appetite for all-natural, organic food has grown at the remarkable rate of over
20 percent annually for the past 10 years. This makes organic
agriculturefarming and processing food without the use of synthetic
chemicals, such as synthetic pesticides and many inorganic fertilizersthe
fastest growing sector of America's agricultural economy. Contrast that to the
scarcity of organic items to be found 20 years ago . . . and those only in
specialty shops. Today, organic selections are as easy to find in conventional
supermarkets and mainstream stores as in natural food stores.
In fact, mainstream stores altogether account for 49 percent of organic
retail sales, just exceeding the 48 percent logged by natural food stores.
Organic items are flourishing in other, direct venues, including farmers'
markets, farm stands, roadside stands, farm subscriptions, and mail orders. In
all, commerce from this array of diverse outlets, large and small, puts America
in first place internationally in total organic sales.
The amount of land exclusively dedicated to raising this bounty has also
changed. Registered organic land more than doubled in the United States during
the 1990s. And the transition of conventional fields to strictly organic
farmlands continues. In this process, fields are managed organically for 3
years to qualify for certification.
Over the years, organic farmers have closely followed the findings from ARS
studies, in particular those on weed management, soil fertility, biological
pest control, and integrated pest management. Much of ARS' research
already aims to increase use of on-farm resources and decrease use of
chemicals. For the most part, however, those studies have been done
on conventionalnot organicfarming systems.
But that's changing. Organic studiesfrom production to
processingare increasingly a formal part of ARS efforts and can benefit
both types of farming systems. In 1998, Congress paved the way for more organic
investigations by authorizing an organic farming bill. Some collaborations were
already in place between organic farmers and ARS specialists and, in many
instances, their university colleagues.
Today, more than 60 ARS scientists are conducting organic farming research.
Notably, these studies are on organically certified fields. These experts have
consistently made themselves available to local growers for help and advice.
For example, our researchers in Corvallis, Oregon, are working with organic
growers to quell plant diseases. This collaboration is experimenting with
compost teas. These teas are made by adding water to organically approved
compost and allowing the mix to steep, somewhat like adding water to tea
leaves. The mix is then strained, and the resulting tea-colored liquid is
sprayed on foliage. The teas may help zap Botrytis rot that attacks leaves of
blackberries and ornamentals such as roses and geraniums.
Some other examples of ARS' organic research:
- Scientists at Salinas, California, responded to the needs of local
organic strawberry growers with some first-ever studies. The researchers
compared commercially available strawberry varieties grown only on
fields managed organically. The work was needed because organic growers
can't use the methyl bromide fumigant, familiar insecticides, and
herbicides available to conventional growers.
- A plant pathology team at Parlier, California, provided help and
advice to local organic growers about postharvest diseases. In one
effort, the scientists studied packinghouse equipment and treatments
to control green mold of citrus. This team also worked with organic
growers on postharvest diseases of other fruits, including peaches,
grown in the San Joaquin Valley
- ARS scientists at Fort Pierce, Florida, played a pivotal role in
developing a multiagency group to which Florida's organic growers
can turn for help. In current studies, the Fort Pierce team is working
with local organic growers to enhance weed and disease control on
their vegetable farms. They are experimenting with novel cover crops,
paper mulches, soil solarization, and biological control agents.
There's more. You can get a glimpse of current investigations by turning to
page 4 of this issue. We highlight studies aimed at controlling weeds, boosting
plants' nutrition, sidestepping a soybean disease, and strengthening the
production of organic beef.
To ensure that ARS' organic farming research meets growers' needs, we've
established a strong working relationship with the Organic Farming Research
Foundation. This organization conducts surveys and meetings to determine the
research priorities of America's organic farmers.
Increasingly, that research will use today's leading-edge technologies.
Global positioning systems, for example, enable growers to customize use of
water, fertilizer, and biological control agents from one corner of their field
to another. And new information about the genetic makeup of plants, animals,
and microbes can be used by tomorrow's organic growers to boost production in
environmentally friendly ways.
In the coming months, we will post a new web site on ARS' organic farming
Michael D. Jawson
National Program Leader
Integrated Farming Systems