Defining the Research Needs of Farmers in Organic Horticultural Production in the Southeast

Final Report for LS02-142

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $21,080.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. George Boyhan
University Of Georgia
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Project Information


Institutionally based research efforts to address problems of organic producers are quite limited in the southeast. This planning grant initiated a process for improving availability and accessibility of information on organic agriculture in the southeastern region by engaging farmers, researchers, extensionists, and educators to: 1. identify issues critical to organic production in the southeast; 2. prioritize researchable questions to address these issues; and 3. organize multi-disciplinary research and education teams, including farmers, to develop grant proposals on the most important questions. A survey of organic farmers in the region was done to identify key production and marketing issues of organic horticultural commodities. A farmer-research roundtable with participants from throughout the southeastern U.S. was held to refine and prioritize identified survey issues. For the top priorities, seven multidisciplinary teams of researchers and farmers were formed to develop research proposals addressing these priorities. These proposals will be submitted to a variety of sources for funding. A Roundtable Report is being finalized and will be disseminated through participating organizations and shared via newsletters, conferences, and on the World Wide Web.

Project Objectives:

The goal of this planning grant was to initiate a process for improving the availability and accessibility of information on organic agriculture in the Southeast region. To meet this goal, the planning grant engaged farmers, researchers, extension specialists, and educators to:
1. Identify issues critical to organic production in the Southeast.
2. Develop a prioritized list of researchable questions to address the issues from objective 1.
3. Organize multi-disciplinary research and education teams, including farmers, to develop grant proposals on the topics from objective 2.


Demand for organic products has increased market opportunities for small and medium-size farms in the southeast. Potentially lucrative opportunities in organics remain untapped, however, while farmers continue to grow conventional commodities for which profit margins are slim. Other regions dominate southern markets for organic products due to the small producer base and unconsolidated marketing strategies in the region. Transitioning to organic production is risky due to demands on a farmer’s management skills, weathered soils, and the lack of research-based information to support farmers and those who advise them. These transition phase problems may deter farmers from progressing into certified organic production and may also be of on-going concern to existing organic producers. Institutionally based research efforts to address problems of organic producers are quite limited in the southeast. There is growing interest, however, among researchers in southeastern Land-Grant Universities and USDA-ARS to change this.


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  • Craig Triplett


Materials and methods:

Three components were used to meet our planning grant objectives: 1) a grower survey; 2) a farmer-researcher roundtable; and 3) the formation of research teams.

1. Grower Survey
We reviewed the content and results of previously conducted surveys of organic producers in the US, including those conducted by Kentucky State University in 1999 (SARE grant LS98-098), the University of Florida in 1992-93, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association with North Carolina State University in 2000, the US Department of Agriculture (Fruit and Vegetable surveys, various years), and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) in 1997. These surveys were synthesized and the synthesis used in developing a survey questionnaire for southeastern producers.

Dr. Luanne Lohr, an agricultural economist specializing in organic agricultural markets at the University of Georgia (UGA), developed and implemented the survey and analyzed the results, with the assistance of Georgia Organics staff and a student worker. The survey questionnaire was mailed individually to the members of farmer organizations collaborating on this planning grant. The sample size was over 800 farm operators with identification measures used to avoid duplicating responses across the survey outlets.

2. Farmer-Researcher Roundtable
A regional Farmer- Researcher Roundtable was held February 21-22, 2003, immediately before and in the same location with Georgia Organics’ annual conference, in Statesboro, Georgia. Over seventy farmers, researchers and NGO staff representing organic farmers participated for one and half days. The Roundtable Plenary Session included a keynote address by Jane Sooby of the Organic Farming Research Foundation on the history of organic farming research in the U.S., a presentation by Michel Cavagelli of the USDA-ARS on ARS research concerning organic agriculture, and a presentation by Luanne Lohr of UGA on the results of the farmer survey.

The presentations were followed by facilitated discussions among organic producers, researchers, and extension professionals in breakout sessions. Moderators of each breakout group helped farmers and researchers refine and transform the issues identified by farmers into specific questions for which research can be designed and conducted. A compendium of abstracts for completed and in-progress organic horticultural research was compiled prior to the conference and a poster session was held at the roundtable to increase awareness of participants of existing research efforts. The compendium included research funded by SARE. Travel funds and conference fee-waivers were provided to selected participants to ensure adequate representation and diversity at the Roundtable.

3. Formation of Research Teams
Disciplinary and multi-disciplinary teams, including farmers, capable of addressing the identified research topics were assembled. Collaborators in this planning grant request form the core members of the teams in accordance with their areas of expertise. This core has been carefully selected to ensure a high level of both academic and grower expertise in fruit and vegetable production, soil nutrient management, soil-plant-water relationships, insect dynamics, plant disease management, ecology, agro-forestry, markets and marketing, cover crops, conservation tillage, and agricultural engineering. The core represents a diverse number of public and private institutions, departments and disciplines across ten states, and maintains contacts with additional key resource people.
Additional expertise will be assimilated into the team as proposals are developed. Team formation will be up to the participants, but the round table gave the initial contacts. The list of prioritized research results will be circulated to the region's land grant institutions for dissemination to their research and extension faculty so that the maximum number of interested parties can participate. Contact information will be circulated to facilitate team development and topical discussions on research questions.

