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National Program 216: Sustainable Agricultural Systems Research
Organic Agriculture Production Research
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The vision for ARS Organic Agriculture research is to help the organic industry overcome the challenges they face related to productivity, profitability, environmental stewardship, and energy efficiency. Our interdisciplinary research approach is to understand the biological and physical processes innate to plants, soils, invertebrates, and microbes that naturally regulate pest problems and soil fertility, and to use this knowledge so as to not rely on the use of synthetic pesticide and fertilizer production inputs. A majority of effort is devoted to whole system preventative solutions, and secondarily to therapeutic controls as rescue practices. The objective of ARS Organic Agriculture research is to help producers compete effectively in the marketplace to meet consumer demands by their producing abundant amounts of high quality and safe products.

ARS Support of Organic Agriculture

For projects to participate in the ARS Organic Agriculture Portfolio, they are required to have specific organic research objectives in their project plans that are coded for budget tracking. In FY2007, ARS invested $15,446,600 in research that directly addresses organic agriculture challenges, of which $8,244,400 is conducted under organic production conditions. ARS funding supporting organic research is up from $8.1-million in 2002. Most of the increase has been the result of redirection to research with organic objectives.

The ARS National Program Leader for Agricultural System Competitiveness and Sustainability (NP-216) coordinates ARS Organic Agriculture Portfolio, provides contacts for ARS researcher with regional and national organic organizations, and contact with other Department agencies. ARS organic research cuts across different CRIS projects, management units, and other National Programs. Research planning and accountability are achieved through shared research objectives that are documented via existing Agency administrative research planning, peer review, and implementation instruments. Past growth in ARS Organic Agriculture research has primarily come from existing research projects taking on specific organic objectives as a part of their existing research portfolio. ARS research projects with objectives that directly benefit the organic industry are being conducted at: Ames, IA; Beltsville, MD; Beaumont, TX; Booneville, AR; Brookings, SD; Dawson, GA; Geneva, NY; Ithaca, NY; Kearneysville, WV; Lane, OK; Morris, MN; Orono, ME; Parlier, CA; Prosser, WA; Salinas, CA; Shafter, CA; Stoneville, MS; Tifton, GA; Urbana, IL; Wenatchee, WA; and Wyndmoor, PA.

To ensure that ARS research is relevant, organic industry specific customer workshops were held in Austin, TX in January 2005 and Atlanta, GA in October 2006. The Atlanta workshop was attended by organic producers and industry representatives, ARS scientists, and managers from AMS, CSREES, ERS, and NRCS. A list of nationally important challenges was developed by the customers, and ARS developed a national five-year research action plan that addresses those issues. A national strategic action plan for growth in ARS Organic Agriculture Research was developed based on input from customers and workshop participants.  In February of 2012 a customer/stakeholder workshop was held in Beltsville, MD and through a webcast at four other ARS locations throughout the U.S.  This most recent workshop was attended by organic producers and industry representatives, ARS scientists, and managers from NIFA and NRCS. 

ARS Organic Agriculture Research Focus:

Examples of Accomplishments from ARS Organic Agriculture Research:

Cover cropping practices improve organic weed management. ARS scientist in Salinas and cooperators showed different cover crops produce similar amounts of biomass, but there are large differences in their weed suppressive abilities. At typical seeding rates, weed suppression was excellent by mustard and rye, but extremely poor in legume/cereal mixes. Increasing the seeding rate of the legume/cereal mixes improved weed suppression to acceptable levels. Also, rotary hoe use can reduce weed seed production in winter cover crops by up to 80%, so weeds are less of a problem in the spring.

Non-chemical disease controls for organic and conventional potato systems. ARS scientists at Orono, ME demonstrated that oregano completely inhibited growth of the Late Blight pathogen (Phytophthora infestans) in the laboratory and partially inhibited the pathogen in growth chamber studies. Also, commercially-available biological control organisms such as Trichoderma virens and Bacillus subtilis can reduce Rhizoctonia stem canker by 37-75% and black scurf by 11-20%, while increasing potato yield by 15-20%. Similarly, crop rotations of Brassica species reduced several diseases on potato. This research identified several options for controlling diseases that are now employed by both organic and conventional growers.

Organic treatments for deworming sheep and goats. ARS scientists at Booneville, Arkansas and cooperators showed genetic resistance against parasites to be a viable approach for parasite control, with St. Croix and Katahdin hair breeds being more resistant to parasites than Dorper and other wool breeds. Preliminary results suggest small ruminants ingesting sericea lespedeza forage, that is rich in condensed tannins, had lower populations of the Haemonchus contortus internal parasites. Low doses of copper oxide wire particles appeared to be an effective means to control Haemonchus infestations in small ruminants. These approaches to control internal parasites are essential for organic sheep and goat meat production.

Rotation length and crop complexity reduces weed pressure and increases yields in organic cereal crops. ARS scientists in Beltsville, Maryland and cooperators showed the number of weeds seed in the soil in spring was often correlated with weed cover percentage at maturity the same year, demonstrating that maintaining a low seed bank by using diverse rotations can lead to improved weed control in organic crops. During favorable years, corn yield losses due to weeds were less than 5% in the longest organic rotation, a level similar to that achieved using herbicides in conventional no-till and chisel-till systems. This result indicates that with good management, longer organic crop rotations can function comparably to conventional systems that use herbicides. These results will be of great benefit to organic farmers and conventional producers considering who are considering transitioning to organic cropping.

Reducing weed control costs to organic vegetable producers. Hand labor for weed management in high-value organic vegetable crops can cost up to $1500 per acre. ARS scientists in Salinas, California and cooperators conducted on-farm research to evaluate the effectiveness and costs of six organic weed management tools to prepare stale seed beds in high-density vegetable production. These techniques included organic herbicides, propane flamers, and various cultivation tools. Most techniques controlled more than 70% of the weeds and cost less than $230 per acre. However, the organic herbicide was ineffective and cost $1557 per acre. These findings identified effective methods to help organic producers minimize the need for hand weeding of high value vegetable crops


Gene Lester, National Program Leader


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