Throughout its early history, organic agriculture was treated with either hostility or apathy by the USDA, land grant universities, and conventional agriculture in general. Since it was largely promoted as a better alternative to the status quo, this is not surprising. Fortunately, the atmosphere for discussing and investigating organics has improved considerably. While it did not become boldly evident until the 1990s, the tide actually began turning in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A number of factors precipitated this change, among them the growth in the organic industry. Serious money demands serious attention. Also critical, from the perspective of the research community especially, were some landmark studies that lend credibility to organic farming as a truly viable option for American agriculture.
The first of these "landmarks" was a series of studies done by Washington University. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this research was motivated by the energy crisis of the 1970s and the effect that higher energy prices would have on agriculture in the nation's Cornbelt. When researchers learned that there were commercial farms that were not dependent on the high-energy inputs of conventional farming, the focus quickly shifted to the study of organics.
In addition to the documentation of practices, crop yields, attitudes, and the sustainability indices (cited elsewhere in this publication), the researchers made what was certainly the most astounding discovery of all, that commercial organic farms could be competitive with conventional farms in the conventional marketplace. (3)
Arriving on the heels of the Washington University work was another study of great significance done by the USDA. In contrast to the Washington University effort, these researchers chose to extend their survey of farmers nationally and over a wide range of enterprises. The findings of the USDA study, which were fair, largely positive, and encouraging, kicked open the door for future organic research in ways that a non-land grant/non-USDA entity like Washington University could not. The final report - bound with pastel green cover sheets - was a conspicuous object at alternative agriculture conferences and field days throughout the early 1980s. (11)
Also of particular note was a symposium on organic farming held in Atlanta, Georgia, in late 1981. The meeting was sponsored jointly by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America — traditionally very conservative entities. It brought together not only representatives of the Washington University and USDA teams, but a surprising number of other researchers clearly interested in the same issues of sustainability and finding a glimmer of hope in organic agriculture.(14)
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