The research proposals will involve experiment station and on-farm research as appropriate to the research question. Growers will be involved in the project design, implementation, analysis, and outreach activities, whether on-station or on-farm. We envision submitting proposals to funding programs including SARE, the new research funds in the 2002 Farm Bill allocated for organic agriculture research, the Organic Transition Program, the National Research Initiative Program, the USDA 1890 Capacity Building Grants Program, the Organic Farming Research Foundation, and the Fund for Rural America.

Project Coordination

Georgia Organics coordinated the planning grant activities. The research proposals, however, are being generated by researchers from diverse research institutions in the southeast. The Project Coordinator, George Boyhan of the University of Georgia, ensured the timely implementation of this planning project, with the support of staff at Georgia Organics. Dr. Boyhan’s time and efforts were a significant in-kind contribution from the University of Georgia to this project. The costs for conducting and analyzing the survey were paid out of project funds via Georgia Organics. The Survey was done by Luanne Lohr of the University of Georgia and was another significant contribution from UGA toward this project.

Research results and discussion:

The survey of organic horticultural producers was completed and presented at the Roundtable. There were 124 respondents to the survey from 13 southeasthern states. The issues identified were in order of priority based on times mentioned:

1. Insects
2. Diseases
3. Production problems (ie. Labor, water, seed, etc.)
4. Weed problems

Most often mentioned crops:

1. Squash
2. Tomato
3. Cucumber
4. Beans
5. Blueberry

Economic or marketing problems

1. Identify & reach high end markets
2. Labor availability
3. Seasonal pressure on quantity and price

Most needed technical skill or additional training

1. Composting
2. Cover crop management
3. Cultivation or tillage for weed control

Seventy-seven farmers and researchers participated in the Roundtable. They were divided in four breakout groups of issues on 1) Cultural Practices 2) Marketing 3) Environmental Issues, and 4) Pest Management.

The researchable issues identified and the researchers responsible for forming research teams as necessary to pursue them are:

1) Title: Seasonality of pests and natural enemies in organic farms in the S.E. USA
Lead Researcher: David Riley, University of Georgia

2) Biology and management of perennial weeds in organic crop production systems
Lead Researcher: W. Carroll Johnson

3) Integrated control of annual weeds in organic produced legume crops
Lead Researcher: W. Carroll Johnson

4) Assessment of perishability of organic produce

Lead Researcher: None identified

5) Organic strawberry transplant production
Lead Researchers: Frank Lowns, Leonor Leandro, Lisa Ferguson

6) Improvement (screening) of vegetable varieties for disease resistance
Lead Researcher: Non identified

7) Organic seed production for horticultural crops, forage & grains

8) Management of invasive perennial weeds in reduced-tillage organic vegetable production
Lead Researchers: Ron Morse & W. Carroll Johnson

9) Economic Benefits and Environmental Impacts of Organic Amendments and Tillage Practices in Organic Farming Systems
Lead Researchers: Jeff Mullen, Johannes Scholberg, Sharad Phatak, Dorcas Franklin

10) Simple producer based test for nutrient availability in compost

11) Develop a model for an organic farm, test model with exisitng data, and use the model to develop future research needs
Lead Researcher: Sharad Phatak, Emillie Skinner, Miguel Cabrera

12) Comparative analysis of marketing opportunities for organic growers
Lead Researcher: None identified

13) Investigate and develop regional organic cooperatives
Lead Researcher: None identified

14) Cost/benefit analysis of conventional vs organic food production systems with inclusion of all externalities
Lead Researcher: None identified

15) Define enterprise budgets for organic production
Lead Researcher: None identified

16) Conduct demand analysis of sales of organic produce
Lead Researcher: None identified

17) Evaluate government policies effect on organic production
Lead Researcher: None identified

18) Evaluate information delivery systems for organic production
Lead Researcher: None identified

19) Organic transplant production
Lead Researcher: None identified

20) Post-harvest handling of organic produce
Lead Researcher: None identified

21) Investigate integrated management of perennial weeds using cultural, mechanical, mulches, and flaming especially with bermudagrass, nutsedges, and johnsongrass
Lead Researcher: None identified

22) Investigate steam sterilization and solarization for pest management
Lead Researcher: None identified

23) Develop systems to control vertebrate pests
Lead Researcher: None identified

24) Develop cultivars with resistance to diseases and insects as well as screen heirloom cultivars for disease and insect resistance
Lead Researcher: None identified

25) Mulches as pest management tools
Lead Researcher: None identified

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Each participant was given a binder that included their breakout session assignment, the grant abstract, a schedule of events, points for discussion, forms to help identify and document potential research effort, poster abstracts, a literature search of current organic research, and a couple of articles on organic research. In addition each binder had a place for notes.
A forthcoming post-Roundtable report is in preparation which will be distributed to the moderators for comment, review, and to make any necessary corrections and additions. After the review process it will be distributed to participants via email and made available on the world wide web via both Georgia Organics’ website and the University of Georgia’s website.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

There was a serious and protracted discussion of research approaches to organic production. Michel Cavagelli first brought up the idea in his presentation discussing a systems versus a reductionist approach. This debate was discussed at length particularly in the cultural practices breakout session. This discussion was also debated at some length in the Saturday general session. Both approaches could be successful, but from a practical standpoint there are probably not enough resources to conduct many systems approach experiments. Reductionist approaches are probably going to be the bulk of research that occurs in this area.


Areas needing additional study

Further study on a farmer-driven agenda was the whole purpose of the Roundtable. Please see the research topics listed in section 3 above.

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.