Field Course for Agricultural Professionals on the Common Goals and Strategies of USDA's National organic Standards and Resource Conservation Programs

Final Report for EW03-004

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2003: $60,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Rex Dufour
National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT)
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Project Information

Abstract:

NCAT developed 4 grant-funded workshops specifically targeted to California NRCS staff. The workshops provided participants with a general background on the organic certification process and standards, and discussed organic production methods and their conservation benefits. All workshops had speaker panels of organic farmers, and took place on—or included field trips to organically managed farms. The workshops took place in Winters (April 2004), Stevinson (Northern San Joaquin Valley, October 7, 2004), Hopland, (North Coast, October 30, 2005), and Bakersfield (Southern San Joaquin Valley April 11-14, 2006). NCAT also held 10 grant-funded workshops with Resource Conservation Districts around California.

Project Objectives:

NCAT was contracted by WSARE PDP to deliver 4 workshops/trainings about organics to NRCS and other agricultural professionals around the state of CA. Through the small grants program, NCAT provided trainings to 10 RCDs and their members in California, including one Tribal RCD.

Objective 1: To provide agricultural professionals with greater understanding of USDA’s National Organic Program

Comments: NCAT delivered 4 workshops/trainings about organics to NRCS and other agricultural professionals around the state of CA. Through the small grants program, NCAT provided trainings to 10 RCDs and their members in California, including one Tribal RCD. In addition, NCAT gave a presentation about organics to NRCS’s California State Technical Advisory Committee (11/21/06) as well as to the Field Office Technical Guide Committee (11/29/06). Total attendance at all these workshops was 396 people, a majority of whom were NRCS staff or staff/members of RCDs. The remainder, roughly 100 people, was staff from other USDA agencies (i.e. RMA), farmers, UC Cooperative extension agents, county agricultural agents, and representatives of agribusinesses. Evaluations via telephone interview of NRCS personnel conducted after all 4 trainings were completed revealed that 90% of participants surveyed found the workshops useful and had occasion to use information received at the workshop. In response to 3 basic questions about organics, 90% of respondents knew what a typical transitional period was (3 years), 80% correctly answered how often farms are inspected (1 year), but only 60% knew what entity is responsible for organic standards program (USDA). In more detailed evaluations done after each NRCS workshop, participants emphasized the helpfulness of having a hands-on component to the training (having the training held at a farm or include a visit to an organic farm). The fact that all the workshops included a panel of experienced organic farmers was also well received. Please see in the attachments samples of workshop agendas, which outline the topics covered during the workshops.

The speakers, both farmers and scientists, provided a good overview of organic agriculture, and much of the discussion by participants during the workshops centered on organic standards, organic certification and the NOP. For the final NRCS workshop, NCAT collaborated with the NRCS Soil Quality Cadre to include an organics component in a three-day soil quality training. This was an opportunity for some basic information about organics and organic practices to be a component of on-going NRCS soil quality trainings held around the country 8-10 times per year. There will be a follow-up NRCS Soil Quality Workshop with an organics component held in June of 2007 in California.

The RCD workshops encompassed the whole state and provided an opportunity to discuss organics, organic practices and organic standards with RCD staff and members. These workshops were funded through the Small Grants program included in NCAT’s proposal.

Objective 2: To describe and demonstrate the common goals, strategies, and practices of national organic standards and conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Security Program (CSP).

Comments: The goals, strategies, and practices of national organic standards were well covered in the NRCS and RCD workshops (see sample agendas). Also, a pamphlet developed by NCAT was presented to participants, the NRCS-Organics Conservation Practices Cross-Compliance Chart, (see Appendix III) which outlines practices mandated by organic standards and relates them to some equivalent NRCS Practice Standards (i.e, crop rotation, pest management).

At all the NRCS workshops, soil aggregate stability demonstrations were done which showed how organically managed soil reacted differently when mixed with water compared to conventionally managed soil of the same parent material. These demonstrations were done “blind”, meaning that the participants did not know which soil samples were which, and would take samples of 2-3 soils managed in different ways, mix them with water and make observations. In all cases, it was easily apparent which soils were conventionally managed and which were organically managed due to the lack of aggregate stability in the conventionally managed soils. These demonstrations became excellent focal points for discussion on soil function, water quality and soil management. Because of this, these demonstrations were generally done at the beginning of the workshop.

Objective 3: To increase the capacity of agricultural professionals to appropriately address the informational needs of organic, transitional and aspiring organic farmers

Comments: Each participant at the 4 NRCS workshops was provided with a small package of what we felt were the most appropriate reference materials on organics for certification, regulatory and technical information (see methods section for a complete listing). This packet included a copy of the National Organic Standards and several ATTRA publications in addition to other reference materials. In addition, presentations at each NRCS workshop discussed resources that can be easily accessed and that provide a wealth of information on various aspects of organic production. A similar, but smaller packet of information was provided to the RCD workshop participants. The RCD packet consisted of ATTRA publications: Organic Farm Certification & the National Organic Program, Organic Certification Process, and, Preparing for an Organic Inspection: Steps and Checklists. Depending on the type of agriculture in each region, other ATTRA publications would also be included, such as, Organic Livestock Documentation Forms, Organic Orchard, Vineyard, and Berry Crop Documentation Form, and Organic Field Crops Documentation Forms.

Introduction:

Environmental stewardship and resource conservation, core values of the organic movement, are now written into national organic standards, making it a federally regulated industry. These values are mirrored to a great extent in the goals and strategies of USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and to a lesser extent, of the Cooperative Extension Service (CES). For example, practice standards for existing NRCS incentives programs and the new Conservation Security Program closely parallel the organic standards for crop rotation, soil nutrient management, and erosion control. Several peer-reviewed scientific studies have supported the idea that organic production systems are superior to conventional systems with respect to nutrient management, (Kramer, et.al, 2006; McIsaac. and Cooke, 2000; Drinkwater, et.al, 1995; Reganold, et.al, 2001), building organic matter (Wander and Marriot, 2006), and supporting biodiversity (Bengtsson, et. al, 2005; Wickramasinghe, 2003; UK Soil Association, 2000; Pfiffner, et. al, 2001). Increasing soil function through increasing soil organic matter and conserving biodiversity, both in the soil and above ground, are also important goals of NRCS programs as well. Farmers, agriculture and the public will be better served when the field staff of the NRCS, Resource Conservation District personnel and members, and other agricultural professionals better understand the requirements for organic certification, its relationship to resource conservation, and programs that support both.

References:

Kramer, S.B., J.P. Reganold, J.D. Glover, B.J.M. Bohannan, and H.A. Mooney. 2006. Reduced nitrate leaching and enhanced denitrifier activity and efficiency in organically fertilized soils. Proceedings National Academy of Sciences 103:4522-4527.

McIsaac. G.F., and R.A. Cooke. 2000. Evaluation of Water Quality from Alternative Cropping Systems Using a Multiple-Paired Design www.aces.uiuc.edu/~asap/research/stew_farm/home.html

Fundamental Differences Between Conventional and Organic Tomato Agroecosystems in California. L. E. Drinkwater, D. K. Letourneau, F. Workneh, A. H. C. van Bruggen, C. Shennan. Ecological Applications, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Nov., 1995), pp. 1098-1112

Reganold, J. P., J. D. Glover, P. K. Andrews, and H. R. Hinman. 2001. Sustainability of three apple production systems. Nature. 410:926-930.
Wander, M.M, and E. E. Marriot. 2006.

Total and Labile Soil Organic Matter in Organic and Conventional Farming Systems. Emily E. Marriot and Michelle M. Wander
Soil Science Society of America Journal, Vol. 70:950-959. Online April 19, 2006.

The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: a meta-analysis. Janne Bengtsson, Johan Ahnström and Ann-Christin Weibull. Journal of Applied Ecology. Volume 42 Page 261-269. April 2005

Liat P. Wickramasinghe, et al., “Bat Activity and Species Richness on Organic and Conventional Farms: Impact of Agricultural Intensification,” Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol. 40 (2003).

