Building Capacity in Sustainable Agriculture: A Comprehensive Training Program in Organic Farming Systems

Final Report for ES97-025

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1997: $97,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $20,592.00
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Nancy Creamer
North Carolina State University
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Project Information


In 1998 we conducted an intensive training on organic farming systems for ag agents in North Carolina. More than 50 agents participated in a series of workshops that were offered together as a graduate course worth 4 NCSU credits. The hands-on training consisted of lectures, demonstrations, field trips, and class exercises. The topic areas included: soil biology/ecology; crop rotation; organic nutrient management; composting; cover cropping; organic weed, insect, and disease management; appropriate tillage practices; organic greenhouse management; marketing organic produce; integrating animals into organic crop production systems; delivery systems for disseminating information to organic producers, and; social and community development aspects of sustainable agriculture.

The objectives were to: Conduct a series of workshops for extension specialists, agents, mentor farmers; Set up demonstrations at The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (organic unit), and on farms, to provide hands-on experiential learning opportunities in conjunction with each of the workshops; integrate organic producers into the training by including tours of various farms, and including farmers with specific expertise as facilitators and trainers at the workshops; Develop a training manual which will include chapters from each of the workshops; Establish a farmer-to-farmer mentorship program to utilize successful organic growers in training other prospective growers; incorporate existing programs providing training on organic production into this training.

Training of agents and other ag educators took place between April, 1998 and November 1998. Six, two-day workshops were conducted, and a wrap-up meeting was held at the annual extension conference in November. Approximately 52 NC agents attended at least one session, in addition to 12 participants from Florida and 6 from Virginia. Approximately 40 agents came to all the sessions, and completed all assignments, and 32 of those enrolled for graduate credit. Each workshop covered areas critical to organic production, and included organic fertility management, composting, cover cropping, impacts of crop rotation, designing whole farm systems, soil biology/ecology/quality, delivery systems for disseminating information to organic producers, oganic insect, weed, and disease management, tillage systems, organic greenhouse management, integrating animals into organic production systems, and involving farmers in sustainable agriculture. Each workshop had hands-on field demonstrations as an integral part, and most incorporated field trips and farm tours. Some examples of the field demonstrations are: planting crops at weekly intervals and observing differences in weed populations; planting strips of various winter and summer cover crops and rating them for biomass production; utilizing soil quality kits, etc. A key component to the workshops were the integrated and interdisciplinary approach to teaching about organic production systems. Even though each workshop had a specific topic as a focus (eg., organic fertility management) , facilitators were expected to integrate other disciplines into the workshop The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference was recently held and the poster session was very successful. Conference attendance was very high, with more than 500 registered. Many of the agents who participated in the training also attended this conference for the first time. At the conference, we presented a plan to establish a mentorship program which will take primarily take the form of an on-farm research network. Many agents and growers attended the session and signed up to participate. We have a very interested and enthusiastic group ready to work together on this effort. In fact, we have received funds (SARE PDP) and began a program of training agents and farmers in participitory on-farm research. The manual is in its last stages of development. The scope and breadth has been broadened extensively making the size much greater than originally proposed. We are currently requesting additional funds to finalize and print the manual.

Project Objectives:

1. Conduct a series of workshops for extension specialists, agents, mentor farmers (described below), consultants, NRCS employees, and other teaching professionals, emphasizing how the major components of organic production systems can be incorporated into a productive management system. A major focus of each workshop will be the integration of the various crop production factors into a working system. Participants will learn how to critically asses and evaluate farm needs in relation to sustainable agricultural practices. Graduate credit through NCSU will be offered to those agents who participate in the entire series.

2. Set up demonstrations at The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (organic unit), and on farms, to provide hands-on experiential learning opportunities in conjunction with each of the workshops.

3. Integrate organic producers into the training by including tours of various farms, and including farmers with specific expertise as facilitators and trainers at the workshops.

4. Develop a training manual which will include chapters from each of the workshops. These “modules” will not only include complete information on their respective topics, but also detailed examples of field demonstrations that participants can implement to aid them in training growers. The edited training manual will be made available to other States in the southern region.

5. Establish a farmer-to-farmer mentorship program to utilize successful organic growers in training other prospective growers. Agents will also be encouraged to actively recruit interested farmers to participate in the mentorship program. The mentor farmers will be available to advise and offer support for the ‘apprentice’ farmers. Mentor farmers will also be invited to attend the workshops to allow them to strengthen their expertise in various areas.

6. Existing programs providing training on organic production will be incorporated into this program, in part, by providing funds for agents to attend these activities. These include the annual CFSA conference, annual organic vegetable schools in the western part of the state and in the piedmont, and farm tours in central, eastern, and western North Carolina.


Consumer demand for organically produced food, and the desire by many farmers to eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is increasing the need for research and educational programs to support organic farmers. In North Carolina, demand for organic produce greatly exceeds supply, and as a result, the markets rely on produce from California to meet their needs. A knowledgeable extension service will be able to provide training and support for the existing and prospective organic farmers in this and other southern States, which will aid these growers in retaining the market share in this region.
Nationwide, organic producers are the largest growth segment in agriculture today. According to the USDA, the number of organic farmers has almost doubled between the years of 1991 and 1994, increasing from 2,841 to 4,060. As reported in the Natural Foods Merchandiser, organic sales increased from $2.31 billion in 1994 to $2.8 billion in 1995. For the sixth straight year, the market for organic products has experienced greater than 20% growth. Current estimates show that sales of organic products in excess of $5.5 billion.
The Land Grant Universities and the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) have been viewed by organic farmers as not responding to their needs. In a recent survey reported in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture it was reported that a major hindrance to adoption of sustainable agriculture is a lack of information from educational organizations like the CES. Because of this lack of support, organic growers have been forced to develop their own production systems through trial and error, often at great cost. Through this collaboration, we would like to demonstrate a commitment to these growers and a recognition that organic production is a viable industry. Also through this effort, cooperative extension agents in this state and other southern region states, will be provided with training material which will facilitate service to these organic growers over the long term.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Dissemination of Outcomes

1. The demonstrations associated with each workshop will be available for all participants to use for their own training . Agents will also learn how to set up those demonstrations in their own counties.

2. The mentorship program will facilitate farmer-farmer and agent interaction, exchange of information, research networking, and training among farmers interested in organic systems.

3. The training manual will be the most important avenue of information dissemination. Part of the reason that the Cooperative Extension Service has neglected organic growers has been a lack of educational materials available to agents. The workshops conducted through this project will result in an edited training manual that will provide agents and others with specific information about a wide variety of topics, in addition to a series of demonstrations that they can plan in their own counties. An additional important component will be lists of suppliers for various products, a directory of additional sources of information (people and publications), organic certification guidelines, and contacts for marketing organic produce, which CFSA has already published and continues to develop as new opportunities become available. The training manual will be made available to other States in the Southern Region.

4. We have also published information about this program. Already, Acres USA has run an article on the training, in addition to ATTRA. The American Society of Horticultural Science invited N. Creamer to speak about the training in a Colloquium at their annual meeting next year. As a result, an article in Hort Technology has been published (See appendix 3).

Outcomes and impacts:

Objective 1:

To save agents travel time and money, the workshops were organized into 6, 2-day sessions. Agents who so desired signed up to receive 4 graduate credits for participating in the course, including doing all homework and assignments. Workshop summaries are provided in Appendix 2. Assignments included evaluating all farm visits with a critical eye and describing at least one major problem the grower was dealing with, potential solutions for the problem, and how the solutions might impact other aspects of the grower’s farming system. Other assignments included designing an organic nutrient management plan for a particular scenario, devising an organic pest management plan for another scenario, and describing setting up a farmer-farmer network in their counties. The final project was to work with a grower in their county to develop either a SARE producer grant, a grant to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, or a 5 year management plan for an existing or potential organic grower in their county. The workshops were very successful, and we believe that all of the agents trained will look forward to working with organic producers in the future, in part, because now they feel they have something to offer them.

Objective 2:

Many demonstrations were established at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and elsewhere and used in this training. These demonstrations are in the process of being written up in the training manual so that growers can implement them in the future in their own counties. Demonstrations associated with each training were:

  • Composting and Soil Fertility: plants grown in the greenhouse using different organic fertilizer materials; a wheat trial using different types and application rates of compost; strips of approximately 10 different winter annual cover crops.

    Marketing, Information, and Greenhouse management: organic vs. conventional greenhouse tomato production; resources available on the world wide web.

    Organic Insect, Weed, and Disease Management: Biological control of potato diseases; identification of insect pests and beneficials; biological control of diseases of cucumber, tomato, and pepper; smothering weeds with cover crops; cultivation equipment; weed identification and biology.

    Soil Quality and Cover Cropping: Measuring soil quality lab parameters; measuring soil quality field parameters; soil microbial ecology; summer cover crop evaluation; impact of cover crops on nutrient cycling and soil physical properties.

    Tillage Systems and Crop Rotation: Tillage and cropping systems; crop rotation studies.

    Livestock Systems and Involving Farmers in Sustainable Agriculture: Pasture based poultry, beef, dairy, and swine management; Agroforesty/goat feeding preference trials.

Objective 3:

Several tours were included in the workshops including: vermicomposting facility, Black River Organic Farm, Sunnyslope Farm, Peregrine Farm, Wellspring Distribution Warehouse, John Rowland’s Farm, and Pete Dixon’s Farm. Producers were also involved in teaching and planing some of the workshops.

Objective 4:

The training manual is in the last stages of preparation. As we worked on the preparation and writing of the manual, it became very clear that there was little in the way of compilation of research-based information already published. We determined that we should broaden the scope from what we originally intended as there seemed to be a very strong need for a thorough and complete manual on organic production. Because there was so little information compiled, the amount of time required to write the manual as required, needed to be lengthened.

The writing for nearly all of the chapters has now been completed. The final book will include chapters on: organic fertility management, composting, cover cropping, soil quality, conservation tillage, crop rotation, organic insect management, organic disease management, organic weed management, organic animal production, organic greenhouse production, and marketing.

In addition to the above chapters, we will include additional sources of information (people, publications, websites), a directory of suppliers, organic certification information, and contacts for marketing organic information. We expect the book to not only be used by agents, but to be used by farmers, other ag professionals, students, and as a textbook in University courses. The manual is slated for completion by September 2001.

Objective 5:

We are excited about the interest among agents in recruiting farmers in their counties to participate in organic training activities. The mentorship program developed from two different angles. The first is agents were recruiting growers in their counties to work with projects from this course, including SARE producer grants, Organic Farming Research Foundation Grants, and developing 5 year organic management plans. Agents are being encouraged to bring together farmers from their counties to educational meetings, and will use existing organic farmers as an important resource at those meetings.

Second, we have received another SARE PDP grant to begin training agents and mentor farmers to conduct participatory on-farm research. Growers and agents are attending the trainings to discuss needs/issues/ problems they are facing, and to formulate experimental methodology to solve the problems. These information exchanges will be very useful for existing and new organic farmers alike. The information generated from the network will service all organic farmers and extension agents as well, and facilitate further information sharing by all parties.

Objective 6:

Existing programs were incorporated into this training by encouraging and sometimes facilitating agent participation in these activities. These included the organic vegetable schools, farm tours, and the annual Carolina Farm Stewardship’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference. In 1998, more agents than ever before attended the Sustainable Agriculture Conference, and most of those who attended were participants in our course. Agents commented to me during and after the conference about how valuable the experience was, reflecting their openness to new ideas and working with non-typical growers.

Trainee Adoption and Direct Impact

Yes, we believe the training had a significant impact on the agents. They did gain a lot of new knowledge and skills as was reflected in the evaluations. Several agents declared in their evaluation that they were much more aware of and open to working with organic farmers. We conducted a very thorough evaluation of the training through a written survey implement. We have included five with this report to demonstrate the questions asked and types of comments received.

Feedback from Farmers and Ranchers

We continue to received positive feedback from growers who are interacting with these extension agents throughout the state. Many of the agents have continued to attend the annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference sponsored by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. Therefore these agents continually interact with a wide range of growers and this facilitates further cooperation. We will monopolize on this positive interaction as we develop our participitory on-farm research program for agents and growers.

Project Outcomes


The training on organic farming systems demonstrated that agents are very willing to learn about these biological systems once barriers are removed to them doing so. A large part of the trepidation with extending information to growers has been in part due to the lack of training and lack of educational resources to support such training. As our course progressed, barriers to learning were shed which opened the door to new attitudes and an eagerness to work with organic growers. As we toured organic farms, agents felt more comfortable with the clientele and realized that mutual learning could proceed. We hope that other states will offer similar intensive training as away to remove the learning gap that exists between extension and organic growers. We hope to acquire funds to repeat this training in North Carolina as well.

The model for extension training presented in this is an effective means for engaging county agents in continuing education and professional development. Interdisciplinary teaching teams allow for a full, integrated treatment of subject matter and present a “whole systems” perspective to agents. Regularly scheduled, intensive sessions that accommodate busy calendars and utilize time efficiently provide a strong incentive for regular attendance. Awarding graduate level university credit hours for completion of required course work attracts and retains prospective student/agents. Encouragement of active participation by agents through hands-on field activities, open discussion of issues that impact agricultural and rural life, and field trips to view concepts presented in a real world context ensure that educational goals are fulfilled and that active learning takes place.

Potential Contributions

Extension agents traditionally have not been well-informed about sustainable agriculture or organic production, and they have therefore been unwilling to conduct Extension programming in this area. This training provided them with information and resources they need to conduct such programming. If each agent we train, conducts programming for only 25 growers/year, the number of growers trained per year could easily exceed 1300. 

Making the training manual widely available will multiply that number several fold. Already specialists from several states have contacted us because they want to conduct similar training. Given appropriate resource materials from which to plan, prepare and implement educational programming and technology transfer to farm clientele, there seems to be considerable willingness on the part of the agents to both encourage and demonstrate organic farming systems. An increase in the availability of appropriate information at the county level would result in an increase in communication between agents and organic farmers, and adoption of both more sustainable farming practices and an increased consideration of organic cropping systems as alternatives to more traditional farm commodities. The training manual we are producing will provide the agents with the resources they need to conduct training of their own. The training manual will have lasting impact. It will be made available to all 100 counties in NC, and given to new agents as they enter the system. The training manual will also be made available to other States in the Southern Region.

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.