Georgia Organics’ project improved the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of agricultural professionals throughout the state on organic farming. GO did this by holding workshops for approximately 250 agricultural professionals in 2000, 2001, and 2002, as well as by giving presentations for 500 agricultural professionals at their own conferences in 2000-2003. Trainings also included when available a visit to an organic farm. A project design team comprised of agricultural professionals and organic farmers, helped develop, implement and evaluate the program, particularly in its first year. Instructors in the program were organic farmers, university and ARS researchers, the NRCS state agronomist, and extension specialists.
A Resource Manual on Organic Agriculture was developed and provided to each agricultural professional at the workshops organized by Georgia Organics. At the conclusion of the project remaining funds were spent to supply each extension office with a Resource Manual.
The relationships and communication network with agricultural professionals that this project has enabled since 2000 is resulting in agricultural professionals participating in nearly all of GO’s outreach and educational events. In addition, the project leveraged an Enhancement Grant from SARE PDP to reproduce the Resource Manual in 2001, a SARE Research and Education grant in 2002 for the Southeast’s first Farmer-Researcher Roundtable on Organic Horticulture, and a SARE PDP 2003 grant to develop both curricula in organic agriculture for agriculture teachers and a module on organic gardening for extension agents to use in their Master Gardener Program. This project also helped GO leverage two grants from the EPA Region 4 Strategic Agricultural Initiative.
Georgia Organics (GO) reached approximately 250 agricultural professionals in 2000, 2001, and 2002 through workshops that GO organized. The quality of these workshops lead several organizations of agricultural professionals to invite GO to speak at conferences of agricultural professionals. Speaking at such conferences allowed GO to reach another 500 agricultural professionals and with cost efficiencies. GO did not have to organize these events and it reached those agricultural professionals interested in organic agriculture yet unable or unwilling to attend a full day or multi-day training that GO organized.
A program design team helped plan and evaluate the first year’s program. The results were incorporated into the second year’s program. In addition, the program coordinator met with all six of the district program development coordinators and their senior administrator to ensure the second year’s programs were at a time and format in which more extension agents could participate. As a result the 2002 workshops were done during in the first half of March when agents were most available for two consecutive days. This resulted in the middle-Georgia workshop being oversubscribed with over 50 participants.
Presenters included organic farmers on practical aspects of organic farming as well visits to their farms when possible. Other presenters of more conceptual topics fundamental to organic production and marketing were from the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS), and the NRCS State Agronomist.
Organic farmers were treated as consultants and paid for their time and travel. Participants liked the farm visits the most. The final farm visit of a four-part workshop the first year was to an upscale restaurant and boutique in Atlanta just as the produce truck of the organic cooperative arrived. Participants heard from the chef-owner, the produce buyer as well as the cooperative manager as to why they buy organic produce. Not only hearing that buyers want this produce, but actually seeing its quality was highly convincing. The group then visited a farm supplying some of the produce they just saw. This farm is a CSA right in the city, part of a new intentional community incorporating eco-housing principles. Most participants had never heard of the CSA-concept let alone to see it surrounded by homes it served.
The program helped bring more researchers from both land-grant universities and from the ARS, as well as extension specialists to bear on the needs of organic growers in Georgia. Some had never been asked to speak on organics before, but they prepared presentations and in the process learned how their work integrated with the needs of organic growers, and furthermore, that this was a sector of farmers needing their attention.
Each workshop participant was provided with a Resource Manual on Organic Agriculture. The three-ring binder format allows participants to update it as they pleased, particularly with new ATTRA materials as they were issued. Our original concept was to use the manual produced by North Carolina State University (NCSU). But NCSU decided not to do a three-ring binder and instead to do a peer-reviewed, bond piece. The peer-review process itself took more than two years. As a result GO reallocated project funds toward producing a manual.
Each year GO’s manual was updated and reproduced. Among the best resource materials were those from ATTRA and from the Soil and Water Conservation Society (NRCS). The latter provided a wonderful Soil Biology Primer and Soil Quality Fact Sheets. A 2001 SARE-PDP Enhancement Grant allowed the reproduction of not only the agriculture manual, but also a gardening version. The organic gardening manual was in demand by extension agents who teach Master Gardener Programs. Part of that program is a three-hour unit on organic gardening.
In the project’s final year, GO utilized remaining funds to make an index for the Manual and to reproduce it for each extension office. The growing demand for organic products is helping to spur a growing interest among farmers, and importantly, the capacity of the state’s agricultural professionals to address that interest.
The demonstration plots were not done largely because of declining interest on the part of the hosts and their concerns as to maintaining the plots long-term. It turned out that organic farms were near both of the potential demonstration plots. This reduced the need for the plots. In reality agricultural professionals would likely be too busy to visit the plots during the growing season despite their interest to do so.
