Letter to Organic Farming Research Foundation, 25 April 2001

Dear OFRF:

I understand that you want to convince people that research on organic farming is underfunded, and that using the narrowest possible definition of "organic research" helps make that case.  In doing so, however, you encourage the organic community to ignore the vast amount of information they would find useful, generated by research that isn't explicitly organic.

The first page of your state-by-state listing provides a dramatic example.  Since 1896, Auburn University has managed what is by far the longest-running experiment with winter legume cover crops in the world.  In recent years, their cotton yields with legume cover crops as the only N source have exceeded yields with N fertilizer.*  As organic acreages increase, and conventional farmers seek alternatives to increasingly expensive N fertilizer, few organic farmers will be able to apply manure at current per acre rates, which greatly exceed per acre supply (one ton per irrigated acre, in California**).   As organic farmers turn to legume cover crops to make up the difference, this long-term research at Auburn (together with research at UC Davis and elsewhere inspired by Auburn's example) will provide the information they need to grow legume cover crops sustainably.  Researchers at Auburn have also developed hedgerow intercropping systems for sloping land.***  If this work would only be of interest to conventional farmers, it makes sense to exclude it from your report, but how many conventional farmers use winter legume cover crops or hedgerow intercropping?  Compare these two examples -- there are many others at Auburn and the other landgrants in your report -- to "a 50-ft2 organic garden" and you will get some idea of the extent to which you are ignoring information useful to the organic community.

I am, of course, in favor of greater funding for organic farming research.  But we need to make the case honestly, and in a way that doesn't discourage organic farmers from tapping into the wealth of research on biological control, crop rotation, tillage methods, disease-resistant cultivars, cover crops, biological nitrogen fixation, soil fertility, irrigation methods, etc. -- most of it not focussed exclusively on organic systems -- generated by the landgrant system.

Best wishes,
Ford Denison

*Mitchell, C.C., F.J. Arriaga, J.A. Entry, J.L. Novak, W.R. Goodman, D.W. Reeves, M.W. Runge, and G.J. Traxler. 1996.  The Old Rotation, 1896-1996 -- 100 Years of Sustainable Cropping Research.    Alabama Experiment Station, Auburn.
**Chaney, D.E., L.E. Drinkwater, and G.S. Pettygrove. 1992.  Organic soil amendments and fertilizers.    University of California, Oakland.
***Shannon, D.A., W.O. Vogel, and K.N. Kabaluapa. 1994.  The effects of alley cropping and fertilizer application on continuously cropped maize.  Tropical Agriculture  71:163-169.