Training for Organic Farming and Ranching in the Great Plains

Final Report for ENC06-092

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2006: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Charles Francis
Grain Place Foundation
Co-Coordinators:
Shannon Moncure
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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Project Information

Abstract:
Project Summary from the Pre-Proposal

Organic products are the most rapidly growing sector of the U.S. food system. Farmers and ranchers in NE, KS, ND and SD have lagged behind those in other states in recognizing and exploiting the potentials of these markets. One reason for low client interest has been lack of experience in organic production and limited resources to provide recommendations on the part of Extension educators and high school teachers. Key farmers and ranchers in each state who are already certified for organic agriculture production are willing to share their experiences with interested educators. This grant describes the ‘train the trainers’ program to provide educators in Extension and high schools with practical information and hands-on experience in organic farming and ranching system practices and design. Nebraska experience with the North Central Regional PDP Project in sustainable agriculture training and workshops across the region in the 1990s convinced us that having information in the system is not sufficient. Educators need to see things in practice, discuss systems with others in the field, and learn through experience about the potentials of new innovations in agriculture. This project will organize and implement four workshops in KS, SD, ND and NE in 2007 and four more in 2008 to help provide needed information and experience. Trainers will be farmers and ranchers who are already active in organic production, and results will be summarized and provided to those who attend and to others in the region. Farmer organizations will be partners in the organization and implementation of workshops.

Project Objectives:
Overall Project Objectives

Objectives:
1. Increase knowledge about organic farming and certification among Extension educators & specialists, NRCS technicians, high school teachers, and public sector administrators
2. Increase the role and visibility of organic farmers in educational planning and programming in the four-state area
3. Create an information exchange network among organic farmers and public sector educators to improve profitability and sustainability of farming

2007 Nebraska Workshop

In Nebraska, the 2007 workshop (which consisted mainly of two on-farm tours near Lodgepole, NE) was attended by five Extension and 11 NRCS participants, as well as many other participants from varying affiliations (e.g. farmers, media). There were more than 50 participants overall.

All participants who turned in evaluation forms rated their on-farm experiences as a 7, 8 or 9 on a 9-point scale. Some typical comments from the evaluations:
• Gleaned a lot from how crop rotations and planting times can take care of problem weeds, soil condition improvements, etc.
• My knowledge of organic farming was very limited so everything was new and I found it very interesting. It opened my eyes to the very process and marketing of organic products. The demand that the market provides.
• Ken was a wealth of information. Very willing to teach us all. Thanks for talking us through your ups and downs.
• I learned about his rotations-and especially peas used for fertilizer. Interesting question and answer session incorporated into Ken’s talk.
• Larry’s experience with row crops and the information of the equipment he uses was valuable and interesting.
• Appreciated his willingness to share failures.
• Larry had a wealth of information. He was able to make us think of many issues as we problem solve on our farm acres.

Several of the participants expressed appreciation for the farmer-lecturers, and interest in applying what they had learned in their work. Some examples from the evaluations:
• Really feel inspired to pass on info to producers I work with as well as working on making my farmer’s market garden organic, thanks.
• I feel far more educated on organic farming and feel now that I can pass this information on to other producers that may be interested or have questions.
• All the presenters had so much knowledge. We could have asked questions for hours of all of them. Thank you for the exposure to the resources (books and such) and to the fine folks that do well in their area of specialty.

2007 South Dakota Workshop

In South Dakota, the 2007 workshop (which consisted mainly of an on-ranch tour near Norris, SD and an afternoon presentation/discussion) was attended by at least 1 Extension and 3 NRCS participants, although several participants did not fill out evaluation forms and therefore did not have their attendance recorded. There were about 40 participants overall, including at least six farmers, some of who traveled long distances for the chance to paricipate.

All participants who turned in evaluation forms agreed that they would recommend the workshop to others interested in the topic. In their comments, participants mentioned a better understanding of the complexity of organic farming and a hope to build networks among other professionals, as well as specific content they found interesting (especially grazing topics).

The most common methods that participants reported they planned to use to share their newly-gained organic agriculture information with their producer audience included:
• Answer client questions
• Develop new contacts and partners
• Bring new information into regular programming
• Use in newsletters and media

2007 North Dakota Workshop

In North Dakota, the 2007 workshop (which consisted of two on-farm tours and a working lunch in or near Dickinson, ND) was attended by nine Extension and two education participants. Among the other participants were several interested farmers and OCIA representatives. There were about 35 participants overall.

