Transitioning to Sustainable and Organic Grain and Livestock Production Systems: On-Farm Training for Extension Agents (CES) and NRCS Personnel

Final Report for ENC99-040

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1999: $46,715.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Margaret Huelsman
Ohio Ecological Food Farm Assn
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Project Information


In many farming communities the local extension agent is an important source of information on agricultural production issues. However on issues relating to alternative or organic farming these same agents are usually lacking in experience, knowledge and resources. Through a series of training programs and farm tours both information and resource materials on transitioning to sustainable and organic grain and livestock production systems were given to extension agents, NRCS personnel and organic and sustainable growers in Ohio.

Project Objectives:

• To provide training to Extension Agents (CES) and NRCS personnel on how to assist interested grain and livestock producers in transitioning from conventional to sustainable/organic production.

• To provide resource materials (books, slides, pamphlets) to trainees that will assist Extension Agents (CES) and NRCS personnel in the dissemination of information from their respective county offices.


Falling commodity prices, the prospect of more restrictive regulations on the use of farm chemicals and higher costs of production have caused many conventional farmers to consider other methods of production. Many growers have looked to organic production systems because of their relatively high return, reduced input costs and low environmental impact (Cacek & Langner, 1986). In Ohio, calls to extension offices regarding non-chemical alternatives to conventional production have increased significantly in recent years. Correspondingly, the ranks of the certified organic growers in the U.S. have increased nearly 70% since 1991. (Fernandez-Connejo et al., 1998). As growers try to transition from a conventional production system to a more sustainable organic system, it is critical that they receive proper guidance and information. Without adequate information the farmer attempting to transition is likely to run into significant obstacles, if not fail completely. Organic farming does not simply consist of the elimination of chemical pest control and fertility inputs. It involves a complex plan that develops and maintains healthy relationships between soil, plants, arthropods, weeds, microorganisms and people. Therefore, the adoption of organic fanning involves a significant change in the way a grower thinks about his or her farm.

One of the main obstacles to the transition to organic production that growers consistently identify is the lack of available information (Blobaum, 1983; Cacek & Langner, 1986; Andrew, 1987; MacRae et al., 1990 and Lipson, 1998). In the past growers have had to rely on each other or print materials (newsletters, journals, books) to gain basic knowledge about organic farming (Blobaum, 1983). Extension agents (CES) and to a lesser extent NRCS personnel have historically had few resources for working with farmers trying to learn more about sustainable and organic practices. The focus of extension agents has been oriented towards increasing production rather than decreasing costs or limiting environmental impacts (Poincelot, 1986). However, behind farm suppliers and chemical dealers, extension personnel and publications were listed as the most important sources of crop production information for conventional growers (Femandez Connejo, 1998). Therefore, it appears critically important that extension and NRCS personnel be trained in the basics of organic production since they are one of the primary sources of information for conventional growers. An informed extension and NRCS staff could be very instrumental to a grower seeking to move from conventional to organic production systems.

Because of the lingering skepticism that many supporters of conventional agriculture have about organic production, it would appear important that training of extension agents and NRCS personnel in the basic tenets of organic methods should involve direct contact with practicing organic farms and farmers. Therefore, the most effective training on organic agriculture should involve experiences on working organic farms conducted by successful organic growers. To reinforce the message delivered by the growers, researchers who have conducted related research should be invited to provide the scientific documentation for the experience of the organic farmer. Finally, in order to improve the access throughout the state to existing information on organic production, book, slides, pamphlets and the like should be made available to extension agents and NRCS personnel.

In Ohio, training for transitioning to organic production should focus initially on grain production. Corn, soybean and wheat are by far the main crops produced in the state. Furthermore, information requests to extension agents have been primarily about alternative grain production methods. At the same time, as farmers inquire about sustainable/organic fanning alternatives, they are seeking more information on livestock production. Many producers feel the inclusion of livestock production and manure management, in addition to diversifying the farm operation, are key components to successful transitioning to sustainable/organic production. Therefore the first year of the training program focused on transitioning to organic grain production, while the second year focus on organic livestock production.

