Oct 2, 2023
The Organic Center grants focus on food safety, climate, pests

The USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) research program is awarding The Organic Center almost $900,000 for four new projects.

The projects announced will address a host of vital and diverse challenges facing today’s organic agriculture, including how to ensure food safety in organic production systems; the exploration of organic farming methods that increase resilience to climate change and also help fight pests; and the benefits and challenges of livestock grazing in orchards; according to a news release from the center.

USDA awarded a total of more than $50 million in grants for 24 OREI projects and for 8 Organic Transitions Program (ORG) projects. ORG helps existing and transitioning organic livestock and crop producers adopt organic practices.

The OREI awards totaled a little over $43 million in funding. OREI helps support wide-ranging research projects that specifically address the most critical issues impacting organic growers. The 2018 Farm Bill approved increasing funding for OREI to $50 million per year by 2023, thus establishing permanent funding for the program.

“Our mission is to strengthen and advance organic farming through science-based research, and this unprecedented level of funding from USDA will do much to help us achieve our goal,” Amber Sciligo, director of science programs for The Organic Center (TOC), said in the release. “We are extremely honored to be partnering with esteemed research institutions, universities and non-profits in these projects, and to support the growth, expansion and continued improvement of organic.”

Food safety for specialty crop growers

Food safety is of paramount importance for organic growers, but they face unique challenges in trying to meet USDA National Organic Program standards and multiple food safety requirements. The Organic Center’s biggest single award of almost $635,000 is for collaboration in a project led by the University of Rhode Island to equip organic growers and industry stakeholders — organic technical assistance/trainers/certifiers and food safety auditors/inspectors — with science-based tools and training to enable them to comply simultaneously with organic agriculture rules and food safety requirements. A key function of The Organic Center will be to host 10 regional, in-person workshops with farmers, organic inspectors and certifiers and food safety auditors and inspectors to help the organic experts understand the biggest food safety rule challenges and to educate the food safety specialists on organic practices, particularly those that may conflict with food safety rules.

Climate and pest programs for organic growers

Dealing with insect pests, weeds and severe weather are challenges for every farmer, and even more so for organic producers, who do not use chemical pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic vegetable growers are especially susceptible to invasive insects and weeds and the vagaries of today’s climate. The Organic Center has been awarded $101,000 to work with the University of Kentucky and the non-profit organization Organic Voices to help advance the awareness and most effective use of mesotunnel protection systems — fine-mesh netting barriers secured over specialty crops — that have been proven to provide a dual purpose protection system for organic vegetable producers, including small-scale farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners.

Orchard grazing’s effect on soil, pests, food safety

The benefits of grazing sheep or other livestock to help convert cover crops to manure are becoming more well known, and interest in grazing livestock on cover crops in nut orchards has shown a steady increase in recent years. However, there are concerns about foodborne pathogens and food safety with this practice. The Organic Center, with a $75,000 award, will collaborate with the University of California-Davis to help design and coordinate an integrated research-extension approach to assess the benefits of livestock grazing on cover crops on bacterial populations, soil health, pest control and economic outcomes, with the goal to enhance the value of cover crops while limiting food safety risks in organic orchards in two distinct nut orchard regions in California.

Expanding organic cotton production in the U.S.

The organic cotton sector in the U.S. is currently a $2 billion industry and is poised for rapid growth, fueled by consumer demands and growing interest among leading textile industry players. But organic cotton acreage in the U.S. remains small, and the need to increase domestic cotton production is critical. The Organic Center has been awarded almost $60,000 to work with Texas A&M University to help implement a coordinated research, Extension and education program to promote and expand organic cotton production in the U.S. Cotton Belt.

“The OREI program provides the most important pool of funds to advance our work at The Organic Center,” Sciligo said in the release. “While this pot of funding has seen tremendous growth through the implementation of the last Farm Bill, future bills need to continue to increase the funding dedicated to organic research.

“We have come a long way in the past few decades, but with the increased demand for organic in the marketplace and the initiation of several USDA programs aimed at significantly increasing organic transition, the need for current organic research is unprecedented.”

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