U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


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Agricultural Research February 2013


At first glance, the divide between organic and conventional farming appears to be of Grand Canyon proportions. But when it comes to research, the distance between organic and conventional farming practices is not nearly so great.

The Agricultural Research Service has a national program that specifically carries out studies aimed at helping organic farmers to compete in the marketplace by finding ways to cost-effectively produce abundant amounts of high-quality, safe products to meet consumer demands.

Consumer demand for organically produced goods has shown double-digit growth for well over a decade, providing market incentives for U.S. farmers across a broad range of products. Organic products are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly 3 of 4 conventional grocery stores. Organic sales account for more than 3 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to recent industry statistics.

ARS has responded to this rising demand with an interdisciplinary program of research on the biological and physical processes of plants, invertebrates, microbes, and soils, which may naturally regulate pests and enhance soil fertility.

The agency’s scientists are mainly seeking strategies to prevent the problems faced by organic growers and then, secondarily, looking for therapeutic controls that they can use.

From a practical standpoint, this whole system approach also describes a large part of ARS’s research to improve conventional agriculture. Many of the results and lessons learned from conventional ARS research can be readily applied to organic farming systems and vice versa.

For instance, ARS is researching new cover crop mixtures and strategies that can reduce losses of nitrogen to ground and surface water and reduce the need for expensive supplemental nitrogen fertilizers. This would be as much a benefit to conventional farmers as it would for organic producers, because neither group wants to pay for extra fertilizer or pollute waterways. You can read more about these new cover crop ideas on page 4.