Elementary Organics: Multi-track Training for Minnesota's Agricultural Educators and Advisors

Final Report for ENC02-065

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2002: $59,360.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Meg Moynihan
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
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Project Information

Abstract:

As a result of six day-long regional trainings in Central, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, Northeast and East Central Minnesota, 200 agricultural professionals increased their knowledge about, reconsidered their attitudes toward, and increased activity in organic agriculture. Pre-training, end-of-training, and follow-up surveys measured progress toward short and intermediate term incomes. Respondents rated the workshop structure and content high, generally preferring sessions led by organic farmers and farm field trips visits. Six to nine months after the course, more than half the respondents reported assisting growers and/or colleagues on organic topics and indicated continuing interest in organic agriculture topics. More than 80 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that organic can be a viable production system for organic farmers. More than three quarters of them expressed interest in further professional organic training, indicating a need for additional professional development programming on this topic.

Project Objectives:

The following desired outcomes were specified in the “Elementary Organics” PDP Proposal:

Short term outcomes: 250 participants…
S-1 …are aware of the scale and scope of organic production in MN and the US, including production, domestic and international market, and consumer trends.
S-2…know the National Organic Program Final Rule exists and, in basic terms, what it says
S-3…understand the steps required for producer and processor certification, including the role of inspectors and certification agencies and the elements of required farm plans.
S-4…know about and have access to 5-10 sources of information about organic production and marketing.
Intermediate outcomes: 250 participants…
I-1…provide appropriate technical assistance or information to organic growers OR refer them to appropriate sources;
I-2…accept the notion that organic can be a viable production system;
I-3…identify resource materials that would help them assist clients, but that don’t currently exist;
I-4…share knowledge about organics with peers/colleagues.
Long term outcomes
L-1 Organic programming is “institutionalized”: organic producers and their needs are considered by land grant universities, Extension, state and federal agricultural and conservation agencies and private entities as a matter of course. Here, the interest is in long-term, internalized changes. When this goal is realized, organics will not be considered a “fringe” element, but one of many accepted and acceptable management options.
L-2 Organic farms that are economically successful and conserve resources contribute to the long-term sustainability of farming in Minnesota. Meeting specific organic production criteria is not enough. Crucial to this outcome are organic systems that are sustainable into the future because they nurture the health of land, people and communities. Sustainable organic farms would protect personal health of farmers, their families, and their neighbors; enhance natural resources like soil quality, and biodiversity; and improve farm and community profitability by providing products that an increasing number of food buyers are willing to pay more for, and by providing local value-added processing opportunities.

Introduction:
Please note: entire report, including charts, graphs and other appendices, is posted at www.mda.state.mn/esap/organic

Opportunities in organic crop, vegetable, and livestock farming and in organic value-added processing continue to expand. In response to complaints from farmers about difficulty locating information and support from the agricultural service sector, and to concerns from agricultural service providers that clients were coming to them with organic questions the service providers couldn’t answer. This project created a professional development program and delivered introductory-level organic agriculture information to agricultural service providers throughout Minnesota.

A statewide program team collaborated to identify desired outcomes and design the training program framework that was proposed to the North Central SARE Professional Development Program (see NOTE below). Regional hosts were contracted to undertake local arrangements and tailor the program for local issues and in consideration of unique local resources. Workshops were held in both years of the project, and, in consideration of adult learning preferences, stressed instructional time with farmers and small group tours. Evaluation was an ongoing process. Each of the six short course classes was asked to complete surveys before the course, at the end of the course, and six to nine months after the course. As we learned what worked well for learners and teachers, the project made appropriate changes to the workshop format.

NOTE: The statewide project team included members affiliated with: included Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency, Farm Service Agency, University of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, Resource Conservation and Development, Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, Ag Resource Consulting, Inc. – an independent crop consulting firm, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

As planned, six day-long, introductory sessions about organic agriculture were offered during the two years of this project (Appendix A). Two trainings were conducted in 2003 and four in 2004, training a total of 227 people. To encourage local ownership of and identity for the programs, planning and local arrangements for each event were undertaken by local groups. In five of the locations, the MDA contracted with the area Resource Conservation and Development District to serve as the host for the session. For the Southwest Minnesota course, the MDA contracted with the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center, which has been conducting agronomic and economic experiments on certified organic land for a number of years and has good connections with area organic producers. The project director participated on all of the planning teams in order to share the experiences prior sessions, provide some continuity from session to session, and to ensure the intentions of the funder and the project were respected.

