INSIDE ORGANIC: Farmers and Researchers Team Up: How This Helps Organic Farmers Shape the Research Being Done (Jan/Feb 2010)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · Jan/Feb 2010

Recent trends in organic research suggest Midwest organic farmers may want to consider some new questions: Who are the scientists doing organic research in your state? What kind of research is being done? Are these researchers reaching out to involve you in their work? And are they making a special effort to share the results?

You may be interested in meeting the scientists at your land grant university and in helping shape the organic research being done. But the scientists doing the research also may be interested in meeting you and finding out what kind of research you think they should be doing. It’s no longer unusual for organic researchers and organic farmers to get together and compare notes.

A significant increase in organic research in the Midwest, and in the funding supporting it, is focusing new attention on farmer-friendly research approaches and on ways farmers and researchers can benefit from working together. Organic research proposals that include farmer involvement get extra points in the competition for government and foundation research grants.

Midwest Organic Researchers

Organic farmers may be surprised to learn that more than 200 university scientists and graduate students are involved in organic research in the 12 North Central states. Several of the region’s land grant universities have developed strong organic programs and organic research capacity. A recent survey identified 35 organic researchers at Michigan State University, 32 at the University of Wisconsin, 30 at the University of Minnesota, and 27 at Ohio State University.

It is becoming increasingly important to organic researchers to have access to certified organic land, either university owned or on organic farms, and to develop working relationships with certified organic farmers. These new partnerships make it possible for researchers and farmers to work together in developing organic research agendas, designing research projects, and conducting research on organic farms.

The relationship between organic farmers and extension specialists also is changing. There is a shift away from the conventional extension model where extension specialists refer farm production problems to researchers, researchers address the problems and generate new knowledge, and extension specialists bring the new knowledge back to farmers.

Because organic farming is knowledge intensive and involves a more complex learning process, organic farmers prefer a much more participatory system that has farmers, extension specialists, and researchers working together. This new approach also provides opportunities to partner with organic and sustainable agriculture organizations that disseminate research results through conferences, workshops, and other educational events.

Much of the credit for making farmers, extension specialists, and researchers more aware of the benefits of working together should go to USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and to the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), a nonprofit organization based in California.

Although only about 15 percent of SARE-funded research and education projects are organic specific, the farmer friendly approach this program has developed over 20 years of grantmaking is influencing the way organic research is done. “In SARE,” the agency’s website notes, “researchers at universities, in extension offices, on farms, and in nonprofit organizations have found a place to come together.”

Organic Research Had Bumpy Start

It was widely assumed as early as the 1970s that organic farmer involvement, including farmers doing research on their own farms, was critical in generating results that were practical, relevant, farmer friendly, and useful. It also was assumed that most researchers in the land grant university system were either clueless about organic farming or, worse yet, were biased against it.

That was one assumption in 1993 when a group of California organic farmers established OFRF to raise funds to support research that organic farmers would conduct on their own farms. They assumed research designed by farmers and carried out on certified organic farms would provide practical science-based answers to their production problems.

This approach was soon abandoned when it became clear that organic farmers had neither the time nor the research design expertise to do research on their own or to turn out project reports that could be widely shared. OFRF’s new approach, and the one followed now, emphasizes grower-researcher collaboration and research conducted on certified organic land.

OFRF also organized the Scientific Congress on Organic Agricultural Research (SCOAR), which brought organic farmers, researchers and others together to develop a national research agenda that catalogues and prioritizes organic research needs.

The national agenda project also developed guidelines for organic research that are widely supported and followed. These guidelines state that organic research should be conducted under certified organic conditions, involve organic producers as active team members, and emphasize multidisciplinary systems approaches rather than input-substitution approaches.

Organic Farmers Help Shape Funded Research Projects

The farmer-researcher partnership guidelines developed by SARE and OFRF are becoming the norm for both government and nonprofit organic research funding programs. The Organic Research Initiative of The Ceres Trust, for example, incorporated the guidelines into criteria used earlier this year in making competitive grants for organic research in the Midwest.

The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), a national grantmaking program that provides $19 million a year for research and extension, requires all project field work to be done on certified organic land or land in transition to organic certification. Project advisory panels that include organic farmers also are strongly encouraged. Applicants also must meet the program’s guidelines for organic farmer involvement.

“USDA expects that applicants will consult with organic producers before developing project proposals,” the OREI request for applications states. “Producers and/or processors should play an important role in developing project goals and objectives, in implementing the plan, and in evaluating and disseminating project results and outcomes.”

A related partnership challenge is how to bring organic farmers and organic researchers together at events where the results of this research collaboration are shared and discussed. There is a need for more research reporting opportunities at conferences, field days, workshops, and other events easily accessible to farmers.

Midwest Research Symposium

One successful new model was the Midwest Organic Research Symposium held in 2008 in La Crosse in conjunction with the Organic Farming Conference organized by Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES) and the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Organic research reports and poster sessions authored by more than 100 scientists and graduate students were presented at this well-attended organic farming event.

The 2010 conference will bring farmers and researchers together again to share organic research results. This year research reports will be presented by organic researchers in six conference workshops. Research topics include weed seed predation, raising hogs in organic apple orchards, reducing tillage in organic vegetable operations, transitioning to organic production, ecological pest suppression in organic systems, and disease suppressive soils and composts.

Organic research still doesn’t get a fair share of the research funding available. But organic farmers, by taking advantage of opportunities to work more closely with organic researchers, are positioned to help make certain that the funding that is available supports project that address the problems they feel are most important.

This article was first printed in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service