The Southern Region Organic Fruit Production Initiative: Identifying Barriers, Needed Research, Markets, and Opportunities

Final Report for LS04-167

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $15,555.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Curt Rom
University of Arkansas
Expand All

Project Information


Organic production in the Southern region lags behind organic production in other regions of the country. This is due to reasons such as the hot and humid climatic conditions which increase disease pressures and insect pests. There are also few organized research and outreach programs offered by the university community in the Southern region to investigate and convey results of organic research and to teach organic methods to producers. Organic fruit growers indicated through a series of surveys the need for science-based, proven method for production and that adequate research and extension information for organic fruit production was a limiting challenge to growers.

Because of the challenges producers face, and the need for increased involvement of the Universities in organic production, a Southern Region Organic Fruit Working Group of scientists, extension specialists, growers, and representatives of industry and marketing organizations was created to conduct in-state focus groups and a region-wide Working Group meetings. These state and regional meetings identified barriers to production and marketing, and opportunities for organic fruit in the region. The outcome of the in-state focus groups and the regional Working Group has resulted in collaborative relationships, identification of challenges, benefits and potential projects, enumerated goals which we can accomplish as a group, and the development of full proposals to be submitted to SARE and the USDA-CSREES Integrated Organic Program. Through these activities, we will sustain and expand organic fruit production in the southern region.

Project Objectives:
  • The objectives of this planning grant were to:
    1) Develop a Southern Region Organic Fruit Research Working Group to:
    a. Assess the state of organic fruit production in the South;
    b. Conduct focus groups in each state that identify interests, obstacles and management issues in organic production, marketing and information needs;
    c. Develop innovative partnerships of research, extension, industry, fruit growers and local farmers' markets;
    d. Develop an organic fruit research initiative to investigate and develop new organic management techniques.
    2) Develop research proposals based upon research priorities determined in Objective 1 and submit to appropriate agencies and foundations, in order to develop an Organic Crop Management Plan to support and develop organic fruit production systems in the Southern Region

Several obstacles hinder organic fruit production in the Southern Region such as the lack of environmentally appropriate, scale-neutral technology, and climatic conditions that foster greater weed, insect and diseases challenges than in other parts of the country. Although organic fruit production research in other regions is helpful to southern production, regionally-specific hazards have not been addressed and thus much of the available information developed in other regions is not directly applicable to southern fruit producers. Growers are unlikely to invest in organic fruit production without substantial confidence in locally appropriate research and demonstrated technologies.

In order for southern organic fruit production to be sustained and to expand, it is necessary to identify barriers to production and marketing and then develop research and outreach programs to address those barriers. A region-wide, multi-institution and multi-disciplinary Southern Region Organic Fruit Work Group (SROFWG) of scientists, extension specialists, and grower/industry representatives was created to identify key needs through stakeholder input and generate collaborative grants to develop research and outreach programs to overcome the barriers to organic fruit production in the region


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Barbara Bellows
  • Dan Horton
  • Donn Johnson
  • David Lockwood
  • Steve McArtney
  • David Miller
  • Kirk Pomper
  • Jennie Popp
  • Mary Savin
  • Geoff Zehnder


Materials and methods:

In-state focus group meetings were held in Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina, from September, 2004 to January 2005. Producers, both organic and conventional, processors, Extension and non-profit representatives were invited to attend the meetings. Arkansas held two meeting with a total of 12 in attendance. Georgia had 6, South Carolina had 8, and Kentucky had 12 in attendance. Tennessee conducted two meetings, with at total of 86 attending. Although there were very few certified organic fruit producers at the meetings there was considerable interest by conventional producers in transitioning to organic. A “Guideline for conducting the organic fruit focus group meeting” (Appendix A) was developed which listed the focus group questions and information on directing discussion. This guide was distributed to project collaborators to standardize the meetings across the states as much as possible. Five primary questions were asked at the focus group meetings: 1) In your experience with organic production/processing/marketing areas, what are the most important barriers you face?; 2) For each barrier identified in question one, determine whether it is a barrier that can be addressed through a research or extension activity.; 3) Are there any interactions among the barriers listed? For example, would addressing one barrier require simultaneously addressing another barrier? Or, would the manner in which one barrier was addressed potential lead to another barrier; 4) What opportunities, assistance, or other positive factors exist in your locale, state, or region to facilitate your involvement in organics; 5) Outline potential research and education projects based on the three priority barrier issues.

