Using farmer input to develop research projects and outreach activities for organic agriculture

Final Report for GNC05-045

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2005: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: Purdue University
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Kevin Gibson
Purdue University
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Project Information


A questionnaire distributed to Indiana vegetable growers suggested that concerns about pest management, particularly insects and weeds, were the primary barrier limiting the transition to organic production.

Conventional growers also considered organic vegetable production to be too labor intensive. However, more than a third of respondents reported an interest in organic options for weed management.

This suggests that Indiana growers are interested in organic vegetable production but desire additional evidence based on university research that pests can be successfully managed.


Driven by the demand for organically produced food, the number of certified and non-certified organic farmers in the United States, estimated at 12,200 in 2001, is increasing at a rate of 12% per year (USDA 2002).

An Organic Farming Research Foundation national survey in 2001 (Walz 2003) reported that 51% of current organic farmers had transitioned from conventional farming and 36% had mixed operations (some conventional and some organic), which agrees with a recent study conducted by Ohio State University (Rzewnicki, 2000). According to USDA estimates, U.S. certified organic cropland and pasture account for 0.3 % of the total production acres, with about 2% of all vegetable acres being certified organic (USDA 2002). Indiana ranks lowest among North Central states with approximately 4175 certified organic acres.

Conventional farmers who transition to organic farming practices and organic farmers often rank weed management as their number one research priority followed by fertility management, particularly building and maintaining soil organic matter (Walz 1999). In addition, both sets of farmers cite “a lack of information and experience regarding organic production” and “uncooperative or uninformed extension agents” as particularly problematic (Penfold et al., 1995; Clark et al., 1998; Walz 1997; Rzewnicki, 2000). This situation has occurred despite the rapid growth of organic production and the unique opportunities this offers for research and interaction of university researchers and extension personnel with farmers in developing organic management systems (Barberi 2002). As a result, farmers in the United States have often been forced to evaluate the relative advantages and limitations organic production without the benefit of research-based information on pest and soil management. If university and extension personnel are to play a positive role in this rapidly growing agricultural sector, then substantial investments must be made in organic practices research and development of appropriate educational materials.

For this grant, we proposed the use of detailed questionnaires to quantify conventional and organic farmer perceptions of organic agriculture in Indiana and identify the primary barriers to the adoption and optimization of organic vegetable production. Previous SARE projects have used grower surveys to identify production and marketing issues of organic horticulture commodities in the Southeast (SARE grant LS02-142) and to determine the research needs of organic vegetable growers in Kentucky (SARE grant LS99-098). Our project is designed to help identify similar information for Indiana growers and develop research projects and outreach activities that address these concerns.

Project Objectives:

There were two major anticipated outputs for this planning grant.

First we quantified conventional and organic farmer perceptions of organic agriculture in Indiana and identified the primary barriers to the adoption and optimization of organic vegetable production.

Second, we used this information to develop and prioritize research and outreach goals for research on organic vegetable production at Purdue University.


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Materials and methods:

An eight page questionnaire was developed during summer 2006 and mailed to over 600 vegetable growers in late fall 2006. Growers were asked to provide information about their cultural practices, particularly those involved in weed management and to list common and problematic weeds. Growers were also asked to identify the primary barriers to transitioning to organic agriculture. Eighty-five completed surveys were returned and analyzed during spring and summer 2007.

Research results and discussion:

Cultural Practices
A majority of respondents (84%) grew vegetables conventionally; 16% used organic practices to raise fresh market vegetables. In 2006, half of the organic growers planted one acre or less of vegetables and they planted an average of seven vegetable crops. In contrast, 75% of conventional growers planted at least 5 acres of vegetables and 11% planted more than 100 acres of vegetables in 2006. The latter group was primarily comprised of growers who raised crops for processing. Half of all conventional growers planted only 1 to 2 crops. However, 25% of conventional growers, primarily those planting less than 15 acres of vegetables, planted between 7 and 17 crops in 2006.

Most fresh market growers produced sweet corn, tomatoes, and/or pumpkins and cantaloupe. Growers reported fewer spring tillage passes and in-season cultivation passes in sweet corn than in tomatoes, pumpkins, or cantaloupe. Although only 42% of growers manually weeded in sweet corn, 75% or more of growers reported manually weeding in the remaining crops. Plastic mulch was used by a majority of growers for weed control in tomatoes and cantaloupes but not in sweet corn or pumpkins. The percentage of growers who used cover crops ranged from 32% for cantaloupes to 42% for tomatoes. 89% of growers considered it important or very important to prevent weeds from preventing seed each year.

