tackling the Thorny Issues, Linking Practitioners
As the ranks of organic farmers swell in America, so does the need for answers to tough problems in organic agriculture. For example, how can weeds be controlled without soil-eroding tillage? How can risk be minimized? How can farmers learn from one another? Thanks to researcher/educators like Anu Rangarajan of Cornell University, new and transitioning Northeast farmers are getting some answers.
With funding from SARE, Rangarajan is advancing the next generation of organic agriculture with a three-pronged approach: conducting field research on new innovations, training educators, and bringing farmers and educators together.
In the field, Rangarajan has been tackling one of the thorniest issues in organic farming: reducing tillage. Many farmers cut back on tillage to combat soil erosion and compaction. This practice, however, conflicts with organic agriculture, which has long relied on tilling to manage weeds and incorporate green manures, compost and other inputs.
Rangarajan is testing the effect of "zone tilling" on yields in both organic and conventional vegetable systems. Zone tilling limits tillage to four-to-eight-inch slots into which a farmer later plants. By leaving soil-building crop residue behind, the technique reduces soil erosion and conserves organic matter, key conditions for successful organic farming.
She credits SARE for giving her the necessary time and support to experiment with this long-term strategy. "Many grants give you money for a year or two but SARE is in it for the long haul."
George Ayres of Fresh-Ayr Farm in Shortsville, N.Y. is a Northeast farmer benefiting from Rangarajan's work. Ayres collaborates with Rangarajan on research to build soil health by reducing tillage. Although he has not completely transitioned to organic, he has found that the water- and soil-conserving crop residue left behind by zone tilling helps build soil and manage weeds, thus reducing the need for fertilizers and herbicides. Says Ayres, "Anu is challenging us all to get away from chemicals entirely. That's really the goal. We'd all like to be able to avoid buying herbicides if we can."
Field research and collaboration must go hand in hand, according to Rangarajan, who is also SARE state coordinator for New York. She helped found neon, the Northeast Organic Network, a forum for farmers, researchers, extension educators and nonprofits to share information across state lines. She also co-organized a SARE-funded, eight-month organic agriculture training for extension educators.
Emilie Swackhammer, one of 22 extension educators selected for the course, says she can now better assist transitioning farmers in Pennsylvania where she works. As a result of the seminar, Swackhammer was asked to join the board of directors for Pennsylvania Certified Organic, the state's only USDA certifying agency.
Rangarajan is quite pleased with the results of the training program. "These educators are now developing training in their own states. The network is expanding." [For more information, go to www.sare.org/projects and search for LNE06-245 and ENE04-086.]