Each host organization convened a planning group, which typically included host organization staff, NRCS, Extension, MDA, consultants, FSA, and producers. All of the planning committees decided to allowed farmers to attend the sessions if there were enough space in the course. We estimate that of the 227 people trained through this program, 200 were agricultural service providers and 27 were farmers.

A subgroup of the team that wrote the project proposal designed the first training. This format worked so well that, for the most part, planning teams for subsequent sessions kept the same format (Appendix B), with large group sessions in the morning, and small, topical group field trips to organic operations in the afternoon (crops, livestock, business/marketing, greenhouse, etc., appropriate to the type of agriculture in a given part of the state). There were two exceptions. The Northwest Minnesota session planners chose to do a large group bus tour rather than small group field trips because the large farm size and distance between organic operations they wanted the group to visit made the small group approach unworkable. The Southwest Minnesota session planners decided to do the field trips in the morning, followed by the large group session in the afternoon, and decided to broaden the field trips so that several included both production and processing.

Courses were publicized using print media, radio, and electronic networks and direct mail to agency leaders. For later courses, we set postcards to “alumni” of the program and asked them to forward notices to colleagues and encourage them to attend.

The project reached many of the target audiences specified in the PDP proposal. Attendees included staff from: Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, University of Minnesota Extension, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Minnesota State College System Farm Management Program, crop consultants, and lenders. Although our partners at the University of Minnesota helped us qualify the program for continuing education credits, few attendees requested them.

At each location, a 10-question pre-workshop assessment was administered to establish participants’ awareness about their pre-course level of knowledge and understanding in areas of production practices, programs, and certification (Appendix C). A same-day, end-of-course survey was administered to measure short term outcomes, and asked respondents to compare their ability to answer client questions about a number of topics before and after the training (Appendix D). Attendees were offered a 5 point scale ranging from “not at all” to “like an expert”. A post-course survey was mailed to participants six to nine months after the training in order to measure progress toward intermediate (behavior change) goals (Appendix E).

In January 2005, unspent funds were used, with permission of NCR-SARE, to provide registration scholarships for a limited number of organic short course graduates to pursue their interest in organic further by attending the Minnesota Organic and Grazing Conference. Postcards were sent to every agricultural professional graduate of the Organic Short Course (in light of the PDP intent, we tried to exclude producers who had taken the course). Graduates received the scholarships on a first come, first served basis.

Outreach and Publications

This project did not create any new publications, but made participants aware of a wide variety of reliable organic information sources and distributed a selection of helpful existing publications to them in resource binders.

The project recipient and each workshop coordinating committee worked together to inform agricultural professionals about the courses and used a variety of publicity strategies:

• Coverage in print and broadcast media (Records from the MDA clipping service indicate that these stories reached nearly 100,500 subscribers – and an even greater number of readers) (Appendix M).
• Statewide sustainable agriculture and organic listservs
• Direct mail (committee members for each workshop typically merged their contact lists)
• Intra-agency e-mail (within target organizations such as NRCS, FSA, MDA, Extension, University of Minnesota College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Science, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Having collaborators from these agencies on the project team or local planning committees permitted access to internal communication structures within these organizations)
• Direct mail to graduates of early short course sessions, asking them to encourage colleagues to attend later sessions.

Outcomes and impacts:
Impacts and Results/Outcomes

Approximately 65 resource people (including 27 farmers or farm couples) delivered organic training to 227 Organic Short Course for Ag Professionals “graduates” conversant with elementary organic topics. Evaluation data indicate that approximately 208 of the graduates have shared information about the training with their colleagues and 120 have provided direct assistance to organic growers (or growers interested in organic topics) since attending the courses. Before/after evaluation data indicate that as a result of the training, participants are more interested in organic production, more confident in its validity as a production method, better equipped to assist producers with questions, and aware of organic topics they want to know more about. In addition, most have learned about the existence of organic clients they hadn’t known about before; perhaps because of a shift in attitude, about 100 have learned about organic growers in their area that they hadn’t been aware of before.

Farmer Adoption
It is difficult to determine how many farmers have used information that short course graduates have delivered to them. What we do know from our follow-up survey of graduates is that, since completing the Organic Short Course for Agriculture Professionals, a majority of the graduates have worked with organic growers using information gained at the course. Using the respondents’ estimates of how many growers they have helped, and extrapolating for the whole cohort of short course graduates, we can reasonably estimate that graduates have delivered information to 856 farmers since completing the course.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Results and Discussion/Milestones and Barriers

The regional approach benefited both the coordinating organization and the project. Local hosts benefited by gaining programming funds and visibility as the event organizer within their communities. The project benefited from better, more effective sessions – local committees were more familiar with the needs of agriculture professionals in their areas of the state, and with local resource people, including organic producers. Contact with farmers was critical because they were some of the most important instructors we had for all of these sessions. (Appendix F).

