Organic Research Then And Now
Organic Field Day Presentation, Lamberton, Minnesota, Roger Blobaum July 8, 2010
I am here today representing The Ceres Trust, a national foundation that makes organic farming a priority. It is not appropriate for me, as a foundation representative, to talk about mobilizing political support for organic research.
But I can talk about the impact political action has had on organic research in the past and the persistent efforts of organic farmers and others to build support for organic research. I want to do that by telling the story of organic research in this country, a 40- year saga with lots of ups and downs.
The program for this University of Minnesota field day shows how far organic research has come over the last few years. Land grant universities were slow to accept organic farming as a serious or suitable research topic. And they were dismissive, even disrespectful, of organic farmers in the early years.
It is hard to imagine now how anybody could have been against organic research. But many did oppose it. Two critical reports, the first in 1978 focusing on land grant universities and the second in 1997 targeting USDA, illustrate how bad the organic research situation was in the beginning.
The first was a survey of more than 500 organic farmers in five Midwest states, including Minnesota, that identified lack of organic research as a significant barrier to adoption of organic methods. Many farmers wrote disparaging comments in the questionnaire margins about the lack of support from their land grant universities. And only six of the 214 respondents reported they knew of any organic research being done at their state university.
When asked to respond, the deans of agriculture at all five universities reported they did not know of any organic research being done at their institutions One with an attitude went further. We aren’t doing any organic research now, he wrote, and furthermore we aren’t going to be doing any.
The other discouraging report, which targeted USDA, came 20 years later. It was “Searching for the O Word,” a report of a 1997 Organic Farming Research Foundation study. OFRF’s search through the more than 30,000 agricultural research projects in USDA’s research portfolio showed only 34 that qualified as “strong organic.”
This organic field day illustrates the progress organic farmers and land grant university researchers have made in turning this around. “Searching for the O Word” was especially important as a turning point in building support in Congress for organic research and getting the situation turned around at USDA.
We now have a growing organic research community in the Midwest. It develops and disseminates new information that helps organic farmers become more productive and profitable. And information that helps conventional farmers transition to organic. The Ceres Trust is pleased to have the opportunity to help support this work.
We began compiling a researcher data base when we became involved in organic research grantmaking last year. Instead of the 100, or even 150, organic researchers we had expected to find in the North Central Region, we have identified more than 225 scientists, graduate students, and others engaged in organic research. The number would be much higher if all the organic farmers participating in organic research projects were included.
We also found more evidence of strength in the organic research community. We had no idea what the response would be when we announced we would provide $500,000 in research grants of up to $60,000 a year for three years. We were surprised and pleased when 26 organic research proposals arrived in the mail last September.
More surprising, nearly all were for quality projects proposed by organic research teams from land grant universities. Instead of funding eight or nine projects as planned initially, we responded to this large number of strong proposals by funding 13 for a total of $1.9 million. Two of these grants went to University of Minnesota researchers for work here at Lamberton. One is for high tunnel work and the other is for work on edible grain legumes for organic cropping systems.
We are repeating this competition in 2010 and the Request for Applications has been posted. Since these grants were made, we also have made grants of up to $10,000 to 10 graduate students, including two from the University of Minnesota, to support organic research projects. These, too, were high quality proposals and we plan to repeat this program as well.
Organic farming has been my main interest since 1972 when I began interviewing, photographing, surveying, researching, and writing about organic farmers in the Midwest. This has led to my recent interest in the history of organic research. The story of the evolution of organic research is one of the most interesting in the history of American agriculture. It is the topic of my presentation.
The story begins here in Southwest Minnesota. Organic research history was made a few miles from here in the early 1970s when several organic farmers set up the Minnesota Soil Association to raise money for organic research. Six months later they received a $3,500 research grant from a Minnesota state government agency.
It funded a study comparing tile line discharges on organic and conventional farms to determine whether nitrogen fertilizer applications were causing high nitrate levels in farm wells. Profs. Lester Schmid and Charles Reinert of Southwest Minnesota State at Marshall had been identified by organic farmers as scientists who shared their interest in organic research. They helped shape the project and conducted the research.
I believe this was the first government-funded organic research conducted anywhere in this country. I interviewed and photographed the farmers involved and wrote a story describing their achievement. It was published by the Rodale Press in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, which had a circulation of 900,00, and republished later in the 1975 Organic Farming Yearbook of Agriculture.
Soil Association members believed farming organically could solve many of the problems they were seeing on Minnesota farms. Soil tests showed organic matter levels were dropping, for example, and farmers were reporting that the soil was getting harder and more difficult to work. Pigeon grass was becoming a serious problem and higher fertilizer applications did not produce expected higher yields. They believed organic research could provide some answers.
This early research had a much different focus than organic research today. Farmers wanted research that documented the economic viability of organic farming, identified and analyzed barriers to adoption of organic methods, examined the quality and quantity of feed grown on organically-managed land, addressed weed and soil health and similar problems, and challenged the conventional wisdom that organic farming was a throwback to the past.
Another early response to the growing farmer interest in organic research was a 1974 Center for Rural Affairs survey of 147 organic farmers in Nebraska that attempted to identify why they had switched to organic methods. The responses suggest some of the beliefs shared by organic farmers at that time.
Some of the farmer respondents reported their yields with organically-grown crops were better than the yields they had before switching to organic. With good yields and lower input costs, they reported, they were doing as well or better financially than their conventional neighbors.
Many reported that livestock preferred grain produced on organic farms, that livestock were healthier when fed hay and grain produced organically, that they seldom needed the services of a veterinarian, and that the feed value of grain produced on organic farms was superior.
Although organic farmers consistently reported they had comparable yields and did well financially, they received neither support nor respect from USDA or the agricultural establishment overall.
