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Organic research important in state

June 14, 2012 | 0 comments

State research into organic farming practices helps not only farmers who want to produce certified organic products, but some of the identified practices are finding a foothold in the farming operations of those farmers who don't generally farm with organic methods.

Erin Silva, an organic production specialist with the University of Wisconsin, said there are 25 faculty members along with four other staffers and two UW-Extension agents working on actively funded organic farming projects.

These projects represent 16 departments or centers in the university system, she said, and this funded research covers agronomy, horticulture, dairy science, agricultural economics and other areas.

The organic research represents over $6.3 million in active grant funding and that doesn't even cover completed projects.

"This doesn't just benefit the ag sector, but it helps bolster the entire college and entire ag community," said Silva in a report to the state DATCP board covering a status report on organic farming in the state.

The 2012 Organic Status Report was recently released by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the University of Wisconsin's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS).

Helping produce the snapshot of Wisconsin's organic farming business were members of the Organic Advisory Council, a standing committee at DATCP. The committee includes producers, certifiers, processors, consumers and representatives of non-profit organizations.

Harriet Behar, of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), and Jerry McGeorge, of Organic Valley, members of the Organic Advisory Council, noted that research and education are important priorities for the council.

They noted that the state's technical colleges and university system offer education and research in organic agriculture that helps organic producers and the organic segment of Wisconsin agriculture, but also offers practices that are low-input, environmentally friendly methods that all producers can incorporate into their farming systems.

One of Silva's own research projects involves trials at the UW's Arlington and Lancaster farms where a roller-crimper is used on an organic cover crop so that a new crop can be no-till planted into the stand.

"I've had interest in the technique from conventional growers where Roundup is incorporated into the system," she said.

Silva said another project, the Veggie Compass - a project that determines the cost of production and profitability of single vegetable crops in different market channels - was established in part with organic funding sources, but provides information that is applicable to all diversified vegetable growers.


The UW-Madison's Department of Horticulture professor AJ Bussan is heading a research project aimed at developing effective weed management systems for large-scale organic production of sweet corn for processing.

Another trial is focusing on reducing the risks associated with organic snap bean production in Wisconsin, led by James Nienhuis in the UW-Madison Department of Horticulture.

Organic snap bean production for processing meets less than one-third of the current demand. In spite of this huge demand, it's been hard for processors to get growers to commit enough acres to fill the organic processing needs because of lower yields and higher risks associated with larger scale organic vegetable production.

Nienhuis' research is looking at ways to reduce the risk by using certain genetics, fertilizer types and rates, seed treatments and seed sources.

Another project, headed by Victor Cabrera in the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science, is looking at how farmers supplement pastures in their dairy rations.

In organic farming practices, farmers are required to provide 30 percent of more of their dairy cows' dry matter intake with pasture during the grazing season.

How farmers manage these pastures and supplement the rest of their cows' diet is a research subject that can benefit organic producers, those transitioning to organic practices and even conventional dairy farmers who utilize pastures.

Amy Charkowski in the UW-Madison's Department of Plant Pathology heads a project looking at organic certified seed potato production in the Midwest.

Because there is a shortage of organic certified, disease-free seed potato produced in the Midwest, organic potato growers are forced to import this seed stock from other regions and there is concern that this risks the accidental introduction and spread of disease.

Charkowski's team is looking at the economics and at field trials using a variety of heirloom and specialty potato varieties that are likely to do well under low-input organic practices and still present taste and texture that will appeal to consumers.

In this research, the heirloom potatoes will be grown in on-farm trials and characterized for yield, quality, disease resistance, taste and nutritional quality, and then an economic analysis will be provided from the trials.

Other trials involve evaluating organically approved fungicides and pesticides, fertility strategies for organic raspberries grown in hoop-houses and some long-term research with organic grazers.

Several UW researchers, including Silva, are collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance, the University of California, Purdue and Washington State universities on breeding carrots with improved resistance to disease and nematodes as well as improved marketable yield, nutritional value, flavor and storage quality for organic production.

The project also aims to improve growers' understanding of the various cultivars' response to organic production systems and identify desirable traits for organic producers.


Laura Paine, DATCP's organic and grazing specialist, says that, as of 2011, Wisconsin has a total of 204 organic processing companies. That includes 62 dairy processors, 24 processors of fruit and vegetables, 24 suppliers of feed, seed and grain storage.

There are also 20 processors of organic meat and poultry and 20 beverage processors making things like coffee, tea, beer and other drinks.

The state also had 18 ingredient companies processing things like organic spices and seasonings. There are 14 grain and bread product companies doing organic processing.

Paine said she did an on-line survey last summer of 90 of the state's organic processors and got a response from 30 processors.

"Although it's a fairly small sample, these numbers parallel the numbers in each category fairly well and provide a good snapshot of this growing industry," she said.

About one-third of the processors exclusively process their own branded product.

Nearly half, says Paine, do processing for other companies exclusively and 27 percent do both their own branded products and contract processing for others.

Paine said the companies that do contract processing for others are important for the state's budding cadre of organic producers because they provide a service that allows producers to get into organic production without having to invest in their own processing facilities, which in most cases would be cost prohibitive.

The contract processing paves the way for new organic producers to get into the business, she said.

The survey of organic processors also asked about employment and Paine said she found that organic processors ran from gamut - from no hired employees to 1,200 workers. But the state average was 171 and the median number of employees was 72.

Many of the state's producers of organic products, she said, are established processors of conventional products that have added organic lines to their output. Sixteen of the companies in her survey said that organic products were a relatively small proportion of their sales.

Among those responding to Paine's survey, gross annual income from organic sales ranged from over $100 million to under $10,000 based on the 24 companies that gave income estimates.

Fourteen of the 30 companies in the survey had started selling organic products before the initiation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program in 2002, and of those well-established companies 11 reported growth in their organic sales in the last three years.

Paine said newer, less well-established companies didn't fare as well in the sluggish economy of the last few years.

Among the organic processing businesses started since 2002, five reported growth, three reported no change in their sales and three reported decreases in organic sales.

Only one company in the survey that was launched since 2008 reported growth in organic sales, Paine said.

But, despite the economic conditions of the last few years, 19 of the 30 companies surveyed expected future growth in their organic sales.

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