Common and problematic weeds. Common lambsquarters, pigweed (growers were not asked to distinguish among pigweed species), and giant foxtail were considered the most common weed species in vegetable crops. Canada thistle and giant ragweed were considered the most difficult to control followed by common lambsquarters and pigweed.

Barriers to Organic Agriculture
Growers were given a list of thirteen potential barriers to transitioning to organic and asked select the three largest obstacles. Most growers considered insect and weed management - 78% and 73%, respectively – to be a major obstacle and 61% considered disease to be a major obstacle. Nearly a fourth of growers (23%) considered organic farming to be too labor intensive. Growers were also asked to list the top three pest management areas in which they would like to see more research. Herbicides were listed by 62% of respondents, cultivation by 49%, and insecticides by 42%. This suggests that concerns about pest management and the need for better tools not only prevents growers from adopting organic practices but is also a major concern for conventional growers. This concern is reflected in the number of acres planted with sweet corn relative to tomatoes or other vegetables. The average fresh market grower planted 8 acres of sweet corn and 0.7 acres of tomatoes. Growers reported fewer tillage and cultivation passes and less hand-weeding for sweet corn than for tomatoes suggesting that weed management is less problematic in sweet corn than in tomatoes. This likely reflects better herbicide options for sweet corn than for tomatoes.

Despite their concerns about pest management, 35% of respondents listed organic agriculture among their top three areas for research. This suggests that Indiana growers are interested in organic vegetable production but desire additional evidence based on university research that pests can be successfully managed. They appear willing to consider transitioning to organic production but need greater assurance that effective production tools are available.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Survey results were presented at the Indiana Horticultural Congress in January 2007.

The New Ag Network (NAN), an on-line publication dedicated to organic and sustainable agriculture published a short article related to our work entitled “Perceived barriers to adopting organic agriculture in Indiana”.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The survey results were used to further develop research priorities for organic and low external input vegetable systems at Purdue University. Since growers identified pest management and hand-weeding as primary obstacles for converting to organic and some level of hand-weeding was present in both conventional and organic systems, we will focus our efforts on cultural practices that improve pest control and reduce the need for hand-weeding. Cover crops can provide substantial weed control and fertility benefits but were used by less than 45% of growers. Most growers recognized the importance of preventing weed seed production but many growers do not rigorously control late-season weeds in their fields. Cover crops and/or the timely use of cultivation may limit weed seed production, decrease weed seed bank densities, and lessen the need for high input weed management tactics in subsequent years. Additionally, cover crops and cultivation may affect the ratio of beneficial to harmful insect pests. Thus, we will focus our research on evaluating cover crops and late-season tactics to limit seed production in vegetable crops.

Economic Analysis

Not applicable.

Farmer Adoption

Not applicable.


Areas needing additional study

Although our survey provided valuable information regarding conventional and organic farming practices, it is possible that our emphasis on pest management may have prompted growers to focus on pest issues in their responses. Other issues such as the costs and difficulty of certification or a lack of critical infrastructure in the state to distribute and market organic products may be as important as perceived difficulties in managing pests. Additional surveys that examine these alternative explanations in more detail would be useful.

Literature Citations

Barberi, P. 2002. Weed management in organic agriculture: are we addressing the right issues? Weed Res. 42: 177-193.

Clark, M. S., H. Ferris, K. Klonsky, W. T. Lanini, A. H. C. van Bruggen, and F. G. Zalom. 1998. Agronomic, economic, and environmental comparison of pest management in conventional and alternative tomato and corn systems in northern California. Agri. Ecosys. & Environ. 68: 51-71.

Penfold, C. M., M. S. Miyan, T. G. Reeves, and I. T. Grierson. 1995. Biological farming for sustainable agricultural production. Austral. J. Exper. Agric. 35: 849-856.

Rzewnicki, P.E. 2000. Ohio Organic Producers: Final Survey Results. Special Circular 174-60. The Ohio State Univ.

Walz, E. 1999. Third Biennial National Organic Farmers’ Survey. Santa Cruz, CA: Organic Farming Research Foundation. 130 p.

[USDA-ERS] U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2002, “U.S. Organic Farming in 2000-2001: Adoption of Certified Systems. Economic Research Service, Resource Economics Division, Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 780.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.