Training on the Ground Support for Transitioning and Organic Farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin

Progress report for ENC19-179

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2019: $86,678.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Chuck Anderas
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service
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Project Information

Abstract:

MOSES’ proposal is to develop and deliver “Training on the Ground Support for Transitioning and Organic Farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin” - a series of thirteen trainings over three years in Minnesota and Wisconsin to develop organic expertise of agricultural service professionals in conjunction with MOSES’ Organic Field Days and the MOSES Organic Farming Conference.  The trainings will provide resources and information to agricultural service professionals to increase awareness and knowledge to better meet the needs of transitional and organic farmers. A diverse group of stakeholders from NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts (MN), Land Conservation Departments (WI), FSA, UW and UM Extension, crop insurance agents, agricultural lenders, and RC&D will gain knowledge of certified organic farming systems and organic transition from organic experts in their fields.

 

Training agricultural service professionals will build upon the education and networks MOSES has provided the organic farming community over the last thirty years by expanding reach to a population working directly with organic and transitioning farmers.  Developing resources for agricultural service professionals supports MOSES mission to educate farmers to thrive in a sustainable, organic system of agriculture by leveraging existing resources including the MOSES conference, field days, webinars, and attending farm tradeshows and conferences. MOSES actively partners with Wisconsin Farmers Union, Minnesota Food Association, University of Wisconsin OGRAIN, and the Women Food and Agriculture Network to provide resources. The field days and the Organic Farming Conference will provide information developed for the target audience to expand awareness and knowledge of organic farming systems.

Project Objectives:
  1. Deliver “Training on the Ground Support for Transitioning and Organic Farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” a series of thirteen trainings including nine supplemental field day trainings across Minnesota and Wisconsin over a three year period and four full-day Organic University courses at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference over a two year period.  
  2. Reach 240 participants (12 at each of nine field days and 33 at each of four Organic Universities) specifically targeting NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts (MN), Land Conservation Departments (WI), FSA, UW and UM Extension, crop insurance agents, agricultural lenders, and RC&D and other agricultural service providers across Minnesota and Wisconsin.
  3. Reach a diverse set of agricultural service providers across Minnesota and Wisconsin demonstrating level of interest among agencies and organizations serving transitioning and organic farmers.  Measured by registration information.
  4. Evaluation data about knowledge gained, subjects and issues of interest and other needs for agricultural service providers and farmers they serve.
  5. Develop “Training on the Ground Support for Transitioning and Organic Farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin” curriculum that can be duplicated in other areas, including agenda, training content and resources that focus on transitioning to organic production, organic farming systems, recordkeeping, organic systems plan, organic resources and economics of organic farming systems.
  6. Create educational and technical resources for the trainings, Organic University Courses and continued reference by service providers including: transition to organic, organic farming systems and the economics of organic farming systems.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Jon Winsten (Educator and Researcher)
  • Thelma Heidel-Baker
  • Ricky Baker
  • Paul Dietmann
  • Jon Jovaag
  • Jane Hawley Stevens
  • Karin Jokela (Educator)
  • Brian Pillsbury (Educator)
  • Kevin Malahko (Educator)
  • Mark Doudlah

Education

Educational approach:

At the 2020 MOSES Conference, we hosted an Organic University class called "Conservation Programs to Support Organic Farms." This full day class introduced organic farmers and agricultural professionals to the financial and technical assistance programs available to them to meet conservation, production, and organic certification goals. It was designed to cater to people transitioning to organic, wanting to improve their existing organic farms, or working with farmers to implement conservation practices.

In January 2020, MOSES hosted an advisory committee meeting with agricultural professionals from across Minnesota and Wisconsin. MOSES staff facilitated the meeting in the "World Cafe" style, where small groups alternated through three stations to meet with the MOSES staff stationed there to discuss the various topics. The three stations were to discuss the problems and opportunities in agriculture in our two states around the different aspects of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. Key takeaways from that meeting were the need to train both farmers and agricultural professionals in the environmental, social, and economic benefits of and strategies to transitioning to organic grain production and transitioning from confinement dairy to grazing. We also identified some business structures that we could focus on, including cooperatives and value-added enterprises. We planned on three field days for 2020. Two of them were under the theme of "Do the Numbers" to show the financial benefits of the systems as well. 

Shortly after the conference, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all in-person events. In response we switched from planning in-person field days to virtual field days. We did a "Flipped Classroom" approach that blended pre-recorded content on the MOSES Organic Farming Podcast and live virtual field days. We used this approach for two field days, covering organic grain transition economics and production and organic dairy grazing economics and production. For the third field day, we partnered with a sponsor to produce videos on value-added herb production in addition to a live virtual field day.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Organic University: Conservation Programs to Support Organic Farms
Objective:

1. Participants will know the basics of how to access conservation programs
2. Participants will learn how to identify resource concerns
3. Participants will understand the connection between conservation practices and production
4. Participants will develop strategies for improving their conservation practices, either on their farms or in their work with farmers
5. Participants will be able to set sustainability and production goals and map out how to reach them

Description:

Organic standards emphasize protecting and improving the natural resources of agricultural land. Fortunately, there are many conservation programs farmers can tap for either technical assistance, financial support, or both to achieve their goals. These programs can support a wide variety of conservation efforts, such as creating wildlife and pollinator habitat or addressing erosion and water quality issues. There is even a program that repays farmers for the services of a planner who can help write a farm's organic transition plan and guide the farmer through the process. Unfortunately, many farmers aren't aware of the help that's available. This class aimed to change that.

Participants heard from Brian Pillsbury, who has worked with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for 22 years; Karin Jokela, an organic farmer and a pollinator conservation planner with the Xerces Society; Chuck Anderas, a MOSES organic specialist who has been working with NRCS agents to explain organic production and farmers' support needs; and, Mark Doudlah, an organic farmer who used several conservation programs as he transitioned his Wisconsin farm to organic production.

This class provided the details farmers and agricultural professionals need to pair these valuable programs with the work they do on the land for those transitioning to organic, wanting to improve their existing organic farm, or working with farmers to implement conservation practices.

Outcomes and impacts:

Total participants: 37

Participants who were awarded a scholarship: 33

Field Day: Do the Numbers: Organic Grain Transition
Objective:

The advisory committee meeting in January 2020 identified several challenges facing farmers that agricultural professionals should focus on to bring about more financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable farming systems. This training focused on a few of those issues:
1. Markets--Family farms compete with large corporations/industrial agriculture. There are low (and fluctuating) crop prices. There is market saturation from a large supply of conventional commodities.
2. Cost of production--There is a high costs of seed, inputs, and other expenses. Many of these inputs are unnecessary inputs pushed by industry.
3. Education gaps--The advisory committee identified low financial literacy among both farmers and agricultural professionals. A key barrier is the high cost of farmer financial education. Very few farm business trainers are trained in organic and almost all of their curriculum is based on the economics of conventional agriculture and takes 6 years to complete (in the WI tech college system).

The advisory committee also identified potential solutions for each of those issues:
1. Markets--Co-op development (competition, prices), work with branding organizations to create marketing power (market saturation, consumer education), encourage value-added enterprises (prices, market saturation), create infrastructure for alternative crops and markets (prices, saturation)
2. Cost of production/transition--Organic transition loans to cover operating costs, NRCS Organic Initiative (pays to help lay out transition plans and cost share)
3. Education--Education for ag professionals on how their programs and businesses can help organic farmers, educate farmers to “dig into the numbers” of organic transition and grazing operations.

Description:

Originally planned as an in-person field day, we pivoted to virtual events and resources due to COVID-19. MOSES staff Chuck Anderas interviewed Paul Dietmann from Compeer Financial and Jon Jovaag, a farmer near Austin, MN for a podcast episode leading up to the virtual field day. The episode covered how to think through cash flow versus profitability during the transition years, what crops to use in an organic grain rotation rotation, and the reasons why farmers transition to organic. That podcast episode was followed by a virtual field day in which both Paul Dietmann and Jon and Ruth Jovaag delved deeper into organic grain transition.

Outcomes and impacts:

Virtual field day live attendees: 84

Virtual field day YouTube views: 181

Podcast episode plays: 401

Podcast episode YouTube views: 48

Field Day: Do the Numbers: Organic Dairy
Objective:

The advisory committee meeting in January 2020 identified several challenges facing farmers that agricultural professionals should focus on to bring about more financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable farming systems. This training focused on a few of those issues:
1. Markets--Family farms compete with large corporations/industrial agriculture. There are low (and fluctuating) crop prices. There is market saturation from a large supply of conventional commodities.
2. Cost of production--There is a high costs of seed, inputs, and other expenses. Many of these inputs are unnecessary inputs pushed by industry.
3. Education gaps--The advisory committee identified low financial literacy among both farmers and agricultural professionals. A key barrier is the high cost of farmer financial education. Very few farm business trainers are trained in organic and almost all of their curriculum is based on the economics of conventional agriculture and takes 6 years to complete (in the WI tech college system).

The advisory committee also identified potential solutions for each of those issues:
1. Markets--Co-op development (competition, prices), work with branding organizations to create marketing power (market saturation, consumer education), encourage value-added enterprises (prices, market saturation), create infrastructure for alternative crops and markets (prices, saturation)
2. Cost of production/transition--Organic transition loans to cover operating costs, NRCS Organic Initiative (pays to help lay out transition plans and cost share)
3. Education--Education for ag professionals on how their programs and businesses can help organic farmers, educate farmers to “dig into the numbers” of organic transition and grazing operations.

Description:

Originally planned as an in-person field day, we pivoted to virtual events and resources due to COVID-19. MOSES staff Chuck Anderas interviewed Dr. Jon Winsten from Winrock International and organic dairy farmers Thelma Heidel-Baker and Ricky Baker for two podcast episodes. Dr. Winsten outlined three key metrics to look at when considering a dairy farm’s financial viability: feed efficiency, labor efficiency, and capital efficiency. Then, Thelma and Ricky listened to the podcast, and Chuck Anderas interviewed them about how it applies to their farming operation. The podcasts were followed by a virtual field day featuring videos and pictures from Thelma and Ricky's farm. They shared how they manage their grass-based, organic operation, covering pasture care, conservation practices, and organic livestock health. Dr. Jon Winsten went into more detail on the economics of grazing and shared financial case studies from Upper Midwest dairy farms—from confinement operations to pasture-based farms.

Outcomes and impacts:

Virtual field day live attendees: 58

Virtual field day YouTube views: 161

Podcast episode plays (Dr. Jon Winsten): 342

Podcast episode plays (Thelma Heidel-Baker and Ricky Baker): 287

Field Day: Medicinal Herb Production
Objective:

Building off the advisory committee meeting, we covered medicinal herb production as a value-added enterprise to help vegetable farmers address prices and market saturation.

Description:

MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year, Jane Hawley Stevens and David Stevens, showcased a variety of herbs they grow on their farm and discussed their many medicinal uses, especially focusing on immunity boosting herbs. They discussed production, harvest, and drying techniques.

Outcomes and impacts:

Virtual field day live attendees: 154

Virtual field day YouTube views: 1,679

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Online trainings
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Do the Numbers: Organic Dairy virtual field day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlzcatds2e0&list=PLDbgVNKGiK8stqSJyC7Z77BrGxz83M2np

Do the Numbers: The Economics of Dairy Grazing podcast: https://anchor.fm/moses-podcast/episodes/Do-the-Numbers-The-Economics-of-Dairy-Grazing-ef0opn

Do the Numbers, Part 2: Dairy Graziers on the Economics of Dairy Grazing podcast: https://anchor.fm/moses-podcast/episodes/Do-the-Numbers--Part-2-Dairy-Graziers-on-the-Economics-of-Dairy-Grazing-efk3rf

Do the Numbers: Organic Crop Transition virtual field day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0-U3bxeEiM&list=PLDbgVNKGiK8uXDGszPVwjEvE32UmvXuvZ&index=9

Do the Numbers: Organic Grain Transition: https://anchor.fm/moses-podcast/episodes/Do-the-Numbers-Organic-Grain-Transition-eg7mqs

Medicinal Herb Production at Four Elements Organic Farm virtual field day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ob3RjEoJqM&list=PLDbgVNKGiK8stqSJyC7Z77BrGxz83M2np&index=10

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.