Cornell works to improve organic farming methods in a multitude of ways

The demand for organic foods has doubled in the past decade and continues to grow. As a result, Cornell University, the land-grant institution of New York state, is increasingly devoting more of its resources to researching ways to improve all aspects of organic agriculture, including soil health, seed availability, dairy health and crop production.

"Over the last five years, Cornell has emerged as a leader in organic agriculture research and extension nationwide," said Anu Rangarajan, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell. "We have secured competitive funding for several major organic agriculture projects totaling more than $3 million and continue to expand our efforts. The Cornell Organic Production and Marketing Program Work Team has over 70 members, including faculty, staff, extension educators, farmers and others, all committed to supporting these systems. We are very excited by this momentum and look forward to more efforts in the future."

Among the many research and extension projects under way relating to organic agriculture are:

  • A study of milk quality and herd udder health on five farms that are making the transition from conventional dairying methods to organic milk production to develop a list of best practices for dairies interested in producing hormone-free and organic dairy products.
  • The Organic Seed Partnership to improve organic seed quality and farm profitability by building a large community of growers and breeders in the Northeast who want to share information gathered from organic seed-breeding field trials.
  • In-depth training of agricultural field staff on all aspects of organic vegetable production to enhance the ability of universities to support these farmers.
  • Studies of organic grain and vegetable crop rotation systems to research more effective growing and disease-prevention methods and to determine how tillage and manipulating the crops' source of nitrogen affect growth and quality of crops.
  • A study to develop a system of organic apple production for the eastern United States.
  • A study of 11 exemplary organic farms in the Northeast to better understand how farm practices and pest management strategies are integrated for successful organic farming.

Five Cornell sites are dedicated exclusively to organic research:

  • The Freeville Organic Research Farm, a 30-acre site adjacent to Homer C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, N.Y., is managed by Cornell's Department of Horticulture and is home to interdisciplinary research, which began in 2004, aimed at optimizing organic vegetable production systems for the Northeast. This summer's projects include a potato variety trial; a cropping systems study exploring the interplay of cover crops, rotations, tillage and nutrient management; a tomato trial using different potting mixes; organic seed breeding trials of cucurbits, peppers and others; a cover-crop demonstration; cultivation experiments; and a multi-species buffer planting.
  • The Cornell Willsboro Research Farm, a 6-acre site in Willsboro, N.Y., works on certified organic grain rotational trials, particularly alfalfa and timothy.
  • The Long Island Horticultural Research Center in Riverhead, N.Y., has two acres devoted to four experiments related to organic agriculture: two looking at fertility and weed control in heirloom tomato varieties; one examining stale seedbed techniques and fertilizer types for leafy green and mesclun production; and a fourth evaluating eight spring cover crops.
  • The Dilmun Hill Student Farm, a 3-acre student-run organic farm on campus, provides experiential learning opportunities and educational facilities for Cornell students, faculty, staff and the local community to explore sustainable food and organic agricultural systems. Student research projects recently have included a survey of the insect populations in the different beds, how beneficial insects were affected by flowering ground covers and mowed grass between crop rows and an extensive soil sampling of all crop beds to evaluate nutritional qualities and such problems as pH levels, fertility and heavy-metal concentration in the soil.
  • The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station of Cornell, located in Geneva, N.Y., is evaluating pest and crop management systems in a program sponsored by the Integrated Pest Management Program. An 8-acre site is used to compare an organic system growing sweet corn, zucchini, melon, pumpkin and cucumber using various rotational components.

Many of Cornell's efforts in organic agriculture are coordinated by the Cornell Organic Production and Marketing Program Work Team, co-chaired by Rangarajan and Abby Seaman, a vegetable integrated pest management extension educator at the Geneva Experiment Station. Cornell is also active in the Northeast Organic Network (NEON), which is composed of farmers, researchers, land-grant university personnel, nonprofit organizations and government agencies who work together to improve organic farmers' access to research and technical support. NEON is producing farmer resources on organic practices to enhance production and consumption of locally grown organic food in the Northeast.

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