Meeting Notes: Positioning Ohio as a Leader in Organics

Dec. 3, 2019
Gathering around organic agriculture.

Among U.S. states, Ohio ranks 6th in the number of organic farms and 2nd in the number of acres transitioning to organic production. Consumer demand for organic products continues to rise and USDA funding for organic research is slated to grow from 20 to 50 million in the next five years. Is Ohio State ready to be part of this growth?

On November 21, a group of 35 Ohio State employees and organic stakeholders met in Wooster to discuss how Ohio State can provide better leadership for organic research and outreach.

Organic Industry in Ohio

Renee Hunt, program director for Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), shared information on her group’s history, which predates Ohio State’s interest in organics.  Founded in 1979, OEFFA continues to offer many services to growers. In addition to certification, OEFFA provides organic transition resources, staff educators, an annual conference, and farmer-focused meetings, workshops, and farm tours throughout the year. They welcome the opportunity to work with Ohio State but would like to see better communication and coordination around these partnerships. Renee listed several priority research topics and shared resources for researchers, including the NOSB research priorities, and the USDA Organic Integrity Database. She also shared procedures for requesting a letter of recommendation or grant collaboration with OEFFA

A farmer panel rounded out our overview of Ohio organic agriculture. Panelists were Dave Shively, David Raeber, Mike Gessel, Steve Turnow, and Lou Kozma, all organic farmers, some who have been certified since the 80s and 90s. According to our panelists, practical research is especially needed on pest management, marketing, economics, and livestock production (see list). They would like to see a larger presence of Ohio State at organic meetings and gatherings, and often find themselves turning to Michigan State or Purdue for information on organic production.

Ohio State’s Existing Resources for Organic Research

Deb Stinner, founder of Ohio State’s organic program (Organic Food & Farming Education and Research or OFFER) shared details of the group’s genesis in 1998 and the past ways they supported organic growers and researchers. In the early 2000s, the group’s efforts brought in around $10 million in competitive research grants and brought Ohio State recognition as a national leader in organic research. She urged researchers to involve farmers from the beginning of a project in substantial ways. She also felt Ohio State needs to do a better job with outreach and needs to return to having a dedicated employee for this work.  

Cassy Brown discussed recent updates she has made to the OFFER website. She urged researchers to contribute more research news and information to the website and offered to help with this. However, she pointed out that a website does not serve the Plain community well – which makes up a large percentage of organic growers in the state and region.

Ken Scaife, OSU Director of Ag Operations, and Gerald Reid, OSU Wooster Campus Farm Manager, discussed organic land available for researchers in Wooster and Fremont, Ohio. Interested researchers should contact Gerald or Matt Hoffelich. Gerald shared the current crop rotations and projects going on at Wooster’s West Badger facility. He noted that a fenced area is available for livestock grazing studies. A list of organic equipment was shared, along with Tips and Requirements for Organic Research at OSU’s Wooster Campus.

Funding for Organic Research

Mathieu Ngouajio, Administrator for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Organic Transitions (ORF) grants program at USDA-NIFA, joined us by video conference to provide tips for successful grant applications. According to Mat, organic grants have become very competitive – in 2018, less than 20% of OREI and ORG proposals were funded. However, last year’s Farm Bill provides increased funding for organic research over the next five years. This will be a gradual increase from 20 million in 2019 to 50 million by 2023 and beyond. Now is the time to think about projects!

Alan Sundermeier, OSU Extension Educator, shared grant possibilities through SARE, noting he would like to see more use of farmer/rancher grants, which were created specifically for farmers but may require help from Ohio State researchers. Mike Kline shared that Organic Valley now has their own grant program through Farmers Advocating for Organic (FAFO), funded with farmer check-off dollars. Research topics must be organic and practical, but not necessarily focused on dairy. Deb Stinner presented details on the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), which offers smaller one-year grants for practical projects that involve farmers. OFRF especially likes to fund graduate students or newer professors who are not yet established.

Next Steps: After-lunch discussion.

Much of the discussion focused on asking the University to hire an organic point person who could focus on outreach and relationship building. The group felt we need a person, ideally full-time, skilled at organizing, communicating, and cultivating relationships; someone able to match resources to needs. This person should be boots-on-the-ground at organic farmer meetings, passionate about organic agriculture, and knowledgeable about Ohio State personnel and resources. This could be tied to a teaching appointment to recoup some expenses or could serve as a coordinator for an organic team in much the same way Harold Watters serves the OSU agronomy team. Most of the group felt the latter would be a better request than another content expert who might only serve one specialty area.

However, the group also acknowledged that one person is not going to change everything. We need to think big and make this a systematic change. We need to promote organics to current administration on both a philosophical and practical level and there are many obvious reasons to do this now (growth in Ohio organic production, increasing consumer demand, existing resources at OSU, additional grant funds available, changes on Wooster campus, multiple retirements and new hires).

Another emerging theme was getting organic production on the curriculum at ATI and main campus. There was discussion on efforts to build on the sustainability degree at ATI and Casey Hoy’s work to create a degree track in sustainable agriculture.

Renee Hunt summarized the current situation well. There are many opportunities on the horizon, but we need to think strategically about how to move forward. She suggested 2020 be a “visioning year” when we work together to create a pathway forward for organics in Ohio.

(Notes compiled by Cassandra Brown)