Organic food research at Cornell boosted by $1.99 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture grants

The demand for organic food in the United States has increased by approximately 200 percent over the past 10 years, a trend that is expected to accelerate in the coming decade. Organic farmers in New York state will be better able to capitalize on this trend thanks to three new grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) received by researchers in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). The programs address seed viability, dairy herd health and improved crop production.

The grants, worth $1,987,784, represent 43 percent of the $4.6 million awarded in September by the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Services' (CSREES) Integrated Organic Program.

"Organic farmers face a unique set of challenges," said Sarah Johnston, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY). "While research on organic techniques attracts only a fraction of the resources dedicated to improving conventional practices, the lift given to each of the newly funded projects will go a long way toward strengthening the vitality of organic farming in New York, the Northeast and the nation as a whole."

In its first grant to Cornell, CSREES awarded $894,450 to the Organic Seed Partnership (OSP) to improve organic seed quality and farm profitability. The grant will help build a large community of growers and breeders in the Northeast who can readily share information gathered from organic seed-breeding field trials.

"Our successful local model of cooperative plant breeding will be used to develop varieties selected for superior performance in organically managed systems that will be specifically adapted to climates, soils and markets across the country," said Molly Jahn, Cornell professor of plant breeding and plant biology and leader of the OSP research team. "The OSP can be seen as an extension of our Public Seed Initiative extended nationally.""The quality of organic seeds and breeding for organic agriculture has never been a focus of the public breeding community. Molly Jahn has picked up this need and run with it," said Johnston.

With the demand for hormone-free and organic dairy products on the rise, more dairies are expected to adopt organic production methods. New York state has the nation's third-highest census of organically raised cows. NOFA-NY counts 89 dairies that currently are certified organic and 15 that are transitioning to organic production.

To assist them, Linda Tikofsky from the Quality Milk Production Services program of Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine, in collaboration with Ruth Zadoks from the Department of Food Science, will use an award of $518,306 to study dairies in transition. The project will study milk quality and herd udder health in five farms making the transition from conventional dairying methods to organic milk production over a four-year period. These data will allow researchers to develop strategic approaches and best practices for use in advising dairies seeking the transition from non-organic production.

Organic growers also will participate in and benefit from an award of $575,028 that will be used to investigate a wide range of issues facing organic farmers, from staying competitive during the transition from conventional to organic, to measuring soil health's impact on weeds, pests and disease, to training extension personnel and "farmer-mentors."

"This multi-sided study will address a number of challenges facing organic growers while using field teaching laboratories to test and demonstrate successful, market-viable, efficient organic practices," said Charles Mohler, senior research associate in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and the study's director.

Researchers will partner with model organic farms and demonstrate how their procedures make the farms successful. Klaas Marten of the organic Martens' Farm in Penn Yan, N.Y., is helping design the grain experiments. Eric and Anne Nordell of Beech Grove Farm in Trout Run, Pa., will serve as advisers on the vegetable experiments.

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