All participants who turned in evaluation forms agreed that they would recommend the workshop to others interested in the topic. They found the new knowledge offered and the opportunities for networking and professional contacts to be most useful to their work.

Nearly all participants who filled out evaluation forms reported that they planned to share their newly-gained organic agriculture information with their producer audience by bringing new information into their regular programming.

2007 Kansas Workshop

There was no workshop in Kansas in 2007, due to unusually large stressors to Extension staff and local farmers by the spring tornadoes in that state.

2008 Nebraska Workshops

Two workshops were completed in Nebraska in 2008. The first, in Grant, NE, consisted of interactive discussions and panel presentations by farmers and NRCS personnel. This workshop was attended by four Extension and five NRCS participants, and also included a large contingent of farmers: eight organic producers and 13 considering transitioning to organic. There were 33 participants overall.

This workshop’s most popular topics were all connected with the actual practices of organic farming, especially organic inputs and the experiences of the currently practicing organic farmers. The attendance and interest of the NRCS participants, who worked in the area of water quality, brought an added benefit to the program.

The second Nebraska workshop took place in Kearney, NE, and was part of the larger Nebraska Agriculture Education Association annual conference. Ninety attendees participated in a presentation led by Chuck Francis, and received a new grant-supported resource: a folder containing both actual organic farming resources, as well as a list of online resource links the participants could investigate on their own after the conference. This new resource also was disseminated at other events and sites throughout Nebraska once it had been created for this purpose, especially through the Center for Rural Affairs.

The most important impacts of this change in methodologies were twofold: first, the creation of an extensive resource that could both supplement in-person experiences and also stand alone meant that the organic agriculture education “news” could spread in a different way throughout interested educators. Many NAEA participants, for example, expressed satisfaction at having something to hold in their hands, take back to their workplaces, and even reproduce for their students and fellow educators. Second, the ability to speak with so many high school educators after struggling to do so throughout 2007 was a great success. It had been essentially impossible to attract these teachers to stand-alone conferences, but the fact that so many made the annual NAEA conference a must-attend event made it clear that we had made a significantly positive change to our planning.

2008 South Dakota Workshops

Two workshops were completed in South Dakota in 2008. The first, in Madison, SD, was hosted by the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society and consisted of two on-farm tours and an interactive discussion at the conclusion of the day. This workshop was attended by eight Extension, ten NRCS and two high school educator participants, and also included a large contigent of farmers: 12 organic producers and 25 considering transitioning to organic. There were about 67 participants overall.

Both of the farms involved in this event were large and diverse, providing a huge amount of information and examples of concepts for the participants to experience firsthand. The panel discussion at the end of the day gave all participants a way to ask questions connected to the earlier tours, and to integrate their new knowledge into their existing frames of reference.

The second South Dakota workshop took place in Pierre, SD, and, similarly to the Nebraska Agriculture Education Association annual conference, integrated a presentation by Chuck Francis into the South Dakota statewide vocational agriculture educators’ conference. Seventy-nine attendees participated in this presentation, and received the resource folder described in the previous section. Twenty-five other conference participants picked up a copy of the resource folder as well, citing personal interest or the intent to give the folder to a friend or relative who was in need of such information.

The same impacts were realized by this resource development and integration into high school educator annual conferences in South Dakota as in Nebraska: the ability to reach new audiences and a wider ultimate impact on both educators and the young people they teach.

North Dakota 2008 Workshop

In North Dakota, the 2008 workshop (which consisted of an on-farm tour and break-out sessions in the afternoon, in and near Tappen, ND) was attended by currently organic producers, producers thinking of going organic, extension educators, resource management staff and agricultural educators. The workshop was sponsored by FARRMS and the Mercer County Extension office.

Participants in this workshop also received the same resource folder provided to Nebraska and South Dakota participants.

Evaluations were positive. Suggestions included start to finish farm planning (“whole farm planning process”) and information on “microproducers” (urban producers, market gardeners etc.). The topics were all marked “important” by at least one attendee and “somewhat important” by others.

Kansas 2008 Workshop

The 2008 workshop in Kansas was a cooperation between the north central region of SARE, the Kansas Rural Center, the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas State University Research and Extension, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. There were 25 attendees, including some from Extension and NRCS.

