Demand for organic produce has increased the need for information about organic agriculture production practices, particularly from beginning and conventional farmers. A survey of 15 agricultural experts in Georgia, documented over 700 producer inquiries on organic production practices in 2006 (Georgia Organics, pers. com.). Limited expertise in this emerging sector has resulted in the demand for technical support going unmet by existing resources within the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University Cooperative Extension. The University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and Georgia Organics propose to expand the capacity of Extension by designating and training regional organic production agents that would from an Organic Production Team with Land Grant Specialists and Researchers and farmer advisors. Ten county agents including at least one agent from each of four districts and one representative of the 1890 Land Grant College would participate in an initial training. The on-farm workshop will focus on organic vegetable production systems and soil management with both a classroom and field component. In addition, each agent will work closely with an experienced organic farmer from their area to gain hands-on experience with local organic production techniques. The participating agents will be able to assist farmers and other agents by responding to inquiries on organic production and conducting programming. Evaluation will be conducted through a pre- and post workshop survey to determine change in responses for information and in knowledge.
The primary objective of the project was to expand the capacity of the University of Georgia (UGA) and Fort Valley State University (FVSU) Cooperative Extension to deliver technical information to new and transitioning farmers in organic agriculture. A secondary objective was to improve communication between county agents, extension specialists, other research scientists and interested NGOs on work in sustainable and organic production being conducted in Georgia and to create a mechanism where questions generated by farmers and agents could reach researchers.
Specific goals were to:
• Increase the knowledge of participating agents in the practical application of an organic systems approach to production so that they can better respond to technical requests,
• Increase the confidence of participating agents so they can respond to requests for technical support from organic farmers,
• Continue county agent learning by forming an Organic Production Team with participating county agents, specialists and interested farmers,
• Use the Organic Production Team to serve as a conduit between extension and University resources and the research or technical needs identified by new and transitioning organic producers, and
• Foster the lateral spread of information to other county agents as well as other farmers through field days, farm tours or workshops.
County agents in Georgia are increasingly being asked questions about organic fruit and vegetable production. Although there were agents interested in this type of production system, many times they did not feel that they had sufficient knowledge or experience to help organic farmers or people who wanted to start growing organically. In addition, when the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) started offering cost-sharing programs for organic growers, many of their field personnel were unfamiliar with organic techniques. Although there are many resources available, many agricultural professionals seem to learn best when they can see techniques in the field and on the farm. This project allowed us to conduct a series of workshops that had both a classroom and field component to better familiarize county agents and NRCS personnel.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
We recruited county agents from FVSU and UGA in each of the four extension districts to serve as regional organic production agents. These agents were committed to attending the specialized in-service training workshops and then carrying this knowledge back to their counties and adjacent counties. Due to the success of the first workshop in 2009, NRCS requested that we conduct a similar workshop for their field personnel, which we did. The successive workshops included both county agents and NRCS personnel.
Over the past three years, we conducted five workshops:
• A Systems Approach to Organic Agriculture and Soils – May 19, 2009 (UGA/FVSU agents)
• On-Farm Investigations of Organic Production Systems – Dec. 5, 2009 (UGA/FVSU agents)
• Systems Approach to Organic Agriculture and Soils – March 23 and 24, 2010 (NRCS field personnel)
• Organic IPM – June 2010 (UGA/FVSU agents and NRCS field personnel)
• Organic Weed Management – June 2011 (UGA/FVSU agents and NRCS field personnel)
After the second workshop, we formed the Sustainable and Organic Production Team, which consists of county agents from FVSU and UGA, extension specialists from UGA and FVSU, USDA ARS researchers, as well as several farmers and the farmer liaison from Georgia Organics. As Extension has changed over the past three years due to budget cuts, some team members have retired, but new agents have asked to join. The team is currently has 12 UGA and FVSU agents.
In addition to the workshops, we were able to support several county agents that are part of the Sustainable and Organic Production Team so they could attend the Georgia Organics Annual Conference in Savannah (Feb 2011; three agents) or the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference in Chattanooga (Jan 2011; two agents). We also were able to provide SARE publications for the reference libraries in the county offices for the agents on the Sustainable and Organic Production Team.
The project appears to have been successful in meeting its goals of the project. Outcomes include the following:
Increase the knowledge of participating agents – The workshops increased the practical application of an organic systems approach to production so that the agents and NRCS personnel can better respond to technical requests. Results from pre- and post-test evaluations indicated that knowledge increased from 20 to 29% in various topic areas.
Increase the confidence of participating agents – Workshop evaluations also indicated agents had increased confidence so they can respond to requests for technical support from organic farmers.
Use the Organic Production Team to serve as a conduit between extension and needs identified by farmers – The workshops, field visits and conversations that took place at these events identified several issues that organic farmers feel are critical for their success. These included interest in better information related to organic fertilizers with UGA soil tests, the need for tools to improve nitrogen management in sandy soils, the need for better information on varieties adapted to Georgia conditions, interest in local cover crop seeds, and more information on marketing. Members of the team have tried to address many of these issues. For example:
Members of the SOPT worked with Dr. David Kissel at the UGA Soils, Feed and Environmental Testing laboratory to develop an Organic Production Factsheet that is received when a soil test sample is submitted and organic production checked. This group also rewrote and updated the Extension bulletin, “How to Convert an Inorganic Fertilizer Recommendation to an Organic One”.
County agents on the SOPT have served on advisory committees for researchers developing proposals on nitrogen management, crop rotation, and variety testing.
Mr. Ray Hicks, SOPT member, obtained a small grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to evaluate the feasibility of organic cover crop seed production. This work was recognized by his fellow agents at the Georgia Association of County Agricultural Agents.
Foster the spread information to other county agents, farmers – In post-workshop evaluations, most agents indicated they were likely to use information in their work. This appears to be the case, based on follow up interviews during the fall of 2011. Examples of this include:
• Nearly all the agents report increased work with their clientele on organic production.
• Most of the agents have used information in newsletters or newspaper articles. (An example is attached.)
• NRCS reports most of their personnel used the Organic Systems Training through increased knowledge and writing more organic contracts.
• Mr. Ray Hicks has worked with other agents on principles of organic weed control.
• Ms. Karol Kelly is collaborating with a local producer on a SARE producer grant.
• Mr. Bill Starr worked with an organic blueberry producer on using cover crops to reduce weeds.
• Mr. Steve Harris worked with a local organic producer on field days for chefs to increase interest in local organic food.
• Ms. Julia Snipes and Mr. Bill Starr worked together on a new workshop on soils for their area – The Soils Connection.
• Mr. Frank Hancock developed a presentation on biological control of insects for his clientele.
• Mr. Steve Harris conducted a workshop for both commercial growers and home gardeners on organic production techniques.
• Several team members have actively participated by moderating sessions or as presenters in both the Georgia Organics Annual conferences and the Organic Production Conference of the SE Regional Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention.
• Several have incorporated information into talks for a Young Farmer’s group on organic production, Lunch and Learn, or other public events.
The project has provided a mechanism for interested agricultural professionals to increase their skills, see organic practices in action on farms and research plots, and develop a network of people and resources on which they can call for more information. It has increased the visibility of these efforts throughout extension. The work the team members are doing has allowed extension to be increasingly looked to as a good technical resource by organic farmers.