The bipartisan farm bill passed by Congress in the last hours of 2018 brings with it a substantial increase in funding for research on organic agriculture, and this is good news for Maine’s farmers. While Maine ranks 44th in the nation when it comes to the market value of agricultural products sold, it is a leader when it comes to organic agriculture. Maine ranks 16th in the nation for the number of certified organic operations, according to the Organic Trade Association, and these farms represent nearly 10 percent of all farmland in the state.

Why does Maine have such a high concentration of organic farmers? For years, Maine farmers have been choosing to transition their farms to organic because they see it as a better way to make a living, better for the land and better for the health of their families. Over the past two decades, the explosion of Maine’s local, artisanal food scene has fueled this growth in organic farms. Transitioning to organic isn’t as simple as forgoing pesticides, antibiotics and synthetic fertilizers. In addition, organic farmers must learn a sophisticated set of techniques that allow them to take advantage of natural resources, and get nature to do the work they used to rely on chemicals.

Stonyfield has a long history of working with dairies in Maine as they transition to organic. Most recently, we’ve teamed up with Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport to establish a training program for new organic dairy farmers. And now we’re working with them to launch a revolutionary software platform that aids farmers in identifying the best ways they can improve soil health and increase carbon sequestration on their farm, effectively turning farms into tools for fighting climate change.

We’ve seen firsthand how research is fundamental to supporting farmers as they transition, and how results from organic research are improving the productivity and profitability of organic farms. Research is also critical for helping us understand how all farms, organic and conventional, can become a part of the solution for climate change, rather than part of the problem.

The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative is the primary federal program that supports organic research. In recent years, OREI has had twice as many eligible applicants as it could fund. Interest in organic agriculture from farmers is booming, and researchers are eager to step up and support this, but they can’t do it without funding for their work.

Historically, organic agriculture has received less than 1 percent of all federal funding for agricultural research. Funding did increase over the past decade, but until this farm bill it has never been secure, and advocates have had to fight to make sure it’s included in each budget cycle. By increasing the funding for organic research in this farm bill to $50 million a year, it will ensure that this level of funding is set as the minimum the next time the farm bill is up for consideration.

None of this would have been possible without the bipartisan leadership of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. They each championed bills in the House and Senate respectively that led to the inclusion of this new funding in the farm bill. There is no doubt that this increased investment in organic research will yield benefits for Maine’s farms, and all of us who enjoy Maine’s bounty, for decades to come.

Britt Lundgren is director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield, an organic yogurt company based in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

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