Continuing education units were available at all trainings for certified crop advisors and pesticide relicensing by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Participants appreciated these credits, which were an additional benefit of participating.
GO was able to stretch out the funding beyond two years due in part to a less than anticipated need for travel support by agricultural professionals. While the NRCS administration, for example, asked that GO cover their staff’s lodging, vehicle travel to the training was not a problem. In addition, few extension agents asked for their mileage to be covered.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Georgia Organics created educational forums for agricultural professionals through partnerships, workshops, and field days.
All types of agricultural professionals were reached in the state: extension agents and specialists, university and ARS researchers, NCRS staff, young farmer teachers, agriculture and horticulture teachers, state department of agriculture staff, environmental health professionals, and RC&D coordinators. GO was invited to give plenary talks at the annual conferences of the RC&D coordinators, the environmental health professionals, and the Young Farmer teachers. In fact the evaluations of GO’s sessions at the Georgia Vocational and Agriculture Teachers Association conference were so positive that the Young Farmer administrators asked if GO would do a full-day program as the Young Farmer Teachers’ annual conference. GO responded with a full-day program including a highly appreciated farm-visit for all the teachers and administrators in the state. This was the only workshop GO did where attendance was required.
The Young Farmer teachers asked for curricula that the teachers could take to their classroom. The extension agents were also asking for GO to produce presentation materials they could use with their Master Gardeners, particularly since they are required to do a three-hour module on organics. Some were even asking GO staff to come do their organic unit for them. As a result, GO submitted another grant request in 2002 to SARE PDP that was successful and these materials are currently under development.
Several examples of participant activity demonstrate the impact of the program. One participating agent wrote an article for the GO newsletter that he thought would be a new crop they could easily grow organically—bamboo shoots. Another specialist wrote for GO’s newsletter on organic blueberry production, a crop he sees has great potential in Georgia and on which he has been quietly working for years. An extension specialist in the first year’s program developed a web page at the University of Georgia on organic certification, provided information on pesticide usage rates to GO for proposals it was developing, started an organic Vidalia onion plot that is now the first UGA acre certified as organic, is helping conventional farmers learn to produce onions organically, coordinated GO’s Farmer-Research Roundtable (supported by SARE), and is now a board member of GO. A state department of agriculture staff person attended the program as part of his training to run the state’s organic program. Another agent after taking the training asked a GO member who is one of his Master Gardeners to write an article on organic growing for his MG newsletter. Countless agricultural professionals have been advising growers to contact GO and go to its learning events. Several agricultural professionals asked if GO could get additional GO Resource Manuals on Organic Agriculture for farmers who saw the agent’s copy and also wanted one. Other ag professionals who could not attend the course have bought GO’s Resource Manual.
GO developed truly collaborative relationships in this project with those interested in conservation tillage, enabling GO to reach more conventional growers about organic farming. The state agronomist was on the first year’s design team and has taught in all of GO’s workshops on conservation tillage. He influenced many NRCS agents to participate in the workshops. The collaborative relationships this program helped us foster with agricultural professionals devoted to conservation tillage and the farmer alliances they were supporting has helped GO compete successfully for two EPA Strategic Agriculture Initiative grants. These grant funds and the deepening of GO’s relationships with agricultural professionals have helped GO start a south Georgia program that is gaining credibility and traction in the most conservative farming area of the state.
Another unintended impact of this program was the SARE Research and Education grant request that it spawned. During the presentations in 2000, the lack of information applicable to organic farming in Georgia became readily apparent. A handful of researchers from each of the three major agricultural research institutions in the state wanted to do something about it. With their support, GO spearheaded a proposal to SR-SARE that lead to the Southeast’s first Farmer-Researcher Roundtable in Organic Horticulture. Along with additional ARS financial support, researchers, extensionists, and farmers met to develop a farmer-driven research agenda. The UGA Extension Horticultural Specialist volunteered to organize the Roundtable as part of his extension position at the Georgia Southern University conference facility next to his office. He continues to follow-up the researchers who committed to work on specific research topics.
GO first started this program when the university extension service was referring calls it got to GO’s first board president. Rather than become the state’s extension service, GO has been and continues to build the capacity of the state’s agricultural professionals so that they can better fulfill their extension responsibilities for all the state’s farming constituents, including organic farmers.
Continuing partnerships and relationships formed through this program will assist agriculture professionals in their awareness of organic production methods through workshops, field days, and farm tours. Continued funding for research at the state level will widen the breadth of knowledge of agricultural professionals to assist in building capacity in organic agriculture in Georgia.