Two regional meetings were conducted with project collaborators. The first was on October 15 2004, in McMinnville TN, in conjunction with the Southeastern Professional Fruit Workers meeting. This was an open meeting, to all attendees of this conference, where an introduction to the project was presented and an invitation for involvement in the project was extended to those interested. A discussion continued on the project goals, the need for such a project, and potential project success.

The second meeting of the working group was held at in Atlanta, GA on March 2, 2005 to present and discuss the results of the state focus group meetings and future work as a group. In attendance were representatives of the Universities of Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, NCAT-ATTRA, Gerber Products and a producer.

Research results and discussion:

Focus group results were similar across each of the states. Highlights of the state focus group discussions are outlined below..

Most important production barriers: How to grow organically; lack of pest mgt tools; weed control; lack of extension knowledge.
Most important marketing barriers: The industry is farther along that what may be perceived.
Most important assistance: Local sources of nutrients; AR breeding program; tradition of fruit in state; public perception of organic; health benefit of fruit; local non profits.
Potential projects: Breeding for disease control (peaches); evaluate organic nutrient inputs; promotion for local/ organic foods; develop value added crops; organic specialist.

South Carolina
Most important production barriers: For conventional growers, transition should occur in steps with support from research.
Most important pest issues: Plum curculio, peach tree borer; Disease: Brown rot, scab; Weeds: groundcover management.
Most important marketing barriers: Affordability of organic price premium; Consumers may become wary of buying conventional.
Most important assistance: Great opportunities for direct marketing organic fruit and also for transitional growers who adopt an IPM or low pesticide input program.
Potential projects: Establish organic research in multiple areas, isolated from conventional, where soil has been improved by addition of organic matter to give fruit a good start.

Most important barriers: Apple- insect/disease management; Peach- frost protection, insect pest management; Blueberry- soil pH control, field establishment, nutrient management, weed control, economics; Blackberry- disease management, weed control.
Potential projects: Information on low-input production, reducing sprays; multiple crop production on a small scale.

Most important production barriers: There is no organic specialist.
Most important marketing barriers: The organic industry may be farther along that what is perceived.
Potential projects: University involvement across state lines; conduct research well and make information available quickly; sulfur for disease, increasing and maintaining organic matter, recycled /composted plant material; local markets.

Most important production barriers: Info needed on varieties, cultural practices, pest control; need open communication between University and organic producers.
Most important processing barriers: Consistent supply (small producers); balancing the product demand for processing versus fresh markets.
Most important marketing barriers: Markets are slow to develop and may not offer premium for organic; keeping a reliably consistent supply.
Most important assistance: Conventional agriculture is no longer applicable - horticulture provides options for producers; growers are interested in organic.
Potential projects: Demonstrations; transitioning a part of the University Experiment Station to organic; small processing facilities being established for small farmers.

At the regional meeting in Atlanta, it was determined that five main themes emerged among the state focus group meeting. They are as follows.
1. Production limitations needing research: soil, pest and nutrient management
2. Limited research data: lack of information; identifying information for conventional producers can be adapted for organic producers, eg. insect life-cycle information found in spray-guides
3. Outreach: overcoming issues of lack of interaction and trust between the University and organic producers; a “go-to” person is needed - someone dedicate to organic issues; may have to work across several states.
4. Economics: developing local markets, changing agricultural systems – producers are going from commodity production to fruits and vegetables; changes in demographics and effects on markets such as minority populations and ethnic foods; the lack of local processing facilities; and information on the costs of production
5. Marketing and Promotion: processing niche; survey information is needed to determine the power of industry and to identify information gaps then developing information to address the information gaps on production and marketing issues.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Through focus groups, individual states have identified key publications, for example, “Arkansas organic agriculture resource manual” (in review).

The following list of presentations, posters, and publications were developed based on the information generated from this planning grant.

