Dig Deeper

Top USDA Official Talks Latest in Organic Crop Insurance at Pennsylvania Farm

A top official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency took to the road this week to get feedback from farmers in Pennsylvania on how new enhancements to federal crop insurance are helping organic producers. (more…)

Organic Farming Research Foundation Awards Grant to Rodale Institute

The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) has awarded a $14,991 grant to Rodale Institute. Requested by Gladis Zinati, Rodale Institute Associate Research Scientist, this grant will fund the project “Field Evaluation of Designed Compost Extracts for Organic Weed Suppression” beginning May 1, 2016, and ending August 1, 2017. (more…)

Bat Research for Organic Insect Pest Management

Last month, the Rodale Institute was awarded a $15,000 Northeast Sustainable Agriculture and Research Partnership Grant to begin Bat Research for Organic Insect Pest Management. The two year project titled “Investigating Bat Activity in Various Agricultural Landscapes to Develop Organic Insect Pest Management” will begin this spring. The objective of this study is to assess bat populations and activities using acoustic monitoring equipment at sites under a variety of land uses and to identify tools to enhance bat activities for Integrated Pest Management (IPM). (more…)

USDA Reports Record Growth In U.S. Organic Producers

photo 1

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced a significant increase in the number of certified organic operations, continuing the trend of double digit growth in the organic sector. According to new data, there are now 21,781 certified organic operations in the United States and 31,160 around the world.

"Organic food is one of the fasting growing segments of American agriculture," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "As consumer demand for organic products continues to grow, the USDA organic seal has become a leading global standard. The increasing number of organic operations shows that USDA's strong support for the vibrant organic sector is helping to create jobs and opportunities in rural communities."

According to data released by the Agricultural Marketing Service's (AMS) National Organic Program (NOP), the number of domestic certified organic operations increased by almost 12 percent between 2014 and 2015, representing the highest growth rate since 2008 and an increase of nearly 300 percent since the count began in 2002. The total retail market for organic products is now valued at more than $39 billion in the United States and over $75 billion worldwide.

Along with consumer demand for organics, increasingly they are asking for local foods. Under Secretary Vilsack, USDA has supported providing consumers a stronger connection to their food with more than $1 billion in investments to over 40,000 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects since between 2009. Industry data estimates that U.S. local food sales totaled at least $12 billion in 2014, up from $5 billion in 2008.

USDA has strengthened programs that support organic operations over the past seven years, helping to make organic certification more accessible, attainable, and affordable through a "Sound and Sensible" approach. This initiative includes streamlining the certification process, focusing on enforcement and working with farmers and processors to correct small issues before they become larger ones.

USDA has also established a number of resources to help organics producers find technical and financial resources to help them grow domestically and abroad. The site www.usda.gov/organic creates a one-stop-shop for operators, and USDA has made market and pricing information for approximately 250 organic products available free of charge through USDA's Market News. In 2015, USDA made more than $11.5 million available to assist organic operations with their certification costs.

The NOP maintains the list of organic operations and leads activities that support organic integrity and market growth. In addition, USDA helps organic stakeholders access programs that support conservation, provide access to loans and grants, fund organic research and education, and mitigate threats from pests and diseases. USDA also administers organic certification cost-share programs that offset the costs of organic certification for U.S. producers and handlers.

The data announced today are publicly available as part of the recently launched Organic Integrity Database, a modernized system for tracking certified organic operations. In the past, USDA published an updated list of certified organic operations once each year. With the new database, made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, organic certifiers can add new operations and report changes to existing operations at any time, allowing USDA to report updated counts of certified organic operations throughout the year. The modernized system will provide data for market research, enable stakeholders to identify market opportunities and make supply chain connections, support international verification of operator status to facilitate trade, and establish technology connections with certifiers to share more accurate and timely data.

Additional information about USDA resources and support for the organic sector is available on the USDA Organics Resource page.

Adding American Kestrel Nest Boxes

American Kestrel

Recently, our friends at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary visited to replace our old American kestrel Nest Box and to add a second nest box. The Institute’s land has been successful at attracting breeding pairs of Kestrels so we added second location to the farm. The American kestrel is a small falcon that utilizes farmland. This bird is in decline and these boxes will be monitored and will be part of Hawk Mountain’s research on the birds. The Institute is happy to support farmland raptor conservation.

Kestrel Babies

Plant Science: Grafting Tomatoes

Grafting tomatoes with our Field Foreman Dan Kemper

Dan grafting

For root stock, Dan selected two green cherry tomatoes, Fortamino and Estamino, which promote hearty and aggressive vegetative growth, and grafted it to a traditional beef steak tomato, Caiman. During the grafting process, Dan slices a downward angle on the root stock tomato plants and upward angle on the fruiting tomato plants with a razor blade. The plants are then joined at their incisions and held in place with the grafting clip.

The original roots of the Caiman tomato plant are cut away, and the plant is forced to uptake nutrients through the grafted root stock.

This method takes the best of both plants, one with strong roots, the other with edible fruit to create a very stable plant that can be more resistant to soil borne diseases and pathogens. This is a physical bonding of the plants, it does not affect the genetics of the plant or its fruit.

