An Introductory Virtual Training Curriculum for Crop Advisers and Extension Educators Working with Transitioning Organic Grain Crop Producers

Final report for ENC18-166

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2018: $68,437.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2020
Grant Recipient: American Society of Agronomy
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Christopher Boomsma
American Society of Agronomy
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project developed webinars, podcasts, a video, and fact sheets for North Central SARE Region agricultural professionals that work with grain crop farmers either transitioning or considering transitioning to organic production. This curriculum provided the sustainable agronomic guidance these advisers need to help their clients succeed during this three-year period. It also highlighted the unique, sustainable business opportunities both growers and their advisers have during this timeframe. The target audience was the Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) and Extension agent communities present in the North Central SARE Region that focus on grain crop production, though the materials were also made available to producers, other agricultural professionals, and the general public. The project leveraged the American Society of Agronomy's (ASA) Member and CCA rosters; the project team's collective grower and Extension network connections; ASA's webinar, podcast, video production, graphical design, marketing, and survey and analytical capabilities; and transitioning and organic grain crop production experts to produce and deliver a five-part webinar series, four-part podcast series, a single video, and five fact sheets. Materials covered areas in which CCAs must acquire Continuing Education Units (CEUs) and many Extension agents must be proficient: nutrient management, soil and water management, pest management, and crop management. This project's education materials also focused on the business case for working in transition grain crop production. Surveys were used to assess knowledge gains and implementation among learners. Over half of those individuals that responded to the post-project survey used the project’s education materials to support grain farmers working through the organic transition period. Even after this project's extensive education efforts, many advisers remained uncertain of (i) the business opportunities associated with organic grain crop consulting and (ii) their ability to deliver the business and certification acumen and skills required for advising growers through the organic transition. Survey results suggested that follow-on education is needed, particularly in input cost and revenue estimation, organic system planning, and weed management. 

Project Objectives:

Short-term Objectives:
1. Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs), Extension educators, and other agricultural professionals will gain an improved understanding of the opportunities and challenges of sustainable organic grain crop production and will have a sound grasp of whether or not they wish to advise transitioning growers. They will also gain a basic understanding of the sustainable agronomic practices needed for helping growers transition from conventional to organic production in an economically- and environmentally-sustainable manner.
2. Conventional, transitioning, and organic growers will have a better understanding of and appreciation for the agronomic complexity and sustainability focus associated with transitioning and organic grain crop production systems.
3. American Society of Agronomy (ASA), University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the organic grain crop production community will create partnerships with each other as they create and promote the project's education materials. These partnerships will enable them to seek funding for follow-on training programs.
4. The project will create webinars, podcasts, a video, and fact sheets that will serve as permanent resources for agricultural professionals in their work with transitioning and organic grain crop farmers.

Intermediate-term Objectives:
1. Information presented in this project's education materials will be routinely used by advisers helping growers make the transition from conventional to organic gain crops. The project's education materials will promote and enable demonstrable, sustainable change in on-farm practices and provide curriculum participants with expanded experiences, business opportunities, and impact in transitioning and organic grain crop consulting.
2. The positive impacts of this project's educational materials and the collaborations formed during their creation will result in follow-on grant funding for this project's creators and their future collaborators to support the creation of expanded organic and sustainability education curriculums that provide agronomic guidance for cropping systems in the North Central SARE and other SARE Regions.

Long-term Objective:
With the support of ASA, Extension educators, and the organic production community, the materials created through this project will continue to support a robust network of agricultural professionals who provide research-driven, sustainability-focused information to transitioning and organic grain crop farmers. Not only will this increase the success of these grain farmers in the North Central SARE Region, but it will also help insure the sustainability of their farms beyond the transition period.

Introduction:

Since implementation of the National Organic Program Standards in 2002, the organic agriculture sector has markedly evolved. While for many years organic products were purchased as a lifestyle decision by a small segment of the United States population, now they are consumed by a large number of Americans. Although the United States' organic food sales still account for a relatively small portion of the country's total food transactions, double digit growth has been observed for the organic sector for most years since 2002. Total organic food sales are now greater than $40 billion. Although fruits and vegetables are the top-selling organic product, consumption of organic breads and grains has also markedly increased (Greene et al., 2017). While organic cropland still represents a small portion of total American farmland, it continues to experience sustained long-term growth (e.g., organic operations grew 16% between 2008 and 2014). Today organic farms vary in size from a couple of acres to thousands of acres, are found in all 50 states, and produce a variety of commodities, including a diversity of grain crops commonly grown in the North Central SARE Region. Concomitant with the growth of organic agriculture is a growing population of new and transitioning farmers that are demographically diverse, comparatively young, relatively progressive, sustainability-oriented, consumer-focused, and knowledge-hungry.

While nearly all grain crop producers rely on agronomic technical assistance and educational support to begin, grow, and maintain their crop production operations, organic operations have a unique educational demand given how fundamentally different organic grain crop production practices are from their conventional counterparts. For example, the majority of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are prohibited by the National Organic Program Standards, so organic producers and their advisers must understand and rely on complex biological processes and system-level, sustainable agronomy practices to build soil health and combat pests. This includes using a variety of fertility inputs and strategies [e.g., cover crops, manure, and compost (Entz et al., 2001; Diacono et al.,2014; Tosti et al., 2016)], weed management tools [e.g., tine weeders, rotary hoes, row cultivators, and smother crops (Rasmussen, 2004; Legere et al., 2005; Benaragama and Shirtliffe, 2013)], and pest management techniques (Schnieder et al., 2010; Cullen and Holm, 2013). Further adding to the agronomic complexity are the diverse crop rotations that organic farmers use, with crop selections driven by regional conditions, markets, processing infrastructure, and agronomic knowledge (Delate et al., 2003). These management requirements create business and technical difficulties for organic producers and those that strive to provide them with agronomic advice [e.g., Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) and Extension agents].

The interest in and adoption of organic grain crop production practices continues to increase in the North Central SARE Region due to depressed commodity prices for conventional grains, burgeoning public demand for organic products, and growers and consumer interest in sustainable crop production. Thus a growing number of producers and advisers are going to be navigating the transition between conventional and organic farming. This includes farmers, CCAs, and Extension agents that have had little exposure to the nuances of organic grain crop agronomy. Conversion to an organic grain crop production system requires a three-year transition period before crops are considered organically certified. During this transition period, growers often experience reduced grain yields followed by a return to yields near or equal to conventional practices. To successfully navigate this period of transition, these farmers and their advisers will need educational resources to help them make sustainable agronomic decisions and therein take advantage of special transition grain market opportunities.

With the ever-increasing body of organic research arising from farmers and land-grant universities, the amount of agronomic information related to organic agriculture has increased since 2002. As the knowledge base on organic farming has expanded, so too has the informal knowledge-sharing among producers, advisers, and Extension agents. However, the last decade has seen little formal development of educational resources and information delivery systems geared towards CCAs and Extension agents interested in or tasked with converting conventional growers to certified organic farmers. A decade ago, most farmers and advisers sought information from local Extension agents, books, workshops, and/or farmer networks. Today, farmers have access to a new suite of educational avenues including webinars, podcasts, social media, electronic fact sheets, and email newsletters provided through diverse organizations including non-profits, universities, and government agencies (Mishra and Williams 2009; Stephenson et al., 2012; Jerkins and Ory, 2016; Moynihan 2016). A greater use of these non-traditional educational tools is similarly occurring among conventional crop producers and their agronomic advisers. Providing agronomic education resources through these emerging approaches is therefore increasingly desired and effective. 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Erin Silva (Educator and Researcher)
  • Tom Schultz (Educator)
  • Michele Lovejoy (Educator)
  • Abby Morrison (Educator)
  • Patricia Scullion (Educator)
  • Marie Johnston (Educator)

Education

Educational approach:

This project developed webinar, podcast, video educational materials, and fact sheets for North Central SARE Region agricultural professionals that work with grain crop farmers either transitioning or considering transitioning to organic production. These education tools provided the sustainable agronomic guidance these advisers need to help their grower clients succeed during this challenging three-year period. The webinars, podcasts, video, and fact sheets also highlighted the unique, sustainable business opportunities both growers and their advisers have during this timeframe.

The target audience for the webinars, podcasts, and fact sheets was primarily Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) and Extension agents present in the North Central SARE Region that focus on grain crop production, though the modules were also made available to producers, other agricultural professionals, and the general public. This work leveraged the American Society of Agronomy's (ASA) Member and CCA rosters; the project team's collective grower and Extension network connections; ASA's webinar, podcast, video production, graphical design, marketing, and survey capabilities; and transitioning and organic grain crop production experts to produce and deliver a five-part webinar series, four podcast episodes, one video, and five fact sheets.