Education & Outreach Initiatives



Methods and Outcomes

Year 1

The focus of the first year of our training for extension agents and NRCS Personnel was on transitioning to organic grain production. The training was divided into two parts. We began with a day long primer workshop held to present the fundamentals of organic production, its status nationally and in Ohio, and the relationship to the work of the CES and NRCS. The program was held on March 29, 2000 at Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware, Ohio from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm. Presentations in the morning were given by Dr. Nancy Creamer (North Carolina State University) on "Organic Production and the Extension Agent: Dispelling Myths," Dr. Margaret Huelsman (OEFFA) and Dr. Jeff Dickinson (Stratford Ecological Center) on "The Transition Process and the Stratford Experience" and Dr. Deb Stinner (Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center - OARDC) on "An Introduction to OFFER and the Results from the First Year of the OFFER Research Program." Following lunch Catherine Greene, and economist for USDA's Economic Research Service spoke about, "The Outlook on Organic Production and Markets in the US," followed by Sylvia Upp, Certification Coordinator for OEFFA who presented the talk, "Organic Certification Rules and An Update on the National Standards." The day concluded with a grower panel discussion on "Transitioning to Organic Production from the Grower's Perspective." Thirty six participants from CES, NRSC and SWCS attended the primer workshop.

In addition to attending the workshop sessions all participants were given a copy of the book, Organic Farming, by Nicolas Lampkin, and a transition resource notebook that contained copies of articles on getting started in organic production; cropping systems; building and maintaining soil fertility; weed, insect and disease management; economics of production and certification; livestock (to be filled in next year); marketing organic products and resources for the organic producer. The participants were told that the notebook was a work in progress and that they would receive more material as it became available. The notebooks are to be placed in the office of the agent to be used as a personal and public resource.

The second portion of the training consisted of a series of workshops/farm tours held on certified organic farms around the state., The first workshop/farm tour was held in Mt. Vernon, Ohio on the farms of Rex and Glen Spray. The Spray brothers operate of the oldest and most successful organic farms in Ohio. The workshop session at the Spray Farm consisted of presentations by Dr. Ben Stinner (OARDC) on "Building and Maintaining Soil Fertility in an Organic System" and Dr. Bill Shuster on "The Use of Cover Crops in Organic Grain Production." The session concluded with a grower discussion on "Designing an Effective Crop Rotation System." Attendance at the workshop was lower than expected but the discussions that followed each of the presentations were good. The farm tour followed lunch. Over 80 people attended the tour including 5 additional extension agents that were not able to attend the morning workshops.

The second workshop/farm tour was held in Clyde, Ohio on the farm of Jeff Dean. Jeff operates a diversified family farm producing certified organic grain and non-certified beef cattle raised in a rotational grazing system. The workshop session for this tour and the following one were cancelled due to low registration numbers. Speakers scheduled for the Dean workshops included Dr. Deb Stinner and Dr. Jeff Dickinson who were to speak on "The Nuts and Bolts of Transitioning" to be followed by a grower discussion on marketing organic grain. Approximately 35 people, including one extension agent, attended the farm tour portion of the day.

The final farm tour was held on the farm of Dale Filbrun in West Alexandria, Ohio. Nearly 40 people attended the farm tour including 4 extension agents to hear Dale tell about his family farm operation which raises corn and soybeans much of which is used for feed for his certified organic poultry operation. Again the morning workshop session was cancelled due to poor registration. Scheduled speakers included Dr. John Cardina, on "Weed Management Options in an Organic Grain System" and Dr. Margaret Huelsman on "The Relationship Between Soil Fertility and Insect Management."

Also during the summer, additional articles and books were sent out to all of the primer workshop participants and to the agents attending the any of the workshop/farm tours. The new articles covered specific topics on the practice of organic grain farming. The books added included Managing Cover Crops Profitably, Building Soils for Better Crops, Steel in the Field and Farming Without Chemicals in Ohio. In all 50 resource packets were distributed by the end of the summer.

Year 2

The focus of the second year of the training program was on transitioning to organic livestock production. With the disappointing turnout of agents to the previous summer's workshop/farm tours, it was decided to hold a one time intensive training program that included farm tours. So a two day program was planned for early March, a time when most agents were believed to be available for such an event. The training was held in Mt. Vernon, Ohio on March 8 & 9, 2000. The location for the training was chosen because it is centrally located to many of the farms that are certified in organic livestock. It was decided that each day of the training would have a workshop portion with concurrent sessions and a farm tour portion. A copy of the program for the day is attached, but the list of speakers and farm tour hosts included: Mike Laughlin, Northridge Farm Ed Snavely, Curly Tail Farm Doug Daniels, Daniels Dairy Farm Gregg Welsh, CROPP/Organic Valley Dr. Eric Shaver, DVM Merrill and John Clark, Roseland Farm Steve Sears, Ohio Farm Direct Sylvia Upp, OEFFA Certification Coordinator Ted & Molly Bartlett, Silver Creek Farm Allan Savory, The Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management Dr. Margaret Huelsman, OEFFA and OSU Extension.

Fifty two people attended the training program, including four extension agents, two people from NRCS, two researchers from the Ohio Agriculture Research Development Center, two faculty from the OSU Veterinary School and five people representing non profits or schools. The remainder of the participants were farmers.

All of the participants in the organic livestock training program received a resource folder containing many articles about various issues pertaining to organic beef, dairy, poultry, pork and lamb production. In addition the participants from extension, NRCS, OSU, OARDC and the non profit received copies of the following books: The Organic Livestock Handbook, The Canadian Organic Growers Organic Dairy Farming, Kickapoo Organic Resource Network Control of Internal Parasites in Cattle and Sheep Treating Mastitis Without Antibiotics. The books and articles were also sent to the extension and NRCS participants in the Year I program that did not attend the livestock training.

The evaluations of the organic livestock training program were very positive. Lots of good practical information was presented. People were particularly pleased to have the opportunity to hear from Allan Savory. His 2 hour talk was intelligent, informative and inspiring.

The final portion of the livestock training was a series of farm tours held during the summer of 2001. The farms of Ohio's currently certified organic livestock producers were included in the tour and promoted to extension agents. Organic livestock farms included in the farm tour series were Northridge Organic Farm in Knox County (July 29th) which specializes in organic poultry and lamb, the dairy operation at the Yoder Family Farm in Wayne County (August 11th), and Curly Tail Organic Farms which raises organic hogs. A copy of the farm tour flyer is attached.

Outreach and Publications

No original work was written during the course of this project. However much literature, reports and papers were distributed to extension agents, NRCS personnel and related parties. This report contains the names of the books distributed. A list of the over 60 articles included in the two resource packets can be obtained from the OEFFA office.

Project Outcomes


Potential Contributions


Providing educational opportunities for extension agents, NRCS personnel and related professionals on various aspects of organic and/or sustainable production can be an important effort. However if the recipient of the information is not ready to accept it, most of the message is lost. In evaluating the success of our training program, it appeared very beneficial for the farmers who were able to participate but not so effective for the extension agents and NRCS personnel in Ohio. We were able to get many information packets and books into offices that had no such material before and this was a positive outcome. But as for educating and changing opinions so that the owners of this educational material would be able to promote it or use it productively, the outcome was poor. Possibly if the training program was offered by extension itself as part of their continuing education program for agents it would be better received. Also if the agents were able to get some kind of credit for attending, many more would be motivated to attend. Unfortunately these two ideas only get the agents into the classroom, changing their attitudes will take much more time and creativity. In evaluating the cost effectiveness of a training program such as ours, it would appear (at least in Ohio) that they money would be better spent on training programs specifically for farmers. Organic and sustainable farmers have very little history of using extension and NRCS for sources of information about production issues. However these same farmers rely heavily on information gained from each other to learn more about organic and sustainable practices. Training programs that help teach farmers to be mentors may be a much more effective way to increase the amount of knowledge and information about organic and sustainable agriculture in the fanning community.

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.