According to USDA regulations, farmers with organic certification must use organic seed whenever possible. If organic seed is unavailable for the desired crop, the farmer may use conventional seed, as long as they can prove they attempted to find organic seed. Under no circumstances is a farmer allowed to use treated seed on certified organic land. Although this system makes sense, a deficit of organic seed availability places a burden on organic farmers.

Jane Sooby of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) says if farmers had a broad array of organic varieties to choose from, it would reduce the amount of time needed to spend sourcing organic seed and providing documentation.

The OFRF, with a five-year, $250,000 funding commitment from the CLIF BAR Family Foundation, hopes to increase the seed purchasing options for organic farmers. The two organizations, in collaboration with the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Seed Alliance, have created an initiative called Seed Matters, which promotes organic seed variety development by funding diversity research and organic seed and crop breeding projects.

The seed industry used to include a variety of local seed companies producing seed that performed well under local conditions. Consolidation in the seed industry has contributed to the dearth in organic seed materials. Sooby laments that large companies are rarely as responsive to local needs as their predecessors were, and as big companies purchased small ones, they frequently discontinued lines with relatively small sales. The first to go were organic seed lines and lines of conventionally produced, regionally adaptive seeds that work well in an organic farming system.

“I think what we’re seeing in organics is the re-emergence of smaller, regionally based organic seed companies,” reports Sooby. “However, they have a lot of challenges and they’re small, so we really need this [re-emergence] to continue in all regions of the country.” Research into organic varieties will feed the re-emergence of regional organic seed companies.

Founded in 1990, OFRF sponsors organic farming research and education projects, and disseminates the results to organic farmers and ranchers and to producers interested in adopting organic production systems. It also educates the public and policymakers about organic farming issues. OFRF has provided 302 grants totaling $2.5 million.

Ted Quaday, OFRF’s communications director, says the organization tries to create a farm-based scientifically rigorous approach to research. “It’s a good model. Every researcher I’ve talked to that we’ve funded tells me having farmers as part of the project and working on organic land on farms is crucial to research because it helps them direct their research in ways that are beneficial to farmers. Dreaming up a project in a lab is not always useful to the farmer.”

Bearing in mind that all agricultural research should ultimately benefit the farmer, OFRF required all proposals for Seed Matters initiative funding to involve farmers or ranchers in project design and implementation. OFRF also required projects to take place on working certified organic farms or ranches whenever possible.

By the June 2 proposal deadline, OFRF received 10 proposals from around the United States. Applicants come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds including farmers, university-based researchers, graduate students looking to support their graduate work, nonprofit organizations involved with organic seed and nonprofit organizations that help organic seed farmers. Grant seekers expressed interest in conducting variety-screening trials and developing seeds for organic sweet corn, organic vegetable varieties and organic small grains.

OFRF and its partner organizations will give priority to those proposals that …

  • demonstrate the project will foster the improvement and/or widespread adoption of organic farming practices;
  • address a high-priority organic farming issue with a systems rather than an input-substitution approach to solving production problems;
  • provide compensation for farmer participation and demonstrate meaningful farmer involvement in both identifying the problem addressed by the project and in carrying out the project;
  • are entirely sited on certified organic land; and
  • have a plan to share research results with the farming community.

With $47,500 to disperse in this funding cycle, Sooby anticipates OFRF will be able to fund three or four grants.

More Information

OFRF’s List of previously-funded projects.

OFRF’s Guide to Conducting On-Farm Research

“Investing in Organic Knowledge: Impacts of the First 13 Years of the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s Grantmaking Program.” A report documenting the widespread impact of OFRF’s grantmaking.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.