Finding the “O-word” in Washington, DC

Posted: June 6, 2011

March 16, 2011 is a day to remember in the history of organic agriculture as it marked the start of the first USDA conference dedicated to organic farming. The Organic Farming Systems Research Conference: Exploring Agronomic, Economic, Ecological, and Social Dimensions was the result of a cooperative effort by multiple entities within USDA (ERS, ARS, NIFA, OSEC, OCS) and stakeholder organizations the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Organic Trade Association. One of the goals of the conference was to bring together research experts and industry representatives from across the country to review the science on organic agriculture and develop a research agenda for the future. The organizers really hit their mark, as the conference was packed with fascinating material ranging from hard data from prominent researchers to real-life experiences from outstanding organic famers.

Throughout the conference it was clear that the USDA has come a long way since Mark Lipson and the Organic Farming Research Foundation published their watershed report “Searching for the O-Word” in 1997. At that time, less than one-tenth of one percent of USDA’s research was focused on organic agriculture and the report concluded that the national agriculture research system “failed to recognize this potential, let alone explore it seriously or help to improve the performance of organic farming systems”. The change in the USDA’s attitude was evident from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s keynote address, where she explained how the Obama administration is increasingly supportive of organic agriculture.

Powerhouse researcher John Reganold from Washington State University gave the opening presentation on his work comparing the environmental impacts and food quality of organic vs. conventional crops. He reported on a recent project that compared organic and conventional strawberries grown in California and found that organic farms produced higher quality fruit than their conventional counterparts. This was just one of the many scientific presentations that reported on the benefits of organic farming. Michel Cavigelli reported on the Farming Systems Project in Beltsville Maryland and showed that net greenhouse gas emissions (global warming potential) were lower in organic compared to conventional cropping systems. Kathleen Delate from Iowa State University talked about their Long-term Agroecological Research project and how they found organic systems to be more profitable than conventional systems. Decreased environmental impact and enhanced profitability of organic cropping systems was a consistent message coming from researchers.

At the end of the first day we heard from a panel of organic farmers that included Eric Nordell from Trout Run, PA, Jim Goodman from Wonewok, WI, Greg Reynolds from Delano, MN, and Richard Parrot from Berger, ID. These innovative farmers talked about their operations and shared their experiences from collaborating with researchers. These farmers really balanced the conference and provided some grounding that can be lacking when bureaucrats and academics get together. During the panel discussion and throughout the conference, the participating farmers discussed research that they would like to see conducted in the future.

Presentation topics over the three-day conference were quite diverse and ranged from organic cotton production in Texas to the artisan wheat in Maine.  Perhaps the most inspiring presentation was by Heather Darby, researcher and farmer from Vermont, who talked about how organic revitalized rural areas where conventional diary farms have been disappearing from the landscape due to tighter and tighter profit margins. Her first-hand experience growing up on a farm in Vermont and seeing the role that organic dairy has played in the rural economy was particularly moving.

You can view many of the presentations from the conference at eOrganic and some of the research articles that were discussed are also available for free on-line.

 By Matt Ryan, Post-Doctoral Scholar, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences