Organic Conservation Program Training for NRCS and Extension

Final Report for ENC09-113

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Kathie Starkweather
Center for Rural Affairs
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project was aimed at Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Extension staff in MN, IA, ND, SD, NE to help them learn how to assist farmers and ranchers become eligible for and apply for new USDA organic and related conservation programs. This help came in the form of on-line training and farm tours.

The reason for the project was that experienced organic farmers need NRCS help with program signups while new organic farmers need NRCS and Extension advice on organic benefits and procedures, yet NRCS and Extension have had little experience with organic practices and how they fit into conservation programs. Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) and state partners hosted webinar and farm-tour training sessions for these ag educators about Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) rules, organic certification, organic farming practices, information resources, and local contacts. State NRCS offices and state PDP Coordinators helped recruit participants. Organic farming/ranching experts and other crop advisors were encouraged to certify as NRCS Technical Service Providers to assist with organic and other conservation planning. CFRA had developed a web-based curriculum for a pilot program in Nebraska and hosted 40 NRCS participants in May 2009. This curriculum was modified for use in the target states. Evaluation of training participant knowledge of programs and organic procedures was conducted with pre/post-participation questionnaires and second-year follow-up. Results were focused on NRCS participants being able to provide effective program assistance to applicants, Extension participants able to conduct their own programs for farmers/ranchers based on materials and contacts initiated in this project, and Technical Service Providers certified to provide planning and advising services.

Primary outcomes were expected to be 1) NRCS and Extension staff that understood organic farming practices and are now able to help farmers and ranchers apply those to conservation programs, and 2) enrollment of Technical Service Providers to assist with organic transition plans.

This project produced a curriculum and training materials for NRCS staff to assist farmers/ranchers with applying organic practices to EQIP and CSP program eligibility. These materials were localized to specifics of MN, ND, SD, IA, and NE state rules. These materials have been archived electronically for use throughout the project period and will be transferred to state –based websites as needed.

Application guides for Technical Service Providers (TSP) were developed to assist their application process. These materials were archived electronically for use throughout the project period.

Networks between NRCS, Extension, state organizations that support organic production, and organic farmers/ranchers were developed in each of the five states in order to facilitate continued discussion and technical assistance with organic farming and federal conservation programs.

Our goals of trained personnel from this project were at minimum:
• 40 NRCS and 5 Extension attendees in each state at web seminars
• 30 NRCS and 5 Extension attendees in each state at farm tours
• 10 TSP candidates in each state; 3 TSP applicants/state

Project Objectives:

1. NRCS and Extension staffs in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska will learn how to help farmers and ranchers become eligible for and apply for new USDA organic and related conservation programs.
2. Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) and state partners will host webinar and farm-tour training sessions for these ag educators about Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) rules, organic certification, organic farming practices, information resources, and local contacts.
• 40 NRCS and 5 Extension attendees in each state at web seminars
• 30 NRCS and 5 Extension attendees in each state at farm tours
3. Organic farming/ranching experts and other crop advisors will be encouraged to certify as NRCS Technical Service Providers to assist with organic and other conservation planning.
• 10 TSP candidates in each state; 3 TSP applicants/state

Introduction:

Experienced organic farmers needed NRCS help with program signups while new organic farmers needed NRCS and Extension advice on organic benefits and procedures, yet NRCS and Extension had had little experience with organic practices and how they fit into conservation programs. Since training dollars were tight for NRCS and Extension and since NRCS received much of their training through web-based presentations, Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) and state partners hosted webinar trainings followed up by farm-tour training sessions for these ag educators about Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) rules, organic certification, organic farming practices, information resources, and local contacts. State NRCS offices and state PDP Coordinators helped recruit participants. Organic farming/ranching experts and other crop advisors were encouraged to certify as NRCS Technical Service Providers to assist with organic and other conservation planning. CFRA had developed a web-based curriculum for a pilot program in Nebraska and hosted 40 NRCS participants in May 2009. This curriculum was modified for use in the target states. Evaluation of training participant knowledge of programs and organic procedures was conducted with pre/post-participation questionnaires and second-year follow-up. Results were focused on NRCS participants being able to provide effective program assistance to applicants, Extension participants able to conduct their own programs for farmers/ranchers based on materials and contacts initiated in this project, and Technical Service Providers certified to provide planning and advising services. Building partnerships with NRCS and state organizations who would serve as a resource after the training had been completed was an important component of this project. As a result, CFRA invited MOSES, Northern Plains Sustainable Ag, Foundation for Ag and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability, and Land Stewardship Project to serve as state resource organizations.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Harriet Behar
  • Wyatt Fraas
  • Jeffrey Gunderson
  • Christi Kracht
  • Karri Stroh
  • Terry VanDerPol

