The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded more than $19 million in grants to universities across the country for projects involving organic agriculture.
"Organic agriculture is one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture and the USDA and Congress, through the 2008 Farm Bill, are committed to helping this industry succeed by addressing critical organic agriculture issues through the integration of research, education and extension projects," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in her announcement of funding Oct. 30 in Portland, Maine. "These grants are an important part of USDA's new 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative, which will help develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity by assisting organic producers with new production and marketing practices to meet rising consumer demand."
Merrigan was joined by representatives from the University of Maine, which received a $1.3 million grant to help increase farmers' capacity to produce high-quality organic wheat. The announcement was made at Borealis Breads bakery where proprietor Jim Amaral uses the locally produced organic wheat that meets the higher quality standards necessary for bread production, according to the USDA.
Among the nearly two dozen projects awarded grants: Iowa State University received a $1 million grant to study sustainable systems for curcubit crops (such as melons, squash and cucumbers) on organic farms. Utah State University also received a $637,500 grant for work on organic stone-fruit production. Cornell University received $1.4 million for a research and extension initiative to increase the prosperity of organic grain and vegetable farms.
Since the late 1990's, U.S. organic production has more than doubled, but the consumer market has grown even faster. Organic food sales have more than quintupled, increasing from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $24.6 billion in 2008. More than two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic products at least occasionally, and 28 percent buy organic products weekly.
Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, said that the organization has been pointing out the need for more research money in the Farm Bill. "The OTA is definitely pleased to see that it's happening now. This shows more recognition by the government that there is a heightened awareness for the organic category and that (the USDA) is seeing the need to provide reseaerch to help facilitate that growth and provide for consumer demand, which is still outstripping supply."
More information about USDA's National Organic Program is available at ams.usda.gov/nop.