OFRF Projects Make Impact in Southern U.S.


August 20, 2015 - The number of organic producers and organic acres varies greatly by region, and USDA data show that the southern U.S. has the fewest organic operators as well as the fewest organic acres.

OFRF funding is creating a more prominent organic presence in the southern U.S. by increasing research and outreach that encourages growth in the southern organic sector. Our research partners are tackling the challenges facing organic farmers in the South, and creating innovative projects that address their needs.

Organic operations and acres by U.S. region in 2011 (Source: USDA ERS, 2012).


Western states

Southern states

North central states

Northeastern states

Number of operations

4,578 (36%)

971 (8%)

4,118 (32%)

2,996 (24%)

Number of organic acres

3,084,153 (59%)

397,904 (8%)

1,218,058 (23%)

518,997 (10%)


Farming in the South has a set of unique challenges, and some of these challenges make farming organically or transitioning to organic production more difficult than in other parts of the country.

Challenges for organic farmers in the South include uneven access to markets, limited experience in organic farming, intensive insect pest infestations, disease and weed problems, limited organic infrastructure, extreme weather events, and misinformation about the requirements and costs of certification. OFRF research partner Curt Rom, Ph. D., a specialist in sustainable horticulture management from the University of Arkansas, said organic farmers in the South need research targeted to their needs.

“In the South we need more activity at the scientific and educational level,” Rom said. “We need more local science applicable to challenges with weeds, disease, and insects that are different in this part of the country.”

To help overcome some of these challenges, OFRF funded the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network (ASAN) Farmer-to-Farmer Program. This project, led by soil scientist Karen Wynne, paired experienced organic farmers with transitioning farmers to help them create organic system plans and learn new organic practices.

“As a result of the mentorship farmers adopted different production practices such as crop rotations, new types of cover crops, new cultural practices and rotational grazing and grass finishing for beef,” Wynne said.

The mentorship program encouraged farmers to consider transitioning to organic, and helped boost the number of organic farms in Alabama.

“At the start of the grant there were 4 certified organic farmers in Alabama, and now there are about 20,” Wynne said. “We have more wholesale opportunities and more motivation to get certified.”

In addition to mentorship, OFRF has helped fund research with direct applications to disease management. OFRF helped fund researcher conducted by Suzanne O’ConnellCary Rivard, Stefan Hartmann, Mary Peet, and Frank Louws to develop solutions for bacterial wilt, a serious soil borne disease in North Carolina.

Their study, “Grafting tomatoes on disease resistant rootstocks for small-scale organic production systems,” partnered with tomato farmer Steffan Hartmann of Black River Organics to overcome a bacterial wilt problem so severe on his farm that he had stopped growing open-field, fresh-market tomatoes.

“Developing grafting procedures and cultivars has become a necessity for the continued survival of our farm,” Hartman said.

 This work led by O’Connell’s team investigated the use of vegetable grafting as a way to protect field tomatoes from soil borne disease. Tomato grafting works by grafting one variety of tomato onto a highly vigorous and disease resistant rootstock. The project was successful in demonstrating that on-farm grafted tomato transplant production was a viable technique – both as a strategy to reduce the impact of disease as well as an economically feasible option for growers with high disease pressure. This research helped Black River Organics start farming open-field tomatoes again, and created a new model for other organic growers facing similar disease challenges.

These two projects highlight the positive impacts that collaborations, both between farmers and between farmers and researchers, can have for sharing organic farming knowledge and overcoming challenges. OFRF is committed to continuing our support of research and increasing the presence of organic agriculture in the South.

By Joanna Ory, Ph. D., OFRF Research Program Associate

Map image courtesy USDA