Organic Agriculture Workshop Summary USDA Agricultural Research Service


The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has a long history of conducting research that solves problems faced by producers, allied agricultural industries, and consumers. However, there has been no formal ARS research effort for organic agriculture. Past organic research was conducted by ARS scientists having interests that coincided with those of organic producers and organizations whom they had personal contact.

In 1979, Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland organized the USDA Study Team on Organic Farming that prepared the Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming and recommended increased organic research efforts. A full-time coordinator for organic farming was appointed, but the position was abolished in 1982. Some ARS scientists continued to work in organic systems, but the amount of research was limited and not coordinated.

In 1999, ARS National Program Staff funded seven organic research projects at approximately \$50,000 each and proposed a \$4-million dollar budget initiative to support organic research. An internal ARS survey at that time identified 63 scientists conducting research on organic agriculture problems, and at that time there was no formal coding of these projects within the ARS accounting system that clearly identified them as organic.

Austin Workshop Organization and Process

ARS held a three-day workshop January 11-13, 2005 in Austin, TX to formally organize agency organic agriculture research efforts. The workshop attendees represented organic growers and advocacy group customers; other USDA and university stakeholders; and ARS scientists and administrators. Industry and ARS Workshop attendees developed one-page summaries of their present research activities and future interest in organic agriculture. These summaries were used to help the organic industry and researchers understand the scope of activities currently under way and help identify potential collaborators. The one-pagers were also used to organize interactive sessions among customers and researchers attending the workshop.

The workshop was organized as a series of plenary presentations followed by breakout sessions. Presentations described the status of U.S. organic agriculture production systems and present ARS organic research efforts. Facilitated discussions were held to help ARS identify the highest national priority research needs that will be used in the development of a strategic organic agriculture research plan. During the first two breakout sessions, attendees participated in pre-assigned groups to create a good mix of people and experiences from different disciplines perspectives. In the later breakout sessions, participants selected the topic areas that they were most interested in.

Results from the workshop were used to summarize the needs identified by the organic industry, define productive organic farming systems from the perspective of our guests, and describe how systems research should be conducted to meet the unique production requirement of organic agriculture. The meeting also served to bring ARS scientists together to develop a national organic research network that will share information on research approaches, define national research objectives directed at customer needs, and facilitate development of research projects to solve problems that ARS can uniquely address.

Workshop Highlights

Plenary Session I. A series of presentations were made describing research needs of organic agriculture, current ARS research, and a discussion forum made up of organic producers.

  • Mark Lipson, Policy Director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, presented Organic Agriculture Research and Development: History, Approaches and Customer Needs that recounted the survey “Searching for the “O” Word”, the need for organic theme-based research, and how ARS should approach organic research from his perspective as an advocate for organic agriculture.
  • Carolee Bull, Plant Pathologist, USDA-ARS, Salinas, California, summarized past and current ARS organic agriculture research activities and discussed barriers to advancing organic research from a field scientist’s perspective in her presentation titled: The USDA/ARS Organic Agriculture Research Portfolio.
  • Representatives from industry, non-government organizations, other government agencies, and universities discussed their current activities related to organic agriculture.
  • Producers from across the U.S. participated in a forum to discuss: What Makes a Highly Productive Organic Farming Operation? And: What Does This Mean for Research on Organic Agriculture?

Customer Breakout Session I. A breakout session (CBS 1) following the producer forum was used to discuss What Makes for Highly Productive Organic Agricultural Research and allowed dialogue among organic producers and NGO representatives with ARS scientists and administrators. The session produced information describing the industry perspective for what ARS needs to have in its organic agriculture research programs to meet their needs. The following list reflects how industry believes systems research should be done and what it takes to do highly productive organic research.

What the Organic Community Thinks is Important

  • Multi-disciplinary research that is done in regionally appropriate systems.
  • Involvement of the organic community when identifying problems and looking for possible solutions.
  • Organic research needs to be done under organic production conditions comparable to organic certification requirements.
  • Some research should be done on organic farms.
  • Realize organic production is done at different scales.
  • A focus on the benefits of organic production on the environment and nutrition.
  • Effective communications between researchers and organic producers is needed so research findings and products are relevant to producer needs.

Plenary Session II. Research approaches appropriate to organic production were presented from the perspective of three recognized systems research programs. Josh Posner, University of Wisconsin & John Hall, Michael Fields Institute, Laurie Drinkwater, Cornell University, and Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute addressed the questions: What is systems research? Why is it important when evaluating organic systems? What are the contributions of component research to systems research?