Before the training
About 178 trainees completed the pre-course assessment. Their overall score on the nine knowledge-based questions was 71%, and average scores were similar from site to site (range 67% to 74% (Appendix G). It was a little surprising that at an average of 71% correct, the attendees they scored as high as they did, and there are a couple of possible explanations. People who already had an interest in organic may have been most likely to take the course. The questions also may have been too easy. We did not administer an identical post-course test.

The intention of the assessment was to get the students thinking about major issues and to assess their familiarity with organic agriculture. Attendee knowledge was generally weakest about the federal organic regulation and enforcement responsibility. Respondents said they thought the biggest motivators for farmers to transition to organic were financial/economic, followed by environment/stewardship, health/safety (of consumer and/or operator), and philosophical/moral.

We also used the pre-workshop assessment to get a sense of how far people traveled to attend this training. The team that conceived this project specifically designed it to offer separate, stand-alone introductory trainings in specific regions of the state. This design was strategic – we wanted to give these trainings a competitive advantage in a world of busy schedules and decreasing travel and training funds; we reasoned that agricultural professionals would be more likely to attend trainings that were closer to them geographically. Nearly 40 percent of attendees traveled less than 50 miles round trip to attend their workshop of choice. Two-thirds of them traveled less than 100 miles round trip to attend. Only 15 percent traveled more than 150 miles round trip (Appendix H).

At the end of the session
A total of 154 trainees returned the end-of-day survey for a 68 percent return rate. Since the training formats were nearly identical, evaluation data from all sessions were combined for ease and clarity of reporting.

Responses validated the effectiveness of the pedagogy, which used a model based on adult learning preferences and which was outlined in the grant proposal. Respondents who completed end-of-day surveys rated the quantity and quality of information high (average score 4.02 out of 5). A full 96 percent said the course was worth time and effort to attend, and well over two-thirds said they’d recommend the training to a colleague (Appendix I). The best-liked portions of the day were morning organic farmer presentations (nontraditional presenters for groups of trainees like these) and afternoon organic farm visits/tours (active and inter-active learning). There was a great disparity in their reaction to the session on the National Organic Rule. While some called it their favorite session, more called it the least useful. Four different presenters taught this topic at various sessions. The disparity among responses may be due to presenter quality and effectiveness and in part to the audience.

After the session
Responses to the one-page follow-up mail survey sent to the Organic Short Course attendees six to nine months after the course indicated that the attendees remained interested in and engaged with organic agriculture after they returned to their workplaces. A total of 131 trainees returned the follow-up survey for a return rate of 58 percent. This high return rate – outstanding for a mail survey – indicates that the graduates felt that providing feedback about the training was worth their time and effort. A majority of the survey respondents had worked with organic growers, and had discussed organic agriculture with colleagues since attending the training. As in the end-of-day evaluations, the farmer presentations and tours remained the sessions that participants rated most useful when surveyed several months after the workshop, further validating the power of tapping farmers as educational presenters and of incorporating active learning for adult students.

The project encountered several barriers as it progressed from concept to activity.

• In 2003, University of Minnesota Extension Service announced an internal reorganization, closing 69 of 87 county offices. Extension educators, who were important participants as trainers and trainees, were unclear about their changing roles and responsibilities within the extension structure. The project team decided that it would be wiser to postpone training sessions until the reorganization was complete and Extension staff responsibilities had been clarified. As a result, four of the six short courses were delayed until the second year of the project. It is unclear how many potential participants we lost as a result of reduced Extension staffing levels and office closings.

• Internal State of Minnesota protocols resulted in some contracting delays, and required more administrative time for the project, but did not result in any major rescheduling.

• After the project was conceived and funded and session organizing activity began at the local level, it was difficult to continue to involve and engage – in a meaningful way – the team of individuals who initially conceived the project in 2002.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Progress toward outcomes

Short term outcomes
The end-of-day evaluation instruments measured of progress toward specific short term outcomes (Appendix J):

S-1 participants…are aware of the scale and scope of organic production in MN and the US, including production, domestic and international market, and consumer trends.
Awareness of the scale and scope of organic production in Minnesota grew by almost 85 percent (1.8 points). Attendees’ knowledge about organic market opportunities in the U.S. improved 39 percent (about 1.1 points).

S-2 participants…know the National Organic Program Final Rule exists and, in basic terms, what it says
Knowledge about the National Organic Program Final Rule increased 88 percent (1.5 points).

