In-Service Training in Sustainable Agriculture and Agricultural Ecology for NRCS Personnel and Partners

Final Report for ENC96-017

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1996: $30,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Lawrence Dyer
Kellogg Biological Station / Extension
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Project Information

Abstract:

Objectives of the project were to: (1) Enhance the understanding of ecological principles and their application to agricultural ecosystems, (2) develop skills in on-farm research, and (3) train agricultural ecology trainers among Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel and partners, and (4) strengthen links and encourage collaborative efforts with Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) and the Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Association (MASA) to promote an ecosystem approach to agriculture.

A central theme of the project has been to understand agricultural systems as ecosystems. The approach has been to work collaboratively with NRCS employees and their partners, especially MSUE and MASA, to provide training in ecological principles as they apply to agriculture. The project coordinator was housed at NRCS from March 1996 to March 1998.

Conservation planning is the primary technical assistance responsibility of NRCS. Most of the project activities were aimed at incorporating an ecosystem approach to agriculture into conservation planning. This involved efforts at whole farm planning, including an Ontario Environmental Farm Plan workshop. Managed Rotational Grazing was an important area of collaboration between NRCS, MSUE, MASA and other partners. Several activities involved technical training in aspects of agricultural ecology. One was a field day at the MSU Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) in which MSU researchers discussed research in the Long-Term Ecological Research Project, the Living Field Laboratory and the KBS Cover Crops Program. Another field day, “Enhancing Biological Pest Control with Filter Strips,” presented results of some on-farm research along with information about filter strips and other conservation practices. Some of the most encouraging results of this project came in training programs in Michigan Field Crop Ecology. These training programs were developed around MSU Extension Bulletin E-2646, “Michigan Field Crop Ecology: Managing biological processes for productivity and environmental quality.” The first program involved an intensive two-day session of technical training on September 9-10, followed by a session on October 1, 1998 in which the trainees became trainers and began planning programs for 1999. The resulting training programs that took place in January 1999 were well attended by NRCS, the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and farmers.

During most of the project it was difficult for people within the agency to commit time for sustainable agriculture programming. People expressed interest and were receptive to new ideas, but participation in program activities was consistently low. Farm bill demands were very high for NRCS for the duration of this project, from March 1996 to March 1998, and training was dominated by farm bill programs. Technical training around any topic was minimal. Participation in the Michigan Field Crop Ecology training programs from March 1998 to January 1999 have been more encouraging. Michigan NRCS leadership appears now to be placing higher priority on technical training, and have expressed interest in incorporating agricultural ecology concepts into conservation planning. There is still a need to incorporate sustainable agriculture and ecological concepts into the training regime and culture of the agency.

Project Objectives:

1. Enhance the understanding of ecological principles and their application to agricultural ecosystems.

2. Develop skills in on-farm research.

3. Train agricultural ecology trainers among Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel and partners.

4. Strengthen links and encourage collaborative efforts with Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) and Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Association (MASA) to promote an ecosystem approach to agriculture.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

A central theme of the project has been to understand agricultural systems as ecosystems. The approach has been to work collaboratively with NRCS employees and their partners, especially MSUE and MASA, to provide training in ecological principles as they apply to agriculture.

The project coordinator was housed at NRCS from March 1996 to March 1998. The largest category of the grant was salary to support a sustainable agriculture position in NRCS. The majority of the project coordinator’s effort was directed toward collaborative efforts with MSUE and MASA. Several projects were initiated from the NRCS office under this project. The section that follows describes both collaborative efforts and projects that were supported primarily by these project funds.

Outreach and Publications

Landis, Douglas A. and Lawrence E. Dyer. Conservation Buffers and Beneficial Insects, Mites & Spiders. Conservation Information Sheet, Agronomy Series, March 1998. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Michigan.

Outcomes and impacts:

Whole Farm Planning

A long range goal of this effort with NRCS was to incorporate an ecosystem approach into conservation planning. Conservation planning is the primary service provided to the public by NRCS. An ecosystem approach can probably be best accomplished in the context of whole-farm planning, looking at all the farm components as an integrated ecosystem. The project coordinator joined a Michigan NRCS team working to develop a whole-farm planning process. That team met over a two year period with a local farmer to develop a draft whole-farm planning process. Both the team leader, Theresa Williams, and the project coordinator left NRCS shortly after completion of that draft process. Without a champion within the agency the whole-farm planning process was not integrated into conservation planning procedures.

