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   from the issue of November 17, 2005

Grant launches statewide organic farming research effort


A $750,000 grant will help UNL expand organic farming research and education, enhance collaborations with growers and develop science-based information for organic food production.

A team of Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers has received a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. The project - Improving Organic Farming Systems across Nebraska Agroecoregions - aims to lay the foundation for long-term organic farming efforts at UNL.

Overall goals include establishing the university's first certified organic research plots, launching focused research, incorporating organic farming concepts into UNL Extension and classroom education, and developing an ecological index of different farming methods.

"In essence, this is a grant to integrate an organic farming component into our teaching, research and extension mission at IANR," said Charles Shapiro, soil scientist at the university's Northeast Research and Extension Center and one of seven project co-leaders.

Growth in organic production in the state and nation is increasing the need for practical, science-based production information.

"This is going to allow us to provide better information to producers across the state on workable organic systems for their region," said David Baltensperger, alternative crops breeder at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center and a project co-leader. "The biggest thing it will allow us to do is long-term research on organic systems to make them work better in a given region."

Establishing 20- to 40-acre certified research plots at university farms near Concord, Mead, Clay Center and Sidney is a major component. Scientists will use these plots to examine priority concerns for organic producers, such as weed management, crop varieties and soil fertility. Each site will focus on different aspects of organic production while the network will enable collection of statewide information.

"Establishing this land base will allow us to study organic methods under Nebraska farming conditions from east to west. I don't know of any other state in the region that has 120 acres devoted to organic research statewide," Shapiro said. "Nebraska is lucky to have a research and extension system that allows us to do this."

Organic certification takes three years and researchers will use each site's transition as a learning experience.

Documenting issues that arise during the conversion to organic farming should provide information for farmers looking to make the change.

"It's one thing to say we know what it's like to farm organically, it's another to do it. We'll be doing it," Shapiro said. "We need to address the meaty everyday problems our clients face."

Organic growers supported the grant, and local and state organic producer advisory committees will guide research. Scientists also will conduct studies on cooperating certified organic farms.



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