Customer Breakout Session II. Following Plenary Session II, the breakout groups from the day before met again to discuss the following questions: What is system’s research in an organic agriculture context? What is the role of component research?

Given these questions, the Breakout Groups were asked:

What kinds of topics ARS should consider when answering the big questions? Below is a summary of the most frequently mentioned topics that our customers identified.

  • How organic production contributes to different aspects of food quality.
  • Developing production systems to increase profitability.
  • Ways to manage and measure the health of soils.
  • The environmental benefits from organic production systems.
  • Ways to achieve the greatest productivity in organic production.
  • The contributions of organic production to overall sustainability.

The Breakout Groups were also asked to identify big questions that ARS should research.

What are appropriate questions for ARS research to address?

  • Environment: What are the ecosystem servicing and environmental benefits of organic production systems?
  • Food safety, quality, nutrition and security: How do organic and conventional management practices affect food nutritional quality and safety?
  • Economic viability: To what extent can organic agriculture substitute for or replace conventional agriculture?
  • Farm productivity: What are the impacts of ecological management strategies on soils and the function of above- and below-ground biological communities? What are the best ways to manage the productivity of organic systems?

The information gathered from Customer Breakout Sessions I and II will be used to help ARS develop an Organic Agriculture Research Action Plan that is responsive to customer needs. From the individual Breakout Group discussions, expected outcomes began to be described. The questions helped define the kinds of production systems and research topics areas that are important to our organic agriculture customers.

Plenary Session III. Inside ARS: Organic Agriculture Research Examples. ARS scientists Joe Bradford from the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center at Weslaco, TX and Eric Brenen from the U.S. Agricultural Research Station at Salinas, CA discussed how their organic research programs were developed and key issues and barriers within and outside ARS that they believe need to be overcome when conducting organic research.

ARS Breakout Sessions III and IV. The remainder of the workshop focused on: “Where do we go from here?” Six breakout groups meet in two sessions and discussed the three questions listed below:

  • What topics should ARS address?
  • What are the questions ARS can answer with a concerted effort?
  • What technologies do we have that can be used in organic systems?

The first breakout session was charged with Identifying Expected Outcomes and Products, while the second session focused on Refining those Outcomes and Products and Identifying Activities. From these sessions, ARS scientists identified important production systems that they could focus their research activities on to achieve the desired outcomes. Workshop participants were allowed to choose specific topic areas of interest to them.

ARS Breakout Session I and II Summaries. These summaries were prepared after the workshop by the Organic Research Writing Team and summarize what was discussed in the ARS breakout sessions. The information from the two breakout sessions reflects the topics of interest to the organic community and will be used to help develop the ARS Organic Agriculture Research Action Plan.

Food Safety and Food Nutrition research is necessary for assessing and determining the impacts of organic agricultural practices. Food safety and nutrition, along with economic and environmental benefits, are the basis for judging the success of organic agriculture by many organic producers and consumers. Food safety and nutrition must be evaluated based on the microbiological content, chemical inventory of nutrients and secondary metabolites, sensory appeal, and shelf life of organic agricultural products.

This research must account for numerous variables such as plant varieties and animal breeds, weather conditions during production, microbial contamination, soil quality and health, nutrient availability, and food processing practices. Specific outcomes are the measurement of levels of pathogens and agricultural chemical compounds found in foods throughout the production cycle, and the development of post-harvest processing methods that enhance shelf life and sensory appeal and are consistent with organic practices and certification standards. To support this research, improved methods must be developed to rapidly determine contamination and chemical constituents in foods that contribute to food safety and nutrition.

Environmental Impacts and Soil Quality research should facilitate adoption of production systems that enhance natural resources including improved soil quality. The environmental benefits from organic agriculture should be measured by improvements in water and air quality; conservation of soil, water and energy resources; protection of biodiversity; reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and increased carbon sequestration; and reductions of pesticide residues in the food system.

Benefits to the soil should include improvements in water, nutrient and carbon cycling efficiency, increased soil organic matter, improved soil structure, improved long-term productivity, stable soil habitat and food web structure, reduced weed, insect pest, and pathogen populations, and increased numbers of beneficial micro-organisms. Any benefits to improved producer and farm worker safety and health, and quality of life should be documented. ARS research efforts should encompass both the development of systems that enhance natural resource and soil quality, as well as techniques for quantifying these benefits when adopting organic systems.