A whole farm planning activity funded by this project was an Ontario Environmental Farm Plan workshop. The project coordinator brought in two trainers from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture to run the workshop. Two employees each from NRCS, MSUE and Conservation Districts (Allegan and Cass Counties) were invited to attend the workshop. A requirement for attendance for each agency employee was to invite a farmer to participate with them in the workshop and develop a plan for their farm. Twelve people were trained in workshop.

On-farm Research

Several collaborative efforts have revolved around on-farm research. The project coordinator worked with John Durling of MASA and Dick Ekins, a MASA farmer, to do an on-farm research presentation at the 1997 Michigan Agricultural Mega-conference. The project coordinator also served on the MASA on-farm research committee to review research proposals from farmers and work to enhance the proposal review process.

Managed Rotational Grazing

A significant area of collaboration among NRCS, MSUE, MASA, and other partners has been managed rotational grazing. The Michigan movement in managed rotational grazing has been led largely by MSUE and the Michigan Grazing Networks (MGN) project. The MGN was funded by the Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems project (MIFFS). MIFFS is one of 18 Integrated Food and Farming Systems projecs nationwide, funded by the Kellogg Foundation. The MGN organized the Great Lakes Grazing School for educating agency personnel and farmers about managed rotational grazing. NRCS sent 12 employees to the school and provided scholarships for 7 conservation district employees during the two years of the project. In addition, NRCS employees have helped to organize and have made presentations at the grazing school.

This project funded a “Grazing Workshop” on 12 December 1997 in Coldwater, Michigan to help establish a grazing network in Branch County. The grazing workshop was a collaborative effort between the Branch County Soil Conservation District, NRCS, MSUE, and the Michigan Grazing Networks project. The main presenter was Dave Forgey, a dairyman from Logansport, Indiana. Representatives of each of the four collaborating agencies also made presentations about available resources and opportunities for grazing. In addition to the speakers, 9 agency employees and 14 farmers attended the meeting.

In other collaborative efforts, opportunities have been offered for NRCS personnel to become involved with organic agriculture in Michigan. NRCS sponsored two conference calls of people involved with organic agriculture throughout the State. NRCS employees were also encouraged to attend four organic agriculture training activities prepared by organic producers Bob Fogg and Joe Scrimger as part of another SARE PDP project. The project coordinator served as the principle NRCS liaison with MIFFS and was a MIFFS collaborator in a local community supported agriculture project. The project coordinator presented a program about community supported agriculture for the Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation District and the NRCS Flint Field Office. Two Conservation district employees, three NRCS employees and five farmers were present for the program.

The remaining efforts in this project have been to enhance the understanding of agricultural ecology concepts by NRCS employees. In a field day at the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), Michigan State University researchers described experiments of the Long-term Ecological Research project (LTER) in agricultural ecosystems, the Living Field Laboratory (LFL) cropping systems study, and the KBS Cover Crops program. The LTER is one of 20 long-term ecological research projects funded the National Science Foundation, but is the only one investigating agricultural ecosystems. Ecological Research in the LTER ranges from carbon and nitrogen cycling to movement of beneficial insects in an agricultural landscape. Eight researchers discussed their projects with field day participants on a wagon tour through the research plots. Six NRCS employees attended the field day.

Another field day funded by this project, “Enhancing Biological Pest Control with Filter Strips,” demonstrated the potential of filter strips along ditches to enhance populations of beneficial insects, stressing ecological interactions and landscape-level effects in agriculture. Michigan State University researchers Doug Landis, Fabian Menalled, and Dora Carmona conducted research in a farmer’s fields and presented the results at the field day. Two local NRCS Resource Conservationists, Will Sears and Chuck Lightfoot, made the arrangements for the research to be done on the farm of Robert Burns. At the field day Mr. Burns discussed the role filter strips play in his farming operation. Will Sears and Chuck Lightfoot discussed availability of technical assistance and Farm Bill program assistance to install filter strips and other conservation practices. Apart from the presenters, seven people attended the field day. The target audience was primarily NRCS. This is a good example of how farm bill priorities conflicted with this project’s training efforts. During the week before the field day, an Assistant State Conservationist sent an email to the NRCS region watershed team advising them they should not attend the field day because not all district offices had completed the most recent Conservation Reserve Program sign-up. This communication with the watershed team resulted in greatly reduced attendance at the field day even though few of them were working directly on the CRP sign-up. This short-term priority was clearly in conflict with a longer-term training objective that would have provide greater understanding of potential benefits of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Michigan Field Crop Ecology

The project coordinator worked with a team under the direction of Dr. Richard Harwood, Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University (MSU) to develop MSU Extension Bulletin E-2646, “Michigan Field Crop Ecology: Managing biological processes for productivity and environmental quality,” which was published in January 1998.

The bulletin served as the foundation for a training program funded by this project and another SARE project coordinated by Natalie Rector, “Participatory Learning between Farms and Field Crop Area of Expertise Team Members.” The “Michigan Field Crop Ecology Training Workshop” began with a two-day session on September 9-10, and finished with a session on October 1, 1998. Training objectives were to increase the understanding of agricultural ecological concepts among agency personnel, and to train future trainers. The program consisted of lecture and field sessions pertaining to basic ecological principles in the context of field crop systems, and discussions of how ecological principles can guide management decisions in agricultural systems. A decision case was used to focus the discussion. Eight researchers from MSU presented material for the program. In the session on October 1, participants began planning future educational programs for farmers as well as agency personnel. The training program was attended by 7 NRCS, 9 MSUE and 2 Michigan Department of Agriculture employees, and by MIFFS Director Tom Guthrie.

The planning that began in October resulted in a series of educational programs in January 1999. Attendance at the Michigan Field Crop Ecology Program was encouraging. Though the January program was not a direct part of this SARE project, participation by NRCS employees was definitely an outgrowth of this project. MDA participation was also high as well as a result of MDA attendance at the training program in September and October 1998. Thirty-seven NRCS employees, 15 MDA employees, and 8 MSUE employees attended the meetings. Total attendance was approximately 170 people. The program was repeated in three locations for face-to-face audiences and once more using interactive TV technology to reach three more audiences. Six researchers from MSU and one farmer and crop consultant presented material at the meetings. For each of the four meetings a local farmer presented details of their farming operation, which the researchers used as a context for their technical presentations. Local MSUE agents and NRCS personnel were instrumental in making arrangements and publicity for the programs. The program was coordinated by Larry Dyer, project coordinator for this SARE project, who left NRCS in March 1998 for employment at MSU Kellogg Biological Station.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Educational Transfer

During the past year NRCS in Michigan has been training field staff to be Certified Conservation Planners. The Michigan Field Crop Ecology educational program is a part of the training program for conservation planners. The new NRCS approach to conservation planning is to consider all the natural resource and human concerns when assisting landowners with farm planning. In an ecological approach to agriculture the farmer seeks to understand as fully as possible the interactions among all the farm system components and manage them profitably and sustainably. An improved ecological understanding of agriculture should make NRCS personnel better conservation planners. The next stage of educational transfer will be when conservation planners work with individual landowners to plan their operations.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Evaluation

In my overall assessment of the project, it was difficult for people within the agency to commit time for sustainable agriculture programming. People expressed interest and were receptive to new ideas, but participation in program activities was consistently low. Farm bill demands were very high for NRCS for the duration of this project, from March 1996 to March 1998, and training was dominated by farm bill programs. Technical training around any topic was minimal.

Events during the extended period of the project, from March 1998 to January 1999 have been more encouraging. NRCS leadership appears now to be placing higher priority on technical training. There may now be more interest and participation in sustainable agriculture training programs, as evidenced by participation in the Michigan Field Crop Ecology program. Leadership within Michigan NRCS has expressed an interest in incorporating those concepts into conservation planning.

There is still a need to incorporate sustainable agriculture and ecological concepts into the training regime and culture of the agency. Continued efforts to provide training opportunities to field staff will help. But in an agency so driven by mandates from higher up the chain of command, efforts to inform and educate administrative personnel in the Washington, Regional and State Offices may be necessary for a sustainable, ecological approach to agriculture to be given higher priority within the agency.

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.