Dan grafting tomatoes

Why One Little Insect Has the Power to Collectively Change the World

Well, I’ll bee!
Why One Little Insect Has the Power to Collectively Change the World

Guest post by Lydia Henshaw: Founder, Sow Organic


The powerlifters of the insect world, bees are fundamental to sustainable living. While their ecological significance has long been understood, their social and economical impact could prove equally profound.

More than two-thirds of the most widely consumed crops across the globe rely on bees for pollination, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. But that’s not all they bring to the table. The honey they produce offers such a variety of health benefits that indigenous cultures throughout history have referred to it as liquid gold. Other bee by-products, like pollen and beeswax, have created a deserving buzz in the medical and cosmetic fields as well.

Considering the importance of bees to our very existence, their declining population should be cause for concern for anyone who calls planet Earth home. Nobody understands this more than Sarah Costin, co-founder of A Bee Organic, an accredited certifying agency (ACA) with clients in the United States and abroad. As its name would indicate, A Bee Organic specializes in apiculture, or beekeeping, in addition to crops and other livestock.

The logistics of organic apiary production
Organic standards are very strict when it comes to the land surrounding apiary farms. Beekeepers must maintain a certain distance between their hives and adjacent land. Since bees have been known to travel up to a five-mile radius to forage, anything from nearby crops to industrial plants, water treatment facilities and beyond could potentially pose a contamination threat. The stringent regulations don’t end with land parameters, either.

Basically, anything or anybody that touches the honey, pollen, beeswax or other products ultimately produced and distributed for human consumption must adhere to the highest standards to preserve their integrity. These standards are established and governed by the National Organic Program (NOP), which operates under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its guidelines on organic production and handling state that “handlers must prevent the commingling of organic with non-organic products and protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances.”

A Bee Organic helps its apiary clients understand and navigate the regulatory and logistical challenges inherent to organic beekeeping.

Organic empowerment in Indonesia
Costin recently began working with an organization in Indonesia focused on bringing a large group of local beekeepers into organic production. Ali Haliman, chief operating officer of PT Haldin Pacific Semesta, was looking for a certifying agency that shared his passion for empowering local citizens with the opportunity to earn a reliable income while contributing to the local environment and economy. He found what he was looking for in A Bee Organic.

“This project is near and dear to my heart,” said Costin. “I love showing people that there is a way to make a living and also take care of the environment. We can and should do both. It’s not that hard when you understand how to do it.”

Ironically, the strict land requirement that often complicates matters for U.S.-based apiarists is typically not a problem in Indonesia. The expansive stretches of undeveloped rainforest in many parts of the country make apiculture a natural fit for economic growth and development. The flavorful, pure varieties of honey produced in Indonesia are ideal for exporting to other countries, in particular the United States, and also for local consumption.

For a nation plagued by poverty and struggling to find a balance between its abundant natural beauty and the modernization that threatens to destroy it, beekeeping represents a viable solution. Organic apiculture has the potential to lift large populations out of poverty and give them a better life for the long term.

Overcoming obstacles
One of the greatest challenges beekeepers face in their quest for the agricultural “holy grail” — the USDA Organic seal — is the arduous record-keeping that comes with it. Often, the documentation and timely submission of required information is as big a challenge as adhering to strict organic standards.

Utilizing an innovative, technology-driven platform designed to facilitate the process, A Bee Organic is minimizing the pain points. Sow Organic is an online platform that enables certifying agencies, farmers, producers, handlers, and anyone else involved in the organic supply chain, to more easily interact with each other. That’s a big-enough deal for anyone seeking organic certification in any country. But the positive implications may be even more profound for regions like Indonesia, where deep-rooted foreign politics and customs can further complicate matters.

Forward thinking
Building relationships based on empowerment, A Bee Organic is tearing down the invisible wall that can sometimes exist between the USDA seal and its seekers. As Sarah Costin would agree, it’s more than a job – it’s her calling.

Rodale Institute is pursuing a novel seed treatment to reduce plant disease

Soil-borne seed infecting pathogens are a serious constraint to greenhouse and field production systems of many agricultural crops, particularly where direct seeding is practiced. Conventional farming operations often use fumigants and chemical seed treatments for controlling plant pathogens. However, these materials can be harmful to human health and the environment. The use of many of these materials is also strictly prohibited in organic agriculture, limiting the options for plant disease control. Organic amendments such as compost are used as alternatives to synthetic control methods due, in part, to their success in controlling plant pathogens. Researchers from Rodale Institute and Cornell University are exploring a novel approach for deploying the beneficial microbes found in compost as a seed treatment for protection against plant pathogens causing damping-off. The researchers will apply a powdered-form of the microbes onto the seed surface using standard seed coating technologies. This seed treatment may be an effective tool for organic practitioners; however, the challenge will be determining the optimal rate of application of the microbial treatment. Recent funding support from the Organic Farming Research Foundation demonstrated a dose response in the application rate – the greater the rate of application the greater the level of disease suppression. Unfortunately, the level of disease suppression was still too low to be considered an acceptable seed treatment for organic agriculture. With additional funding from the Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing and Research Program as well as potential funding from the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, researchers from Rodale Institute, Cornell University and now Kutztown University are hoping to reveal the full potential of deploying microbes as a seed treatment for protection against soil-borne plant pathogens.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 12.01.32 PM
Non-treated cucumber seeds (left) treated with a low (middle) and high (right) application rate of microbes found in compost.