Soil Quality was also approached as a separate topic from Environmental Impacts. There was discussion about the need to develop tools that help producers understand and promote effective soil management practices that enhance soil quality. The following are desired outcomes from ARS research: (i) improved on-farm water, nutrient, and carbon cycling efficiency; (ii) improved soil structure and organic matter content; (iii) reduced or mitigated weeds, insects, and pathogens pests; (iv) numbers of beneficial insects and microbes are increased; and (v) soils with long-term productivity and sustainability. The kinds of products specific to organic producers needs consist of: (i) indices that clearly reflect the status of soil quality in their fields and help them understand soil ecology; and (ii) knowledge from research that helps producers understand how they can utilize linkages between soil biota and the environment to improve soil quality.

Farm Productivity and Economic Viability research should lead to farmer adoption of region-specific practices and systems that are productive, profitable, and minimize adverse effects to the environment and human health. Organic producers want biological-based pest management strategies. These kinds of production systems should be characterized by optimal use of on-farm produced resources and not substitutions of purchased inputs that meet organic standards.

Organic advocates see these kinds of approaches as ways to increase farm-level profitability that will ultimately lead to increased numbers of farms, an increase in the number of certified organic acres, and will increase the availability and amounts of organic products in the market. It is ultimately believed that increased whole-farm enterprise diversity can contribute to the revitalization of small-to-medium-sized farms and this will have positive impacts on local communities.

Germplasm and Breeding research is essential for developing plant varieties and animal breeds that are specifically suited to certified organic production environments and to help meet quality criteria demanded by the marketplace. Diverse organic cropping systems also depend on exotic, heirloom, traditional, and improved plant varieties for conventional and new specialty uses. The crop varieties developed must contribute to improved soil properties, biological pest management principles, and increased nutrition for human or animal consumption.

Livestock production systems require breeds adapted to high productivity with minimal environmental impact and whose products are safe and healthy for consumers to use. Archiving genetic resource information in databases from indigenous producers and different end-users about could help support genetic and breeding research for specialty end uses and may require new protocols of cooperation between breeders and organic producers.

Organic production in an Urban Agriculture setting exists in or near many U.S. cities. This kind of production should apply sustainable production system practices to small parcels of land within an urban or suburban setting. This kind of production systems can serve multiple purposes by contributing to food security, protecting and conserving natural resources, and maintaining aesthetic green space, all within an urban setting.

Also, organic food production close to population centers has an educational value by providing environmental-friendly agricultural operations in close proximity to where consumers live. Of particular interest to producers and urban consumers is the potential for organic production systems to provide safe, wholesome food supplies with minimal adverse effects on the environment. There is potential for expanding agricultural production in close proximity to urban centers to increase sustainable food supplies. Research needs will vary, but should be focused on the use of sustainable practices on intensively managed small land parcels in or close to urban population centers.

New Technologies for Organic Agriculture are needed to address challenges facing organic producers and for greater adoption of organic practices by the general agricultural community. The nature of these technologies is informational, mechanical, and biological. Information technologies include databases containing organic research results and their application, user-friendly geographic information systems databases to easily access climactic and soil data to assist production decisions, and easy-to-use kits to evaluate soil health parameters.

Organic producers also see a need for affordable and versatile scale-neutral farm equipment that utilizes alternative fuels, as well as food processing equipment suited to organic products. Biological technology needs range from organic-compatible plant breeding and microbiological approaches for weed and disease control, as well as biological-based nutrient management methods to increase crop productivity and food product quality.

Food Security should be viewed from two perspectives: (i) protection from deliberate introduction of contamination and (ii) protecting and diversifying supplies to ensure future food availability. Both of these aspects can be addressed by research that enhances the availability, diversity, and quantity of locally produced organic food. Since many organic farms are small and biologically diverse, research should be directed toward increasing farm-level productivity and the proportion of food in the market from organic producers. Other research is needed to find ways to maintain the rural land base so future food production needs are met, increase genetic diversity in organic food and fiber systems, and increase farm incomes.

Systems-Based Research. Every farm or ranch is a complex system of interacting components that exist in integrated natural and socio-economic environments. Because of this, solutions to organic producers problems will be found using a systems approach to determine how different components interact and how their combined effects impact whole-farm productivity, food quality and safety, and profitability. Organic vegetable, grain, and livestock production systems should serve as frameworks for conducting organic research. Cross-discipline teams should identify emergent properties, principles, and innovations within organic production systems that can benefit organic producers and other general kinds of agricultural production systems.

Closing ARS Session. The closing workshop session was used to organize ARS scientists into writing teams that will summarize the workshop findings, outline a plan for creating organic research teams, and develop an ARS Organic Research Action Plan.