S-3 participants …understand the steps required for producer and processor certification, including the role of inspectors and certification agencies and the elements of required farm plans.
Participant understanding about the certification process and roles of farm plans, inspectors, and certifying agencies increased by roughly 71 percent (about 1.5 points).

S-4 participants…know about and have access to 5-10 sources of information about organic production and marketing.
Trainees reported their knowledge about where to find info about organic topics increased 74 percent (1.7 points) Each trainee left with access to information in the form of a thick binder which included a copy of the federal rule, a variety of ATTRA publications and other materials about organic crop, livestock, and vegetable production, as well as information on consumer trends and markets, certifying agencies, and educational nonprofit organizations. At the first few trainings, attendees were given complete binders (Appendix K). After reviewing evaluations from the early trainings and learning that fewer than half were using the resources, we changed our method. At the last four trainings, we provided the trainees with empty binders and a smorgasbord of resource materials from which they could select what they wanted. The second strategy resulted in less clerical work for workshop organizers. We hypothesized that participants may have been more likely to use binders they had assembled themselves, since they knew what it contained. (See I-1)

Intermediate outcomes
The follow-up evaluation, administered six to nine months after the training was returned by more than half the participants. It measured progress toward intermediate outcomes and whether any changed attitudes or knowledge (short term outcomes) translated themselves into activities and behaviors (intermediate outcomes) in the workplace (Appendix L).

I-1 participants…provide appropriate technical assistance or information to organic growers OR refer them to appropriate sources;
About 53 percent of respondents reported that they provided technical assistance or information (or referrals) to organic growers. Most reported helping between 1 and 5 growers. The most common area of assistance was helping growers understand and participate in federal programs (like Minnesota’s organic transition program offered through by the USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, conservation planning, or organic crop insurance). Others said they provided financial or lending assistance, production help, or connected the grower with information and resources, including certifiers. Forty percent reported using the resource book provided at the training.

I-2 participants…accept the notion that organic can be a viable production system;
Six to nine months after the training, 80 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that organic can be a viable production system. While 17 percent were neutral to that statement, only one respondent disagreed with it. These responses suggest that participants are probably willing to consider and discuss clients’ organic questions seriously.

I-3 participants…identify resource materials that would help them assist clients, but that don’t currently exist;
When they were asked to identify additional skills or resources that would help them assist clients 56 percent were able to name at least one item. Most frequently cited were information on production issues like rotations, weed and insect control, and input appropriateness and availability. Respondents also listed, in decreasing order of frequency, marketing information, rules and regulation, and conservation issues. Fifteen graduates applied for and received registration scholarships to the Minnesota Organic and Grazing Conference, demonstrating a continuing interest in learning more about organic agriculture.

I-4 participants…share knowledge about organics with peers/colleagues.
The training created discussion about organic among peers: 92 percent of respondents reported telling their colleagues about the short course and 54 percent reported that their colleagues had asked them questions about organic. In addition, 44 percent said that since the training they had learned about organic farmers in their area about whom they weren’t aware previously.

Long-term outcomes
It is too early to measure progress toward long term goals and, in the context of increasing activity and interest on the part of farmers and agencies, to attribute it directly to this course. We can report anecdotally, however, agencies for whose staff members the course was intended, have maintained or increased their activities in organic agriculture. The NRCS continues to offer organic transition cost share through the EQIP program, for example. This agency also worked to ensure that organic farmers in qualifying watersheds received information about the Conservation Security Program. The University of Minnesota is transitioning or has transitioned certified organic research acreage at two more research and outreach centers. The Risk Management Agency has approached the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and grower groups with information about pilot insurance programs for specialty crops, including organic; the Organic Crop Improvement Association – Minnesota Chapter #1 is currently evaluating this opportunity. Staff members at the Farm Service Agency have been working on programs to qualify organic production for some of the agency’s loan programs.

Future Recommendations

Areas Needing Additional Study

This PDP program was designed to answer basic questions about organic agriculture and to whet the appetites of some attendees to learn more. Nearly 86 percent of the respondents indicated they would be very likely to attend an intermediate level organic short course. Areas of interest were consistent on both end-of-day and follow-up mail surveys. Additional information about organic production practices (split fairly evenly between cropping and livestock) was the most frequently cited need, followed by marketing information, then certification and regulatory issues. In addition, several of the local host RC&Ds have asked about plans to hold follow-up trainings, and continuing media stories about strong retail sales – in particular unmet demand for organic dairy products and predictions for 30%-plus annual growth in organic meat and livestock sales, continue to capture the attention and interest the interest growers who are thinking about transitioning to organic. The feedback from course graduates coupled with market signals indicates that additional organic educational opportunities for agriculture advisors in Minnesota are needed.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.