This fall, the Rodale Institute will launch the Southeast Organic Center, a new regional resource center at Many Fold Farm focused on the unique challenges facing farmers in the Southeast U.S.
The Southeast Organic Center, which will be based on the 300-acre farm in the Chattahoochee Hills of Georgia, will serve as a research and education hub focused on increasing the number of farms and acres in organic production in the region; establishing a long-term research trial to determine changes in soil health, yields, economic models and more in this unique climate and soil type; solving challenges for organic farmers in the region, including pests, disease, weed management and farmer training, and pathways to market.
Despite the U.S. organic industry having grown to $50 billion annually, according to the 2017 "Census of Agriculture," Georgia has only 88 certified organic farms, representing just 0.5% of organic farms in the U.S. Historically, organic production has been low in southern states, where warm weather makes it harder to deal with pests, diseases and weeds without synthetic chemicals like pesticides and herbicides.
However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the South saw the most growth in organic farming from 2011 to 2016. For example, Alabama and South Carolina both have had increases of more than 200% since 2011, and the certified organic farm count of several other southern states has more than doubled in those five years.
When Rebecca and Ross Williams shuttered their cheese house at Many Fold Farm about an hour outside of Atlanta, Ga., in 2017, it was with a heavy heart but a determination to work toward a new agrarian economy in the South -- one that allows farmers to prosper while supporting the good food movement and being responsible stewards of the soil and environment. A new partnership with the Rodale Institute, a global leader in regenerative organic agriculture, is making that vision a reality.
“Many Fold Farm, our staff and Rodale Institute share a belief that healthy soil is the key to human health and our ability to survive on our planet,” Rebecca Williams said. “Strong scientific and economic models that allow regenerative organic farmers to compete with conventional agriculture are necessary to shift the paradigm of how we grow our food. Scientific research and high-quality farmer education conducted by the Southeast Organic Center will validate and expand truly sustainable agricultural practices in order to save our food system, our planet and ourselves.”
“It’s time for us to invest in our southern farmers,” Rodale Institute executive director Jeff Moyer said. “This region is ripe for opportunities and explosive growth in organic agriculture, but organic farming is based on biology.; it’s farming with nature. So, it’s unique in every community. You have to work with the soil, weather patterns and seeds and breeds well suited to the region. We’re excited to roll up our sleeves and work on solutions that will improve the lives of real farmers and consumers in this part of the country.”
The Southeast Organic Center is the Rodale Institute’s second regional resource center. It also opened the Midwest Organic Center with partners Indian Creek Nature Center and Frontier Co-op in Marion, Iowa, earlier this year.
A key partner of the Southeast Organic Center will be nearby Serenbe, a wellness community that offers a unique opportunity for consumer education and community engagement. Serenbe will allow the Southeast Organic Center to connect farmers and consumers with educational programming, healthy eating events and more. Additional partners include Georgia Organics, Southern SARE and The Conservation Fund.
"Rodale Institute has been the progressive voice for organic farming since the 1940s, and we are delighted to join them with models and policy for saving farmland, training new farmers and creating a path to ownership for those farmers,” Serenbe founder and chief executive officer Steve Nygren said.
Immediate next steps include hiring a research director for the site, forming an advisory committee and designing the long-term research trial. Rodale expects to break ground this fall.