March 8, 2005:
A new online resource from the Alternative
Farming Systems Information Center is making USDA research
reports from the late 19th and early 20th centuries
more readily available.
Organic Agriculture Information Access, aka the Organic
Roots project, currently includes approximately 200
articles from the USDA Technical Bulletins
series. The articles have been hand-selected by AFSIC
staff for their relevance to current organic and sustainable
farming practices and can be read, downloaded or printed
out in full. The portal to the collection is at http://www.hti.umich.edu/n/nal/.
Mary Gold, an information specialist and librarian
at AFSIC, explains that the group's goal for Organic
Roots was to begin sorting through the enormous USDA
archive for material of practical use to today's organic
farmers and researchers. "It's too simple to say
that everything done before 1942 was organic,"
Gold notes. Some of the pest control materials in use
in the early 20th century would not be permitted under
current organic standards, for instance. "But some
excellent work was done on topics like biological control."
Gold is hopeful that researchers will be able to use
the online collection to avoid duplicating earlier work
and to get ideas for new research directions. Farmers
can browse articles to get ideas for improved management
practices or for on-farm research projects. A quick
trawl brought up the following tantalizing examples:
- "Effect of Different Methods of Grazing on
Native Vegetation and Gains of Steers in Northern
Great Plains," by W.H. Black (Mar. 1937, 19 pp.)
- "Flax Cropping in Mixture with Wheat, Oats,
and Barley," by A. C. Arny (Sept. 1929, 47 pp.)
- "Influence of Variety, Environment, and Fertility
Level on the Chemical Composition of Soybean Seed,"
by J. L. Carter and T. H. Hopper (May 1942, 66 pp.)
The searchable database is actually two databases in
one, Gold says. While the user views images of an article's
pages, "the search engine can't search an image
for individual words," so they had to create a
second, text-format archive as well. In addition, they
attached a set of keywords to each article, applying
today's terminology to the concepts discussed so that
viewers can pull up relevant results using current concepts
and terms. "Obviously you can't just go back and
do a search for organic farming [without having the
additional keywords], because the term wasn't widely
used in the early part of the 20th century," notes
Gold. In some cases, too, the Latin names for plant
or insect species have changed, so the team added keywords
to mark those instances.
Stayed tuned: there's more to come
Funded through SARE and also receiving some monies
from the NOP, AFSIC recently secured a grant to expand
the Organic Roots project to include articles from another
USDA series known as Farmers' Bulletins, Gold
says. The first Farmers' Bulletin was published
in 1889; sixteen hundred were produced prior to 1943.
Farmers' Bulletins feature more outreach-oriented
or 'farmer-ready' information, according to Gold, whereas
the Technical Bulletins focus more on research
Online indices to nine USDA serial publications, including
the Technical and Farmers' Bulletins,
can be accessed at http://www.nal.usda.gov/ref/USDApubs.html.
The AFSIC staff welcomes suggestions from the public
regarding other out-of-print USDA resources of use to
today's organic farmers that could be made available
online. Individuals can call AFSIC at (301) 504-6559,
or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.