This changed with publication in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, of the results of a 3-year Washington University study funded by the National Science Foundation. The surprising conclusion was that farming organically was a viable economic alternative for commercial-size crop and livestock farms in the Midwest.
Data collected over three years from 14 matched pairs of conventional and organic farms showed that organic farms had somewhat lower crop sales per acre of cropland, that conventional farms had higher purchased input costs, that organic farms had somewhat higher labor requirements, and that farmers in both groups made about the same amount of money. An unexpected difference was that the conventional farmers used more than twice as much energy.
A follow-up Washington University survey of 300 organic farmers from Minnesota and four other Midwest states identified five important advantages of switching to organic farming. They were healthier for the farmer and his family, healthier for livestock, more in harmony with nature, better for the soil, and better for the environment.
Other studies and surveys helped lay the groundwork for a significant organic research development at the end of the 1970s. That was the request to a team of USDA scientists from Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, a Minnesota farmer before becoming involved in politics, to conduct a study of organic farming. Bergland had a neighbor who was a successful organic farmer and did not like the way organic farmers were disrespected at USDA.
The result was USDA’s 1980 Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming, which recommended development of the full range of research and education programs to address the problems and needs of organic farmers. The report was discussed at a series of public meetings on land grant university campuses. Politically it permanently changed the focus of the debate about organic research from the land grant universities, where some organic research had finally begun, to Washington and Congress and USDA.
More than 20,000 farmers requested copies of the 94-page report before its distribution was blocked a year later by the new Reagan Administration. In 1982 the full-time organic farming coordinator position that was recommended and established at USDA was abolished and an order to destroy all remaining copies of the report was issued.
Congressional followup to the 1980 report, including the proposed Organic Farming Act of 1982, met strong and consistent USDA opposition. Eventually a “low input agriculture” research program was authorized in the 1985 farm bill and implemented three years later as the LISA program. All references to organic farming were deleted, however, and the result was a competitive grants program that funded research and education on reduced-chemical practices.
The program was revamped in the 1990 farm bill and renamed the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Although the legislative language and the implementation guidelines of both the LISA and the SARE programs avoided any reference to organic farming, several projects with organic content were funded.
This was the first time any kind of USDA funding provided support for organic research. Only about 15 percent of SARE’s more than 3,000 research and education projects since have had an organic focus or organic content.
Another attempt to gain USDA support for organic research came in the bill proposing the Organic Foods Production Act in 1989. But USDA and agriculture industry opponents threatened to block all standard setting and other organic provisions in the bill unless the research provisions were dropped. So, 10 years after the 1980 USDA report, still another attempt to authorize a federal organic specific research initiative had failed.
The coalition of consumer, environmental, and other organizations that had supported the Organic Foods Production Act joined several organic and sustainable agriculture groups in continuing to press Congress in the early 1990s to authorize organic research funding. But no progress was made until the “Searching for the O Word” report was published in 1997.
The agriculture committees in Congress, with their perfect record of opposing organic research, took little notice of this embarrassing report and did nothing. But the Agricultural Research Service did respond.
It identified 188 of its more than 2,000 staff scientists who stated an interest in organic research and surveyed them about barriers to doing this kind of research. The barriers identified included lack of an agency commitment to organic research, lack of certified land needed for replicated experimental plots, and difficulty working with organic farmers on cooperative on-farm projects.
Organic farming advocates through the 1990s were not satisfied with the small number of organic projects slipped into SARE, ARS, and other existing USDA research programs. They wanted more. The first positive response was authorization in 1998 of an Organic Transition initiative. It was included in a much larger USDA competitive grants program and was funded three years later. You can see there was no sense of urgency here.
Finally in 2002, five years after OFRF’s “Searching for the O Word” report and almost 30 years after Minnesota organic farmers got their first organic research grant from a state agency, Congress passed legislation providing funding specifically for organic research. The new Organic Agriculture Research and Education Initiative mandated an appropriation of $3 million per year for five years for competitive research grants.
Congress revisited OREI in the latest farm bill and extended it for another five years with mandatory funding of $15 million per year. The OREI program, among other things, provides support for development of new and improved seed varieties particularly suited for organic farming.
Gains made for organic research in the last farm bill are significant. But funding for research, as well as extension and other organic programs, falls far short of the high level of support in Europe that has enabled many countries there to set official organic sector goals as high as 10 to 15 percent.
With all the talk of cutting the deficit, is it likely Congress will continue to provide organic research funding? The House Agriculture Committee and organizations like the National Organic Coalition, OFRF, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Organic Trade Association have already started work on the next farm bill.
But it’s far too early to predict what Congress or the Administration might try to do. As a foundation representative, I am not here to make any political preductions. But I would like to share my own personal reading of the situation. I am convinced organic research supporters will have to fight hard to maintain the current level of organic research funding.
There are two encouraging notes. One is the fact that Mark Lipson, author of OFRF’s “O Word” report, is the new organic farming coordinator at USDA. Lipson worked closely for years with organic research supporters in Congress and within USDA and would appear to be in a position to try to block attempts to cut organic research funding.
The other encouraging note is USDA’s positive response to the National Organic Action Plan, which includes a strong organic research section and calls for fair share targets for organic research. That means budgets for organic research would have to be at least proportional to the percentage of food marketed that is organic. The plan also calls for an organic farmers research network and development of organic research plans for several USDA agencies.
For those of you involved in organic research, or farming organically, it is not too early to start paying attention to developments shaping organic provisions in the next farm bill. I would urge you to tune in now, to stay tuned, to be aware that organic programs are always vulnerable, and to help make sure the current level of federal funding for organic research is maintained.