COLUMBUS, Ohio — How certain natural microbes can help crops grow better and faster.
How to make contaminated soils, sometimes present in cities, healthy for urban farming.
How a new perennial grain could have double uses, as food for people and forage for livestock, and also double benefits, helping soil and water.
Those will be some of the topics when experts from The Ohio State University join the speaker lineup at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) 39th annual conference, Feb. 15-17 at the Dayton Convention Center.
Called Ohio’s largest conference on sustainable food and farming, the event offers nearly 80 hour-and-a-half workshops on organic farming and related topics, including 10 with speakers from Ohio State. One track of workshops is especially for beginning farmers.
About 1,200 people — farmers, gardeners, foodies, green living advocates and others — are expected to attend. The conference theme is “A Taste for Change.”
“For 39 years, the OEFFA conference has been the gathering place for sustainable and organic farmers and, more recently, researchers to share information,” said Carol Goland, executive director of OEFFA. And there’s good reason for the sharing.
Fastest-growing sector in U.S. food industry
Organic food is the fastest-growing sector in the U.S. food industry, with double-digit annual sales increases “far outstripping the growth rate for the overall food market,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association (OTA). Organic food still represents only a small share of total U.S. food sales, about 5 percent, but the figure now stands at a record high, OTA says.
Ohio alone had 575 certified organic farms in 2016, up 24 percent from 2015 and good for seventh place in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2016 Certified Organic Survey. Those farms reported sales of about $101 million, a 30 percent jump from the year before.
Ohio State program nationally ranked
Ohio State, for its part, “has one of the strongest organic farming research programs in the United States,” said Doug Doohan, interim director of the university’s Organic Food and Farming Education and Research (OFFER) program. Among similar programs, OFFER “consistently ranks in the top 10 percent nationally when it comes to funding and publications,” he said.
Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) started the OFFER program (not to be confused with OEFFA) in 1998. The decision was spurred by requests from Ohio’s growing number of organic farmers, led by OEFFA members, for research to support their industry. More than two dozen CFAES scientists are collaborators in the program.
‘Strong, growing’ relationship
Since then, OFFER and OEFFA have cultivated a “strong and growing” relationship, Doohan said. OFFER scientists increasingly design their research in consultation with OEFFA member farmers, sometimes even conducting experiments on the farmers’ farms, he said.
“That kind of collaborative relationship really helps get at the most pressing issues and addresses them in the most impactful way possible,” Doohan said.
Such efforts “help equip farmers with the information they need” to take advantage of organic farming’s economic opportunities, Goland said. Those opportunities include earning price premiums compared to conventionally produced products, which can boost a farm’s profitability.
Organic farmers, in almost cases, are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Instead they employ a big toolkit of natural inputs, non-chemical methods and biological processes, such as mulch, manure and beneficial insects, to keep their crops healthy and productive. Other practices, such as cover crops and crop rotation, serve to limit soil erosion, improve soil health, cut the risk of water contamination and increase biodiversity.
Keynoting the OEFFA conference will be Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, and Stacy Malkan, co-director of the food industry watchdog group U.S. Right to Know.
Workshop speakers also will come from farms, businesses, nonprofits, advocacy groups, agencies and elsewhere in higher education, including Ohio’s Central State University.
The speakers from Ohio State, most of whom are collaborators in OFFER, will be:
- Matt Kleinhenz, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, CFAES, “Microbe-Containing Crop Biostimulants: What We Know, What Is Important to Learn” (Feb. 16, 8:30 a.m.).
- Douglas Jackson-Smith, School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), CFAES, panel discussion member on “Better On-Farm Research for Better Organic Farming” (Feb. 16, 10:30 a.m.).
- Steve Culman, SENR, “Dual-Use Perennial Grain Crops: Grain for Humans and Hay for Livestock,” about a new grain variety called Kernza developed by the Kansas-based Land Institute (Feb. 17, 3:30 p.m.).
- Culman and Kleinhenz, “Base Cation Balance: What Are Crops, Soils, Weeds and People Saying?” (Feb. 16, 2 p.m.).
- Shoshanah Inwood, SENR, co-speaker on “Health Insurance and Risk Management for Farmers: Tools for Navigating Health Insurance,” part of the workshop track for beginning farmers (Feb. 17, 8:30 a.m.).
- Alan Sundermeier, Ohio State University Extension, CFAES, “Interpreting Soil Health Information for Organic Producers” (Feb. 17, 8:30 a.m.).
- Celeste Welty, Department of Entomology, “Organic Approaches to Insect Management on Cucurbit Crops,” cucurbits being such crops as squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers and watermelons (Feb. 17, 8:30 a.m.).
- Gustavo Schuenemann, College of Veterinary Medicine and OSU Extension, “Designing Health Protocols for Certified Organic Herds” (Feb. 17, 8:30 a.m.).
- Meredith Krueger, OSU Food Waste Collaborative, CFAES, co-speaker on “Weaving Food Policy Work Statewide: The Development of the Ohio Food Policy Network” (Feb. 17, 8:30 a.m.).
- Larry Phelan, Department of Entomology, CFAES, “Can Urban Soils Be Made Healthy for Farming?” (Feb. 17, 3:30 p.m.).
Goland said research on organic farming, by OFFER scientists and many others, “is key to supporting this growing industry.”
Find details on the event at oeffa.org/conference2018.php. Online registration has ended, but walk-in registrations are welcome on Feb. 16 and 17.