Organics in the News

Too many good ideas
Grant review process for the USDA Integrated Organic Program demonstrates urgent need for additional federal support for organic farming research, extension and education

By James A. Riddle

Organics in the News

Editor’s NOTE:

Certified organic farming enjoys success – and challenges – like never before thanks to surging consumer demand, USDA-regulated standards, and increasing attention to how farming impacts our land, water, communities and human health.

We’ve asked Jim Riddle to bring his perspective to our e-pages as a voice from the progressive center of this dynamic food and farming sector. “Organics in the News” will be an occasional series where Riddle shares his insights in the context of current events.

James A. (Jim) Riddle has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer. He was founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, (IOIA), and co-author of the IFOAM/IOIA International Organic Inspection Manual.

Riddle has helped train hundreds of organic inspectors throughout the world. Riddle serves as vice-chair of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic agriculture policies and regulations. In 2003, Jim was appointed Endowed Chair of Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota.

He serves as an organic policy specialist for NewFarm.org.

EDITOR'S NOTE: SEPT 29: USDA announces its complete list of funded projects. Read the USDA press release.

September 28, 2004: Are you ever faced with too many positive choices? That is exactly the predicament I found myself in this summer.

From July 19-22, 2004, I had the privilege to participate as a review panel member for the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) Integrated Organic Program.

The panel was charged with reviewing and evaluating the 105 grant applications submitted to the Integrated Organic Program. We reviewed proposals from universities with long-standing organic programs, and from research institutions making their first foray into organic agriculture.

There were many innovative projects addressing issues critical to the growth of the organic sector. Unfortunately, there was only enough money available to fund a fraction of the fundable projects.

The review process

Each panel member was responsible for reviewing 16 proposals in detail prior to the meeting and submitting written comments on each of the reviewed proposals.

All proposals were seriously and meticulously reviewed. Panel members presented their evaluations, and then each proposal was discussed by the full panel. Panel members recused themselves from all discussions in which they had actual or perceived conflicts of interest.

After discussions that were at times intense, but always respectful, proposals were scored as “Outstanding,” “High Priority,” “Medium Priority,” “Low Priority,” “Some Merit,” or “Do Not Fund.” All proposals scoring as “low priority” and above were found to have at least some fundable objectives, while those scored as “some merit” or “do not fund” were not recommended for funding.

Sources of funds

The Integrated Organic Program had $4.7 million available in 2004 from two different Congressional authorizations.

The Organic Transitions Program (ORG) was authorized by the 1998 Agricultural Research, Education and Economics Reform Act. For 2004, $1.8 million was available under ORG. Funds for ORG are appropriated annually, and eligibility is limited to colleges and universities. This was the fourth year of the ORG program. Program goals focus on organic production system research.

The Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) was authorized as part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (aka the most recent Farm Bill). The Farm Bill contained mandatory funding of OREI at $3 million per year for five years, although only $2.9 million was made available in 2004. OREI has broad eligibility, and the program goals include economic and consumer issues as well as production research. This was the first funding year for OREI.

Both the ORG and OREI programs were offered as an Integrated Organic Program, meaning that applicants did not have to choose between the programs, but could submit one application that could fit the goals and objectives of either program.

It is important to note that the term “integrated” was chosen by CSREES in order to give priority to multi-functional projects: those that emphasize research and extension and higher education, as well as being multi-disciplinary, multi-state, and/or multi-institutional.

Setting priorities

Projects that scored the highest were projects where:

  • A stakeholder advisory group was consulted prior to development of project objectives;
  • Clear methodologies were included in the design of the project;
  • A measurable, outcome-oriented plan was presented for dissemination of information developed by the project during the life of the project;
  • Stakeholders were to be involved in project evaluation; and
  • Progress reports were anticipated to demonstrate the project's impacts

As stated, a total of $4.7 million was available for awards, and 105 proposals were submitted for a total request of almost $52 million. Eighty-six proposals, or 82 percent of all applications, had at least some fundable objectives. The 86 fundable proposals represented a total request of just over $42 million.

There were sufficient funds available for only 11 proposals, meaning that just 10 percent of all applications, and only 13 percent of all fundable applications, were funded.

Applications were submitted in the categories of crops, livestock, economics, standards, and other. The table below shows the amount of money requested and funded in each category and the number and percent of projects funded in each category.

Project Categories Funded in 2004

Topic Requested Funded # (%)
Crops $37,488,560 $3,292,730 7/73 (10)
Livestock $5,540,804 $823,321 2/12 (17)
Economics $5,470,817 $301,018 1/14 (7)
Standards $947,769 $197,768 1/3 (33)
Other $2,458,996 $0 0/3 (0)

Organic crop research applications were submitted for agronomic and horticultural projects. The table below shows the amount of money requested and funded for agronomic and horticultural projects, as well as the number and percent of projects funded for each category.

Crop Category Funded in 2004

Crop Requested Funded # (%)
Agronomic $26,555,336 $2,417,561 5/49 (10)
Horticultural $14,568,145 $875,169 2/33 (6)


Applications were submitted from all regions of the United States. The table below shows the amount of money requested and funded, and the number and percent of projects funded for each region. It is interesting to note that the Northeast and West regions had a relatively high percentage of projects funded, while a low percentage of projects from the North Central and South regions were funded.

Regional Requests for and Disbursement of Funds in 2004

Region Requested Funded # (%)
North Central $15,548,862 $463,645 1/33 (3)
Northeast $11,796,543 $2,274,802 4/27 (15)
South $8,731,772 $305,015 1/25 (4)
West $15,829,769 $1,359,607 4/25 (16)


Future funds

Grant applicants are currently being notified whether or not their projects are to be funded, and Secretary Veneman will soon make a formal announcement. In the meantime, plans are in motion for the 2005 Integrated Organic Program. A new Request for Applications (RFA) is being drafted, and the need for organic research continues to expand.

The U.S. House of Representatives mark-up for the 2005 appropriation has the ORG program to be funded at $1.8 million, and the Senate mark-up is similar. Approximately $3 million will again be available for the OREI program. (The OREI funds are mandatory under the Farm Bill, and are not subject to annual appropriations.)

This means that unless additional funds are allocated for ORG, the majority of fundable organic research projects will again go unfunded in 2005.

If you feel that the Integrated Organic Program should be funded at a higher level, please contact your members of Congress and urge them to increase the appropriation for the Organic Transitions Program (ORG), as authorized by the 1998 Agricultural Research, Education and Economics Reform Act.

Jim Riddle serves as vice-chair of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic agriculture policies and regulations. He has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer.