Insights by Goldie
Bright lights shine in the dark season

Sound Consumer | December 2010

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

By nature, I’m a doggedly hopeful realist, but no Pollyanna. I know times are tough, and getting more so. But I have hope.

In particular, when it comes to food production systems, the magnitude of the combined realities we face is daunting: We must meet staggering economic challenges, and cope concurrently with climate shifts that already have begun to disrupt food production in many parts of the planet — including our region.

The good news, however, is the presence of innumerable bright lights. They are the “farmer heroes,” all the dedicated men and women who are busily growing crops and animals in sustainable ways, especially those who are out in front, certified as U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic producers. They are proving every day that the way out from the darkness cast by the long shadow of chemically dependent industrial agriculture is here now — and it is up to us, and them — to see to it that the future is organic.

Many of these amazing farmers and ranchers are nearing retirement age but there’s a noticeable surge in the number of new and highly motivated self-described “greenhorns” — younger, energetic, organic (or organically inclined) producers. They may not yet technically be certified organic but they are inspiring and we welcome their enthusiasm, energy and determination to farm — intentionally helping to change the world!

There also are older family farmers that, although not certified organic, are very experienced, productive and resilient. Many are seeking solutions to avoid the use of harmful chemicals or practices common in industrial agriculture. Most of these producers have common ground with certified organic producers; they truly prefer to practice sound, sustainable stewardship of the land, earn a livable income, and produce nutritious, healthful crops and animals.

All these farmers and ranchers deserve our absolute gratitude, respect, recognition, support and strong encouragement. They need us and we need all of them — and many more of them! We need to “know our farmers” — literally or figuratively, understand their challenges, and to do whatever we can to ensure that all have access to solid, targeted and progressive agricultural research.

Organic grants

In October the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at the USDA announced 30 research grants totaling more than $22 million — for research particularly supportive of organic producers. NIFA’s director noted, “More and more farmers are adopting organic agriculture practices to produce quality food and boost farm income. These research and extension projects will equip producers with the tools and resources they need to operate profitable and sustainable organic farms.”

Of the $22 million in grants, $18 million was awarded through NIFA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). Research has focused increasingly on science that supports sustainable practices in agriculture and forestry. This includes organic farming to reduce negative impacts on the environment and keep U.S. farmers competitive.

Several new grants provide millions of dollars for research and support for organic farmers.

An additional $4 million was awarded through the Organic Transitions Program (ORG). According to NIFA, this 2010 funding focused on organic farming systems that support soil conservation and contribute to climate change mitigation. It addressed organic crops, organic animals (including dairy) and organic systems that integrate plants and animals.

I’m especially pleased that WSU in Pullman recently received $1.5 million for a four-year study looking at how carbon and nutrients are cycled through organic farming systems. Researchers at WSU will study vegetables, livestock, grains, rainfall and irrigation systems on organic farms and will develop a tool for other farms (organic and conventional) to estimate their greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact.

I also am happy that second-year funding was granted to Oregon State University in Corvallis, supporting important organic vegetable production research. The study envisions a “robust national network of organic vegetable breeders working collaboratively with each other and regional growers to benefit the organic community.” It will focus on researching pea, broccoli, sweet corn, carrots and winter squash plant breeding. Goals include increasing the availability of vegetable varieties well adapted to organic systems over a long season.

In sum, it is very heartening to see the USDA’s growing support for organic farming and ranching research — a solid light as we enter 2011.

More about: certified organic, farming, food systems, ranching, USDA

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