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

1. Webinars. MOSES based curriculum had been modified by CFRA for use with Nebraska NRCS training and served as the foundation for developing web-based training for this project. CFRA in collaboration with MOSES modified and changed the curriculum where needed. Information on National Organic Program rules and procedures, examples of successful applications, and resources for local, regional and national assistance and information were included. CFRA researched and included state-specific rules into each state presentation and worked with LSP, FARRMS, MOSES and NPSAS to include segments that incorporated them into the appropriate state-tailored curriculum.

Each state’s training included an organic grower who was able to share his or her experiences with training participants, answer questions and give practical application of the things that participants were learning. The participation of the growers helped stimulate a number of questions from trainees. It was also very helpful to have NRCS program experts available to explain how this training fit specifically into CSP and EQIP programs when such questions arose. Having NRCS program experts participate in the training in that manner also helped develop this training as a partnership between the agency, CFRA and the state-based organization specific the location of the training.

Center for Rural Affairs staff and state partnering organization, where feasible, presented the training on-site from NRCS offices using their equipment and web training systems. For example, a representative from Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota was present for and participated in the Minnesota NRCS training; a member of FARRMS from North Dakota participated in that state’s training on site. NPSAS and MOSES representatives were able to join by teleconference for the South Dakota and Iowa trainings. Having state “go-to” organizations who could work with NRCS after the trainings were completed was an important part of this project. Each partner organization took a key role in the training which allowed them to begin to build relationships with NRCS or strengthen those relationships, particularly important since three of the four State Conservationists were new. Incorporating these organizations into the training allowed NRCS to know the state organic experts and would be able to continue that relationship after the training was done.

Webinar re-evaluation and changes were finalized and stored on the Center for Rural Affairs web site and NRCS/Extension websites as needed for future use or review through the project period. Materials have been transferred to state entities for use beyond the project period. CFRA analyzed and re-evaluated how to bring this training to Extension educators in the project states since the structure of the webinar training was not conducive to including non-NRCS participation. CFRA developed and planned a follow-up evaluation with training participants in Year 2 to determine subsequent application of organic practices to EQIP and CSP contracts, and extent of Extension programming related to the training materials.

CFRA tried to conduct follow-up evaluation with training participants in Year 2 to determine subsequent application of organic practices to EQIP and CSP contracts. See Accomplishments below.

2. Farm Tours. Farm tours were held in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota and as noted prior, a strong effort was made to make Extension aware of organic farm tours in Nebraska. Farm tours were marketed to NRCS and Extension through networks and through connecting directly with the NRCS staff person assigned as our liaison with the project.

CFRA held interviews with State Conservationists in states where NRCS participation in field days was low to better understand how participation might be improved in the future in Year 2. See Accomplishments below.

3. Technical Service Provider Recruitment. A guide and flyer focused on developing the capacity for Technical Service Providers with expertise in organic agriculture was developed and used as recruitment tools (submitted with Year 1 report). TSP recruiting announcements were placed on the Center for Rural Affairs’ website and we have advised NRCS in Nebraska on their materials for TSPs. 23 professionals with expertise in organic agriculture were approached and encouraged to apply to become a TSP. Two of these individuals are now on the NRCS register, eleven additional are interested and studying to gain this certification,twelve have completed the required training and are awaiting approval of their first plan. CFRA will evaluate Technical Service Provider applicants’ assessment of advisory materials and personal assistance. See Accomplishments below.

Outreach and Publications

We developed a power point that was used for the web-based training as well as the guide for TSP’s. Power points were changed according to each state’s separate practices and prices and we amended the presentation as we went along and learned that knowledge as not transferred because the questions were not clear. Those changes were made as needed.

Outcomes and impacts:

We exceeded our goal of the number of NRCS staff to receive this training. Web based trainings were presented to more than 200 NRCS employees in South Dakota (7/8/10), Minnesota (8/25/10), Iowa (9/22/10), and North Dakota (12/7/10). As noted in the Year 1 report, it was not possible to know exactly how many NRCS and Extension actually participated in the training because of the NRCS webinar system. It only allowed for so many available telephone lines and as a result, many times there was more than one person sharing a telephone and computer but using only one phone line. South Dakota, for example, required staff to “cluster” in offices, traveling to a somewhat central location in order to participate. While there could have been at least 10 or more staff participating at designated training site, it only registered as one.

Curriculum was changed as needed after each state presentation based on comments and suggestions received. For example it was strongly suggested that a one-page document that contained the “top ten” most important information be developed and shared with trainees. We incorporated that suggestion and it was well received. In speaking with a few NRCS staff, they are using this document.

We found it challenging to include non-NRCS people (Extension and potential TSPs) into the training sessions since each state NRCS office set up the phone bridge and did so for the number of its own expected participants only. In addition, oftentimes NRCS scheduled the sessions on short notice with a limited number of phone lines, requiring non-NRCS people to travel to an NRCS office to participate in the training since access information for the sessions was controlled by the agency.

To mitigate this problem in Nebraska we made ample announcements about a parallel (non-SARE) project that conducted organic EQIP information sessions in multiple locations around the state. To mitigate the problem in other states, we relied strongly on our partners to advertise their respective farm tours to NRCS and non-NRCS. Information on farm tours follows.

We were able to identify how many people took the pre and post tests, but it should be noted that not all who participated took a pre and/or post test. In some instances, some employees completed a pre test but not a post test; in other instances, post tests were completed with no pre test taken. Those results were not factored into the data analysis or data collection since there was no way of doing an evaluation of learning without pre and post test comparisons. In addition, we assume that there were participants who neither took a pre or post test.

However, we were pleased that a total of 188 NRCS staff in all states completed pre and post tests, which exceeded the goals set in our proposal. (Copy of test that served as both pre and post test was submitted with Year 1 report.) Learning was demonstrated by all test results though South Dakota had the highest pre-test scores.

Farm Tours:
Minnesota: Land Stewardship Project hosted three field days, one on a certified organic small grain farm in Madison, Minnesota; one on a certified dairy research facility at the University of Minnesota; and one at a certified organic vegetable farm in Delano, Minnesota. Farmers were invited to the first two farm tours but not to the third. The reasoning behind this was to offer additional opportunities for NRCS, Extension and farmers to interact since many of the farmers in attendance were doing so to learn how to become organic. Topics covered included cover crops to build soil fertility, organic dairy practices, transition to organic, and experiments with cover crops to address changing weather patterns.

Interest appeared high from NRCS staff with 13 reservations made for the first tour shortly following the webinar training. However, the first tour had to be rescheduled because of bad weather and no NRCS or Extension attended the rescheduled farm tour. Three NRCS staff and 19 farmers attended the second farm tour and only one NRCS staff attended the final tour. NRCS staff told the LSP organizer that shortly after the rescheduled first farm tour, staff had received a directive from their national office that resulted in additional workload with short turn-around time. That no doubt impacted attendance at the Minnesota farm tours.

Iowa. MOSES put on five field days around the state. Four of the field days put on by MOSES were done in concert with Practical Farmers of Iowa, and all five field days included agricultural professionals as well as farmers.
1. Konstantinov Farm, Clarinda, IA- Southwestern IA
2. Klinge Farm, Farmersburg, IA- Northeastern IA
3. Cody Farm, Elkhart IA, Central IA
4. Koshmeder Farm, Riceville IA- North Central IA
5. Mugge Farm, Sutherland, IA- Western IA

Emphasis was placed on soil building strategies on organic farms, as well as weed and pest control at all of the farm tours.

Outreach was done for each of these field days to NRCS and extension staff via email and personal phone calls. Many staff stated they would attend, but did not. In response to calls after the field day, they stated they had too much other work to do and at the last minute, decided they could not fit attending the field day into their schedule.

Approximately 12 NRCS and 9 extension or other government personnel attended the 5 field days in IA. Each field day had between 25 and 45 attendees, with farmers the majority of the participants at each location. Written evaluations collected at the field day illustrated that these attendees learned a variety of new aspects of organic farming that they had not known before attending.

North Dakota. FARRMS hosted four farm tours and on mulch tour. Organic farm tours were made mandatory by NRCS in North Dakota – the only state in our trainings that made farm tours mandatory. Three of the four tours were attended by 47, 67, and 57 NRCS staff respectively. Additionally, FARRMS hosted a mulch tour that brought 15 Extension and 30 NRCS staff.

South Dakota. NPSAS offered two day training for NRCS and Extension educators in August along with one farm tour open to NRCS, Extension and farmers and two high tunnel tours.

The two-day training was well attended by NRCS and drew 33 NRCS staff and 1 Extension Educator. Low attendance by Extension was credited to the fact that 4-H events were scheduled for the same time period. This training got very good feedback from attendees and an interest expressed in holding an organic farm tour in Sioux Falls later on. Information was not gathered from the farm tour as to how many attendees were NRCS and/or Extension, though over 60 people participated.

Topics Presented in the two-day training included: national organic rule; crop soil management; certification overview; harvest handling; storage and buffers; organic livestock management and marketing; challenges in organic food production; “what’s happening” in South Dakota organic sector; and information on SARE.

NOTE: Participation by NRCS and Extension in farm tours and field days was outstanding in North Dakota because the training was made mandatory by the State Conservationist. Workload played a factor in low participation rates in other states as indicated by the change in activity in this regard in Minnesota in which 13 reservations were made for the farm tour immediately following the webinar training. However, ultimately something came up for NRCS staff and Extension and turnout was very low.

TSP: CFRA and its state partner organizations performed significant outreach to organic growers relative to becoming a Technical Service Provider. However, the TSP application process was time consuming and bulky. Finding people with expertise in organic agriculture that had the time and the type of computer connections necessary to download NRCS TSP application documents proved to be difficult. In spite of that 23 professionals with expertise in organic agriculture were approached and encouraged to apply to become a TSP. Two of these individuals are now on the NRCS register, eleven additional are interested and studying to gain this certification,twelve have completed the required training and are awaiting approval of their first plan.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

We accomplished a lot through this training but also were not able to accomplish all that we had expected. Some of it was due to the technology choice for presenting the webinars; some was due to staffing turnover in each state NRCS office.

We exceeded the number of NRCS staff who were trained using the web-based training. They appreciated our being sensitive to their lack of training dollars and it seemed to work well. All pre and post testing showed improved knowledge. It was a well-received method of training by NRCS but it was problematic to include anyone outside the agency because of the way the technology is set up.

When we went back to NRCS offices in year two to do a follow-up post testing we were met with resistance or we were unable to connect with anyone who would be the contact person to organize the post tests. The resistance came in the form of a comment, “We don’t do this kind of testing a year after the fact.” Consequently, we were not successful in getting follow-up post testing done. Other states had experienced a significant staffing turnover either with their State Conservationist or with the person who had been our liaison. The staff who we were able to connect with did not feel confident in connecting us with the people who were trained. As a result we were not successful in administering a second post test a year after the training had occurred.

We were unable to reach our goal of 5 Extension educators participating in each state through web training because of the difficulty in tying anyone outside the agency into the technology though we did have three total who were able to join the training. In the future it might make more sense to use non-NRCS technology that allowed outside participants to join. While people were able to access the archived training, missing out on the questions and interaction of the live webinars dilutes the learning.

Technical Service Provider Recruitment. A guide and flyer focused on developing the capacity for Technical Service Providers with expertise in organic agriculture was developed and used as recruitment tools (submitted with Year 1 report). TSP recruiting announcements were placed on the Center for Rural Affairs’ website and we have advised NRCS in Nebraska on their materials for TSPs. 18 professionals with expertise in organic agriculture were approached and encouraged to apply to become a TSP. Two of these individuals are now on the NRCS register and five additional are studying to gain this certification.

Technical Service Provider certification was difficult for many organic producers to achieve. The barriers to this have been mentioned previously. We did develop a guide to use to help with certification and it was available and accessible to anyone interested in becoming a TSP. A copy of that guide was attached to our Year 1 report. However, since that time, NRCS facilitated a series of workshops to help organic growers become certified. This seems to have helped and organic growers are finalizing their certification training and close to becoming certified TSP’s. 23 professionals with expertise in organic agriculture were approached and encouraged to apply to become a TSP. Two of these individuals are now on the NRCS register, eleven additional are interested and studying to gain this certification,twelve have completed the required training and are awaiting approval of their first plan.

Farm Tours. We exceeded our goals of NRCS and Extension participation in farm tours overall with 227 NRCS staff participating for the entire project. 24 Extension educators participated overall as well. We found attendance was greatly improved when it was made mandatory by the State Conservationist which it was in one state. We also ran up against weather conditions that cancelled and rescheduled some tours in Iowa and that impacted overall turnout to farm tours in that state.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

This project set out to train NRCS and Extension so farmers/ranchers would receive qualified assistance from NRCS staff, Extension educators; and Technical Service Providers. This in turn would result in more farmers/ranchers participating in USDA conservation programs related to organic practices, resulting in increased protection of air, water, soil and biodiversity resources. Short term expectations were for NRCS staff to fully understand new conservation program rules relative to certified organic crops and livestock and have a good grasp on organic practices; for Extension staff to understand organic rules and procedures and be able to know who organic experts were; and to cultivate organic advisors/producers to take steps toward becoming Technical Service Providers.

What we have learned is that it appears that web-based training has been successful in terms of learning taking place. NRCS staff who participated in the training did not become experts in their knowledge level but overall did improve their knowledge considerably as demonstrated by pretest and posttest scores. North Dakota showed the least dramatic learning improvement by a posttest score for all participants of 80%, up from a 71% with pretest. This higher overall pretest score no doubt reflects mandatory participation in field day and farm tours that occurred prior to this web-based training.

The three remaining states are probably more reflective of what web-based training can do since all three had pretest scores below 60%, or what would be considered a “passing” grade. Average pretest scores of these three states was 56.5% with average posttest scores of 79.8%. That is a significant learning improvement. The question is, will that information be applied and retained? Since we were unable to do any post-testing in year 2, it is difficult to answer this question. However, anecdotal information in informal conversations with NRCS staff indicated that while learning took place through this method, an unanticipated outcome was that enough learning took place to raise interest from NRCS staff to learn more. That resulted in our “Top 10” document. One NRCS program expert mentioned after the web-based training that they appreciated the training and realized they will need more of it. That was encouraging and suggests there is more openness to further learning. In addition, there were reports from organizations who work with NRCS that NRCS staff has improved its work with organic producers and with writing effective transition plans in our project states.

We learned that NRCS is comfortable and receptive to web-based training. We also learned that the technology could be improved for maximum learning. In evaluating the training, it would have been helpful to have a more interactive system that allowed people to post questions and answer questions throughout the training. Posting questions to trainees periodically throughout the process would allow trainers to evaluate if learning was occurring and be able to back track information to ensure there was understanding and comprehension.

The manner in which the training was organized, ensuring that partner organizations were present, visible and involved in the training helped in-state organizations establish a relationship with key NRCS staff. This in turn allows NRCS to have a known and proven resource/expert available for future training, farm tours, and to assist where necessary. Two of the four states had new State Conservationists that the partner organizations had not yet met.

Future Recommendations

Web-based training seems to work well for NRCS staff and given the current funding climate the likelihood of their having dollars to devote to travel ling for training is diminished. It seems to have been effective in measuring learning outcomes.

Recommendations to improve this would include technology that is not NRCS-owned if it was to include anyone outside the agency; otherwise it is fine to continue to use it.

Build relationships with NRCS so they have someone they can go to directly. This proved to be a very good component of our project.

Work with the organization to get the State Conservation’s buy-in early on having him or her devote resources to the project.

Get commitment from NRCS State Conservationist for long term follow up to measure impact of the project and the learning that took place.

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.