RESEARCH UPDATE
Back to the future with AFSIC

New online tool provides access to pre-1942 USDA research publications relevant to organic and sustainable farming

By Laura Sayre

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 results.

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 afsic@nal.usda.gov.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.