A pre-project survey was sent to assess interest in and knowledge of organic grain crop production. This was used to establish a baseline of knowledge and adoption. A post-project survey was sent to assess knowledge gains and adoption trends among project participants. Survey results were analyzed to understand the effectiveness and impacts of this project's education activities.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Organic Transition Webinar Series
Objective:

This project developed a five-part webinar series for North Central SARE Region agricultural professionals that work with grain crop farmers either transitioning or considering transitioning to organic production.

Description:

Each webinar module covered one of the areas in which Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) must acquire Continuing Education Units (CEUs) and many Extension agents must be proficient: nutrient management, soil and water management, pest management, and crop management. The webinars were titled as follows: (i) The Basics and Business Opportunities of Transitioning and Organic Grain Crop Production, (ii) What Is Organic Certification and What Needs to be Considered?, (iii) Nutrient Management Strategies for the Organic Transition, (iv) Pest and Weed Management Strategies for the Transitioning Producer, and (v) Systems-level Crop Management for the Organic Transition and Beyond. Each webinar included a roughly 50 minute presentation and approximately 10 minute question and answer period. Webinar recordings and slides were made available to all participants and now reside in the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) library for further distribution throughout the agricultural community. Overall, these webinars provided sustainable agronomic guidance to advisers who need to help their grower clients succeed during this challenging three-year period. 

Outcomes and impacts:

Pre- and post-project survey results were used to gauge the outcomes and impacts of the learning materials produced through this project. This project's four main products (i.e., five webinars, four podcast episodes, one video, and five fact sheets) were surveyed for their total, combined outcomes and impacts. The products were not individually analyzed. 

Over half of those individuals that responded to the post-project survey used the project’s education materials to support grain farmers working through the organic transition period. This totaled to 51 individuals. However, the number of individuals that used the materials is likely far greater than that number given that only 101 individuals answered the pertinent survey question.      

The number of individuals that consumed this project's education materials was substantial. Those numbers are summarized elsewhere in this report. Roughly half of this project's survey respondents indicated that they have clients requesting information about opportunities in organic grain crop production. Furthermore, about 50% of survey respondents that performed in-field adviser services indicated that they had one or more growers with land devoted to certified organic grain crop production or the organic transition. These survey results suggest that the reach (measured in both land area and individuals) of this project's materials was and could continue to be rather extensive.

Organic Transition Podcast Episodes
Objective:

This project developed four podcast episodes for North Central SARE Region agricultural professionals that work with grain crop farmers either transitioning or considering transitioning to organic production.

Description:

This project’s four podcasts were published through the Field, Lab, Earth podcast from the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The podcast generally covers past and present advances in agronomic, crop, soil, and environmental sciences and features timely interviews with researchers in these fields. It was an effective, low-cost mechanism by which to produce, edit, and distribute podcast episodes to an established and growing audience. The podcasts were titled as follows: (i) Organic Certifications with Harriet Behar, (ii) Organic Basics and Business Operations with Anders Gurda and Paul Dietmann, (iii) The Organic Systems Mindset with Tom Frantzen, and (iv) Nutrient Cycling in Organic Systems with Erin Silva. Each podcast episode was roughly 30 to 45 minutes in length. For the first time for the Field, Lab, Earth podcast, five-question quizzes were created for each podcast to give CCAs an opportunity to earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for listening to an episode and taking its corresponding quiz. Overall, these podcast episodes provided sustainable agronomic guidance to advisers who need to help their grower clients succeed during this challenging three-year period. The podcasts also highlighted the unique, sustainable business opportunities both growers and their advisers have during this timeframe.

Outcomes and impacts:

Learning and action outcomes and impacts resulting from this project are summarized in the webinar section above and in other areas of the report. Since outcomes and impact were assessed for the project education materials as a whole, there was no ability to singly analyze and report the outcomes and impacts of the podcast-focused portion of the training curriculum. 

Organic Introduction Video
Objective:

This project developed a video for North Central SARE Region agricultural professionals that work with grain crop farmers either transitioning or considering transitioning to organic production.

Description:

A video was produced entitled “Organic Agriculture Introduction”. This involved an in-depth description by Erin Silva of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on why and how growers and their advisers should considering shifting into organic grain production. It served as an easy mechanism by which to reach a broad audience interested in transitioning to organic grain crop production. This video was posted to the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) YouTube channel. This video provided agronomic guidance to growers and advisers who are entering or considering entering organic grain production. The video also highlighted the unique, sustainable business opportunities both growers and their advisers have in organic grain production.

Outcomes and impacts:

Learning and action outcomes and impacts resulting from this project are summarized in the webinar section above and in other areas of the report. Since outcomes and impact were assessed for the project education materials as a whole, there was no ability to singly analyze and report the outcomes and impacts of the video-focused portion of the training curriculum. 

Organic Transition Series Fact Sheets
Objective:

This project developed five fact sheets for North Central SARE Region agricultural professionals that work with grain crop farmers either transitioning or considering transitioning to organic production.

Description:

The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) worked very closely with Erin Silva of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to produce five fact sheets. Each fact sheet covered a key area in which in-field advisers must be knowledgeable if they are to help grain crop farmers transition to organic production. The fact sheets were titled as follows: (i) Soil Fertility Management for Organic Crop Production, (ii) Transitioning to Certified Organic Grain Production, (iii) The Organic Transition for Interested Clients: Questions to Consider, (iv) Insect and Disease Management in Organic Grain Production, and (v) Weed Management in Organic Grain Systems. Erin Silva was the author of the fact sheets. ASA and Erin Silva made the fact sheets available to in-field advisers, growers, and the general public using their respective distribution networks and tools.

Outcomes and impacts:

Learning and action outcomes and impacts resulting from this project are summarized in the webinar section above and in other areas of the report. Since outcomes and impact were assessed for the project education materials as a whole, there was no ability to singly analyze and report the outcomes and impacts of the fact sheet-focused portion of the training curriculum. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Online trainings
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Other educational activities: Four podcast episodes were produced as part of the Field, Lab, Earth podcast produced through the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America.

Participation Summary:

12 Nonprofit
71 Agency
255 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
78 Farmers/ranchers
965 Others

Learning Outcomes

1381 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
51 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:
  1. Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs), Extension educators, and other agricultural professionals gained an improved understanding of the opportunities and challenges of sustainable organic grain crop production and were provided information to help them decide whether or not they are prepared to advise transitioning growers. They also gained a basic understanding of the sustainable agronomic practices needed for helping growers transition from conventional to organic production in an economically- and environmentally-sustainable manner.
  2. Conventional, transitioning, and organic growers acquired a better understanding of and appreciation for the agronomic complexity and sustainability focus associated with transitioning and organic grain crop production systems.
  3. American Society of Agronomy (ASA), University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the organic grain crop production community created strong partnerships with each other as they created and promoted the project’s education materials. These partnerships encouraged them to seek funding for follow-on training programs, which resulted in one follow-on, fully-funded project.
  4. The project created five webinars, four podcast episodes, one video, and five fact sheets that are serving as permanent resources for agricultural professionals in their work with transitioning and organic grain crop farmers.
51 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
78 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Success stories:
  • "Great introduction into transitioning to organic."
  • "It was nice to get a refresher on the organic system. I look forward to getting more information throughout the series."
  • "I appreciate all the people making this opportunity available and to the sponsors who provided this training at no cost. Thank You!"
  • "This is good for times like now when prices are tight and growers are looking for alternate business opportunities."
  • "I was not at all knowledgeable on transitioning to organic production and this was an excellent introduction into a topic of growing interest."
  • "Very knowledgeable presenter did a nice job of simplifying some of the regulations and gave good resource information for further reading."
  • "New areas, such as organic crop production, are very much worth it for my time and learning. This topic provided me with good agronomic information for customers that need to understand what needs to happen when transitioning to organic production."
  • "This webinar was excellent and could have gone for 90 minutes."
  • "The presentation had a lot of very practical content that will help those new to providing technical assistance to organic farmers."
  • "The opportunity to participate in these free webinars has been very valuable, particularly with popular topics like soil health and organic crop production systems."
Recommendations:

NCR SARE personnel should continue to fund work that supports education for advisers and growers working through the organic transition. There is still a clear need for education in this area. Even after this project’s extensive education efforts, survey results indicated that many advisers remained uncertain of (i) the business opportunities associated with organic grain crop consulting and (ii) their ability to deliver the business and certification acumen and skills required for advising growers through the organic transition. Survey results also suggested that follow-on education is needed in the areas of input cost and revenue estimation, organic system planning, and weed management.

Information Products

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.