Rom, C.R, D.Johnson, J.Popp, B.Bellows and H.Friedrich. 2005. The Southern Organic Fruit Production Initiative. American Farm Bureau National Conference Jan 9-10, 2005 Charlotte, NC, poster

Rom, C.R., H.Friedrich, D.Johnson, J.Popp, B.Bellows. 2005. The Southern Organic Fruit Initiative. 2005 Oklahoma - Arkansas Horticulture Industry Show Proceedings, pp. 93-95. Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. oral presentation

Friedrich, H., C.Rom, J.Popp, B.Bellows, D.Johnson, D.Horton, K. Pomper, D. Lockwood, S. McArtney, G. Zehnder. 2005. The Development of a Southern Region Organic Fruit Initiative. HortScience 40(4): 1072, poster

Rom, Curt R., H. Friedrich, D. Johnson, J. Popp, B. Bellows, M. Savin, and D. Miller. 2005. The southern organic fruit initiative: a new multi-state, multi-disciplinary cooperative project to stimulate research, outreach and production in the Southern region. HortScience 40(3): 892.

Friedrich, H., C. R. Rom, D. Johnson, J. Popp, B. Bellows, M. Savin, D. Miller. 2005. The Southern Organic Fruit Production Initiative. HortScience 40(3): 883. (poster)

Rom, C.R., H. Friedrich, D.T. Johnson, J. Popp and B. Bellows. 2005. The Southern Organic Fruit Production Initiative. Proceedings of the 3rd Organic Tree Fruit Symposium, Chelan, WA, June 6-8, 2005, pp 65, Washington State University, Pullman WA. poster

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

As a result of this planning grant, we have established a collaborative relationship in the southern U.S. among researchers, extensionists, producers and processors and have strategized future projects. An initial but important step that we have begun to realize is simply gaining recognition among the organic industry - producers, processors, and marketers, that we are working to support and encourage the growth of the organic industry in the South. Past relationships among organic producers and the University community has often been strained and filled with mistrust from both sides. By asking for input from organic producers, we are working to strengthen and encourage communication and eliminate feelings of doubt and suspicion.

Results of the Southern Research Initiative have been presented at the Southern Region Society of Horticultural Science (Little Rock, AR), the National Society of Horticultural Sciences conference (Las Vegas, NV), the OK-AR Horticulture Industry Show (Ft. Smith, AR) National Farm Bureau conference (Charlotte, NC), Southeastern Professional Fruit Workers (McMinnville, TN) annual meeting and the 3rd National Organic Tree Fruit Symposium (Chelan, WA). By presenting the results at regional and national meetings, the UA and cooperating Universities have gained recognition among the university community, as researchers/extensionists that are interested in organic agriculture research and education in the South.

Through the state and regional meetings we have identified immediate and long term needs and have set forth plans for future projects to meet these needs. Progress is being made to formalize collaborating states into a formal working group through the SERA. As a result of this planning grant, proposals have been submitted to Southern SARE Research and Education for multi-state projects for organic blueberry production in Kentucky and Arkansas, off-season organic raspberry, blueberry and blackberry production in Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee, a professional development program for Arkansas Extension and a proposal to the USDA Integrated Organic Program for off-season, high-tunnel production of raspberries and blackberries in Arkansas and blueberries in Georgia.


Areas needing additional study

Based on the discussions outlined above, a list of projects/goals that the SROFWG could accomplish was developed. These include:
1. Develop a formal working group through SERA (Southern Extension Research Activity). This would help gain recognition with University Administration, receive money for annual meetings and increase funding opportunities. To increase “unification”, each state should also designate organic land on an Experiment Station for organic projects, demonstrations, class room teaching to facilitate regional projects such as organic pesticide evaluation, fertility, etc.
2. Develop projects with traditional crops under alternative production practices with an emphasis on small, diversified working farms.
3. Develop regional organic crop production guides. Set a timeline such as developing 3-4 production guides in 5 years. In the development of the first one or two guides, create a template for other crops. Start with crops that are well recognized in the region and are easier to grow organically: blackberries/brambles, blueberries and strawberries. Use information from conventional guides that is applicable to organic, such as biology of insects.
4. Conduct consumer and producer surveys to look at the “power of the industry” or consumer dollar spent on organic food, local food (farmer market, co-op, CSA, farm stands), also number of farmers, certifiable farmers, information on who might be interested in conversion to organic if there was access to markets. This information can then be used to draw support from administration and grants.
5. A grower advisory committee, with organic and progressive conventional producers, will be necessary to build bridges and establish relationships, but also to help develop case studies for the region and to give input on research projects. Documentation to show relevant progression throughout the process will be necessary.
6. Develop professional training opportunities for Extension and workshops for Extension programming.
7. Integrate teaching and research into organic projects to increase opportunities for undergraduate and graduate research.

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.