Organic Agriculture Program

The organic industry is the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture, with sales growing from $1 billion in 1990 to nearly $35 billion in 2012.

General Information

NIFA supports programs to address critical organic agriculture issues, priorities, or problems through the integration of research and extension activities and programs to evaluate both the environmental impacts of organic agriculture and the environmental services provided.

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) established the National Organic Program (NOP) in 1990. Final rules for implementing this legislation came out in 2000 and nationwide organic standards for certification under a national organic label were first established in 2002. Current market participants report that shortages of organic products constrain the growth of both individual firms and the overall organic sector.

NIFA addresses the needs of organic agriculture through both the provision of formula grants to universities and colleges and through competitive funding. The Integrated Organic Program (IOP) is a competitive program that has included the Organic Transitions Program since 2001 and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) from 2009 to 2012.

Historically, the concept of organic agriculture was a reaction to the destruction of soil structure in the 1930s as a result of excessive tillage practices that helped create the "Dust Bowl." By exposing soil to air, organic matter in the soil was oxidized, further reducing soil structure. In the 1943 book, "Plowman's Folly," Edward H. Faulkner laid the foundation for the modern practice of conservation tillage. He advocated minimum disturbance of the soil, and one of his primary goals was to conserve soil organic matter. In the popular press, Robert Rodale championed the concept that building a healthy soil, primarily by increasing the organic matter content, would produce healthy crops. Since his death, the Rodale Institute has continued the legacy of advocating the creation of a healthy soil as the basis for ecologically sustainable production systems.

Because preserving and increasing soil organic matter was a key concept in both Faulkner's and Rodale's work, the practices they advocated were sometimes collectively referred to as organic farming. Overall, practitioners of organic farming, as it developed over the following decades, had a strong commitment to soil management practices that would maintain and improve fertility, soil structure, and soil biodiversity and reduce soil erosion. Furthermore, they were committed to using insect, disease, and weed control practices that reduced the risks of human, animal, and environmental exposure to toxic materials. This definition of organic farming is sometimes referred to as an "ecological definition." Conceptually, organic farming is not simply the avoidance of conventional chemical inputs, nor is it the substitution of natural inputs for synthetic ones. Organic farmers apply time-tested techniques, such as crop rotations and the use of composted animal manures and green manure crops, in ways that are both innovative and economically sustainable. In addition, they may take advantage of research breakthroughs from NIFA-funded programs such as the OREI and IWOP to fine-tune these traditional practices to meet local production conditions and to satisfy local markets. In organic production, overall system health is emphasized, and the interaction of management practices is the primary concern. Organic producers implement a wide range of strategies to develop and maintain biological diversity and replenish soil fertility, rather than relying on a single product or practice. For more information, see the article "What is Organic Farming" on the eXtension Web site.

In the decades that followed the pioneering work of Faulkner and Rodale, the ideals and practices of organic farming gained adherents, both in the farming community and with consumers, but the term "organic farming" lacked legal definition. To a chemist, an organic compound is simply one that contains carbon. Most synthetic pesticides are mostly carbon. To provide consumers with assurances that the "organic" products they were purchasing were produced in ways that met the ecological definition provided above, certifying organizations were founded. The first was the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in the early 1970s. In time, similar organizations were formed in different parts of the United States and in other countries.

However, because there were differences in practices acceptable to the various local certifying organizations, consumers still could not be sure of how food labeled organic" was actually grown. This led to federal legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, creating national organic standards for the production of organic agricultural products. In 1990, the OFPA established the NOP. Final rules for implementing this legislation came out in 2000 and nationwide organic standards for certification under a national organic label were first established in 2002. The organic industry is now the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture. U.S. sales of organic food have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to a projected $23.9 billion in 2009. As a result of the implementation of national standards, certifying agencies inspect farms to determine whether the national standards are being applied. If they are, producers are permitted to use the official USDA seal for organically-produced products. The national standards guarantee consumers that the products they purchase adhere to specific production guidelines.

The NOP applies strict technical standards to production systems that receive and display the national organic label. These systems meet the highest standards of accreditation and are referred to as "certified" organic. Certified organic farmer and producers are required to use an integrated package of management practices that maintain or improve on-farm soil and water quality. They must also implement proactive programs to reduce insect, weed, and diseases problems; to apply only the minimal and least toxic solutions to pest problems; and when treatment is necessary to only use organically approved products. The annual oversight process required for certification is rigorous and requires extensive recordkeeping and documentation of practices and inputs. Thus, certified organic producers must meet both the ecological definition of organic farming and the legal definition so consumers can purchase NOP labeled products with confidence.

Program Type:
Grant Program
Program Specific Resources
External Resources

Related Information