This workshop, in and near Sabetha, KS, consisted of participatory discussions throughout the morning, with a tour of a grain mill and an organic farm in the afternoon. Participants in this workshop also received the same resource folder provided to Nebraska and South Dakota participants.

2009 One-Year, No-Cost Extension

The one-year, no-cost extension that took place in 2009 focused on reaching the orginal project’s goals through different means. While Chuck Francis continued to participate in workshops attended by agriculture educators, we also developed a new, revamped website and a new organic agriculture book. Though the method focus shifted, however, the objectives of the project remained the same.

Evaluating the website has proved difficult with typically anonymous online traffic, however, traffic numbers continue to rise as more educators discover the resources available in condensed form.

The organic book, offered to all members of the organic agriculture educator contact list compiled over the first two years of the project, was accompanied by a paper or online evaluation survey in order to provide us with impact information. Of the 27 respondents to the evaluation, three NRCS, 15 Extension, and three high school educators participated. The evaluation participants all found the book to be potentially useful, especially in the areas of crop rotation, pest management and marketing. For more information on the organic farming book, see its dedicated section below.

Introduction:

In this, the final year of the project, we used what we had learned during the first two years to further refine our approach to bringing organic agriculture information to the project’s four-state area. New technology was explored with the renovation and re-launch of an information-rich agriculture education website, and a new book on organic agriculture was distributed to interested educators in all four states.

We continued meanwhile to focus on our core methodology: workshops and conferences, reaching educators through discussion groups, lectures and activities, and farm tours.

Throughout the three years of this project, many educators in Nebraska, South and North Dakota, and Kansas gained opportunities to explore organic agriculture through the activities supported by this grant. NRCS, Extension and high school agriculture educators met first-hand with farmers using organic techniques, asked questions, and were informed and armed for moving organic topics into the educational activities they lead. The resources created during this project will also continue to support learning as they are referenced and utilized by the participant educators and their peers.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Ashley Colglazier
  • Shannon Moncure
  • Justin Van Wart

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Design & Planning of Workshops

As in 2008, we determined to integrate our offerings into existing conferences and workshops in the four-state area. We had found in years previous to 2008 that attracting participants to stand-alone workshops could be difficult, and found the cooperative approach we took in 2008 to be both more efficient and preferable to our potential participants, some of whom may not have thought it worthwhile to attend a stand-alone organic or sustainable agriculture event. The opportunity to “sample” organics and sustainable agriculture made the choice less risky for those with little previous experience in the field.

The planning for 2009 events was based on what events were being planned that fit the agenda of the grant, and on contact with clients interested in including our information. These events are described below. Grant work was also accomplished through two other ventures: a renovation of the UNL website and major written resource, and the publication of a new book on organic agriculture containing contributions by many local and regional authors. The list of contacts in the grant’s four-state area was used as a starting point for disseminating news of the website and complimentary copies of the book for evaluation. More detailed information on each is included below.

Workshops

With two years of workshop experience, we added additional activities using the no-cost extension of the grant. We also saw that workshop information would be a good match for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Agroecology course (AGRO 435/835) and Organic Foods and Food Systems course (AGRO 496/896), both led by PI Chuck Francis. The information was nicely integrated into the spring courses in April. Forty-six undergraduate and graduate students participated in the Agroecology course. Participants in the Organic Foods course represented a highly diverse group, including Extension staff, conventional and sustainable producers seeking formal education to complement their experience, and interested community members involved in the local food movement. A total of nine students participated in this full-term course.

In May 2009, PI Chuck Francis was invited to participate in organic farming discussions and a tour of the organic farm at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

PI Chuck Francis led a field tour of an organic farm and a guided team exercise, organized by Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, in July 2009 as part of the National Sustainable Agriculture Consortium of Educators annual meeting.

PI Chuck Francis attended the Nebraska Local Food Network’s first annual conference in Lincoln, Nebraska on July 9, 2009, and used the opportunity to draw attention to the project’s website renovation, which was under way by this time. Flyers announcing the new website’s launch were handed out, and Chuck discussed with conference participants potential uses of the website as well as what they might like to see on the site as its renovation progressed. Chuck also pointed participants toward many of the resources, influenced by the grant project, that are available to help educate producers and others in sustainable agriculture.

On July 11, 2009, PI Chuck Francis and Coordinator Shannon Moncure participated in the annual farm and processing plant tour and summer seminar held at Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Nebraska. Chuck delivered a presentation on the development of University of Nebraska-Lincoln programs in organic farming systems, including background information on educational needs in the sustainable food system gleaned from the previous two years’ experience with this grant, and a description of the previous spring’s UNL Agroecology course.
Chuck and Shannon also shared handouts about the website renovation and other available resources with tour participants.

PI Chuck Francis led a week-long course, Agroecosystems Analysis 436/836, at Dordt College Iowa in August 2009. The concept of organic farming systems, as explored through this grant, was an integral part of the Iowa course. Chuck, other instructors, and the 24 students visited nine farms and discussed the production, economics, environmental impacts and social viability of contrasting farming systems, including organic operations.

Also in August, PI Chuck Francis travelled to Norway to co-teach a similar course on organic farming and food systems: Agroecology & Farming Systems (PAE 302-303) at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. This course included a farm and field student team project with clients who are committed to increasing production and marketing of organic foods in Norway.

PI Chuck Francis attended the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) National Meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in November. At this meeting, Chuck participated in a symposium on organic farming systems in which 45 participants explored the concepts and materials included in the new book, Organic Farming; The Ecological System (C.A. Francis, Editor. 2009. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, Wisconsin). The book is now in its second printing.

Website Renovation and Re-Launch

New and ongoing research in the fields of organic and sustainable agriculture has become available online; these sites can be wonderful resources for agriculture educators in particular. As both a stand-alone resource and a complement to educational experiences supported by this grant, the website now contains links to many more online videos, PowerPoint presentations and other online resources. These items were collected between July and December with the express purpose of supporting agriculture educators in their efforts to help students and others learn about sustainable and organic agriculture.

In July, sustainable and organic agriculture educators, practitioners and other interested parties were sent announcements about the renovated website. The re-launch occurred over several incremental changes, and we continue to add both links to newly discovered sites and also files collected by PI Chuck Francis and Coordinator Shannon Moncure as we interact with experts in the field. The website can be found at:
http://cari.unl.edu/SustainableAg/

Organic Farming Book

In August, the most recent American Society of Agronomy monograph, Organic farming: the ecological system (Francis, 2009) was published, with influences from the work supported by this grant. The book relates farming practices, understanding of components and mechanisms, and design of systems using natural environments as models. Understanding the sustainability of natural ecosystems, the importance of biodiversity, resilience, cycles and conservation of resources, among other principles, will be key to creating durable and productive systems in the face of limitations. Authors of the fifteen chapters share experiences and perspectives from the North American context, and represent a highly diverse and productive collection of agroecozones and farming systems. The contents list of the new organic farming book is below:

Organic Farming Book Chapters
  • Chapter Title
    1 History and Certification
    2 Ecological Foundation
    3 Crop Rotations
    4 Crop/Livestock Systems
    5 Forages in Organic Systems
    6 Organic Grains
    7 Soil Fertility
    8 Managing Weeds
    9 Pest Management
    10 Organic Marketing
    11 Food Security/Quality
    12 North Carolina Model
    13 Organic Education
    14 Future Systems
    15 Ethics and Farm Size
Organic Farming Book Evaluation

A combined paper and online evaluation was used to evaluate and gather feedback on the new organic farming book from contacts in the four states covered by this training grant.

Twenty-seven book recipients completed and returned the evaluation form; the results can be seen in the attached files.

Outreach and Publications

Website Renovation and Re-Launch

New and ongoing research in the fields of organic and sustainable agriculture has become available online; these sites can be wonderful resources for agriculture educators in particular. As both a stand-alone resource and a complement to educational experiences supported by this grant, the website now contains links to many more online videos, PowerPoint presentations and other online resources. These items were collected between July and December with the express purpose of supporting agriculture educators in their efforts to help students and others learn about sustainable and organic agriculture.

In July, sustainable and organic agriculture educators, practitioners and other interested parties were sent announcements about the renovated website. The re-launch occurred over several incremental changes, and we continue to add both links to newly discovered sites and also files collected by PI Chuck Francis and Coordinator Shannon Moncure as we interact with experts in the field. The website can be found at:
http://cari.unl.edu/SustainableAg/

Outcomes and impacts:
Overall Outcomes and Impacts

Overall, many agriculture educators were reached with the support of this grant, receiving experiences and information related to organic agriculture that was content-rich, location-specific and interactive through activities, discussions and question-and-answer sessions.

Over the three-year period, the following numbers of educators were directly reached through workshops:
Extension educators: 27+
NRCS educators: 29+
High school educators: 167+

Many more participants learned from the workshops, including an unexptectedly high number of farmers – both those already using organic methods and those thinking of transitioning. A good number of college students also benefitted from the information, both by attendance at workshops and by other methods such as college courses and use of the new resources created in 2008 and 2009.

The introduction of the organic agriculture resource packet in 2008 and the website and book in 2009 further increased the impact this information has had on the field, as the information has been given more and different opportunities to spread among agriculture education professionals in the four-state area.

While most evaluation participants (of all methodologies) expressed increased interest in organic agriculture and increased basic information about areas such as organic inputs and practices, this beginning – as well as the networking and personal connections afforded by interaction during workshops – may lead to greater and more in-depth understanding of organic agriculture, as well as integration into curricula and even the personal gardening and farming efforts of those involved. As expressed by many workshop participants, listening to and talking with experienced organic farmers is highly attractive to this audience, and the resources we have offered, based on just such a wealth of knowledge, have been well-received by our core audience of educators.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The accomplishments of this project (including the one-year extension) can be summed up as:
Fourteen workshops
One resource packet containing several dozen resources
One new website containing over 200 links to videos, PowerPoint shows and other online resources for agriculture educators
One academic and practical book distributed to nearly 50 educators in the four-state area
Many connections between workshop participants and farmers and other experts
Hundreds of educators linked to the information they need to begin a more informed instruction in organic agriculture

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

The resource packet, website and book are valuable resources that will stand for some time as a useful part of both the curricula of project participants, and resources for future educators who will find them while searching for information.

The educators who were impacted with this project’s information and experiences may integrate these impacts into their own teaching, so passing on the ideas and practices of organic agriculture throughout the project’s four-state area.

Future Recommendations

Conclusions from Year Three [no-cost extension of project]

Overall we consider the activities in education and training of professionals in the details of organic farming and certification to be a success, although there were many lessons learned in the project as well that will influence direction of future planning and programs. Among these successes and most important lessons were the following:
• There is great interest in organic farming among farmers and the educators who serve them; attendance at the workshops was generally quite good, and those who participated showed great enthusiasm toward the topics and genuine curiosity about the current management of organic operations and their potentials for the future.
• The certification process was of special interest, especially to those with limited prior knowledge or experience in this arena; most attendees were surprised to hear about the level of detail and amount of planning that goes into a certified organic operation, and the many hurdles one must cross before receiving an organic certificate.
• It is more difficult than we had imagined to attract professionals to these workshops, especially the voc-ag teachers and administrators in landgrant universities and NRCS; there was best attendance by specialists in NRCS and Extension, and both groups were very helpful in promotion of the workshops within their organizations.
• Working cooperatively with OCIA chapters and local Extension and NRCS people was the most successful model for planning and conducting workshops; having joint workshops and field tours together with local farmers was especially valuable, as there was opportunity for the educators to learn firsthand from other participants.
• The field tours were the most popular part of each workshop, and using farmers as instructors both in the field and in the meeting places was highly desirable; even when describing the organic certification process, a PowerPoint from OCIA was most effective when shown and discussed by farmers.
• The second most valuable activity was farmer panels, and inviting farmers who are already certified to present their experiences was highly informative to others who are considering taking the leap to begin the certification process; farmers relate to other farmers, and this type of discussion was promoted by having farmer panels.
• One way to reach the voc-ag teachers was to attend their summer in-service sessions, since they were difficult to attract to our workshops due to busy schedules, lack of meaningful contacts or good publicity, or general disinterest in organic farming; if they don’t come to us, we need to go to them.
• The distribution of a book on organic farming to key educators in the four-state area appeared to be a useful way to promote greater understanding and education about organic systems, and the book evaluation survey results indicated that educators are most interested in practical design of systems, production practices, and marketing.

We consider this program to have contributed to the general understanding of organic farming among the educator community in the four-state areas. It is important to work with existing certification groups as well as farmer organizations, and to use the existing infrastructure of extension and NRCS to design and promote educational activities in the Midwest. There is further need for additional training and awareness about organic agriculture.

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.