The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming. 2000. UK Soil Association, at:http://www.soilassociation.org/web/sa/saweb.nsf/24ffc96e2350a4e680256ab10047def0/67bff1084a5b1d0880256ae50039d8cb/$FILE/Biodiversity%20Report.pdf

Pfiffner, Lukas; Häring, Anna; Dabbert, Stephan; Stolze, Matthias and Piorr, A. (2001) Contributions of organic farming to a sustainable environment. Paper presented at European Conference – Organic Food and Farming, Copenhagen, Denmark, 10.-11.05.2001; Published in Organic Food and Farming. Towards Partnership and Action in Europe. 10-11 May 2001, Copenhagen, Denmark, page pp. 115-123. Dänish Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Ann Baier

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

NCAT used two types of trainings to convey information about organics; one for NRCS personnel, and one for RCD staff and members. The 4 NRCS trainings were generally more involved and averaged 1.5 days. At each of these trainings, three to five guest speakers were invited to talk about organics and soil management. The guest speakers always included a panel of organic farmers, as well as soil scientists who could speak knowledgably about the changes that occur when soils transition from conventional to organic management. Packets of information were developed for these workshops which included the following:

Section I
Agenda and Directions
Resource Binder Contents
Speaker Contact Information
Evaluation
Statistical Snapshots of Organic Agriculture in California
Sources of Organic Information: Regulatory
Sources of Organic Information: Training and Certification Process
Sources of Organic Information: Production and Research
Funding for Organic Education Activities (this was the Organics Activity Application Form, which was used by RCDs to apply for small grants of up to $700 to support a local, RCD-based workshop on organics)
Section II
Organic Farm Certification & the National Organic Program (ATTRA publication, 8 p.)
Transitioning to Organic Production (SARE publication, 32 p.)
Organic Crop Production Overview (ATTRA publication, 28 p.)
National Organic Standards (from Federal Register, 42 p.)
Sources of Organic Information: Certifiers
Section III
NCAT/ATTRA publications list
Protecting Water Quality on Organic Farms (ATTRA publication, 36 p.)
Pursuing Conservation Tillage Systems for Organic Crop Production (ATTRA publication, 28 p.)
NRCS-Organics Conservation Practices Cross-Compliance Chart
Organic Farming article: At last: proof of the biodiversity benefits of organic farming. Summer 2000. Issue 66. 1 p.

The RCD trainings were organized by RCD’s that were interested in doing a training on organics and were half day to full day workshops, depending on how many guest speakers the RCD was able to include. These workshops were funded through the Small Grants Program (SGP) that was included in NCAT’s proposal. We found these workshops extremely helpful in making local connections to RCDs. The RCD’s were pleased to have a small source of funds that could be relatively easily accessed in support of workshops of interest to their members. However, we modified our initial thinking on how the RCD workshops would occur. We originally thought that RCD staff would attend the larger NRCS workshops, and when they returned to their sites, they could apply for funds from the SGP to do workshops at their local RCD. However, RCD staff have very limited travel funds, and for the most part were unable to attend the 4 NRCS-focused workshops we held. We therefore decided to contact RCD staff by phone around the state and asked if they’d be interested in having a workshop on organics for their staff and members if we could provide a small amount of funding to help with their organizing/outreach efforts. Many RCDs responded enthusiastically and organized workshops whose attendance in some cases exceeded that of the NRCS-focused workshop.

Outreach and Publications

NCAT developed the NRCS-Organics Conservation Practices Cross-Compliance Chart
(see attached form, Appendix III) which outlines practices mandated by organic standards and relates them to some equivalent NRCS Practice Standards.

Summary of Workshops, dates, locations, and attendance:

Type of
Training Date/location Attendance
NRCS 5/6-7/04, Winters, CA 29
NRCS 10/7-8/04, Stevinson, CA 22
NRCS 10/26/05, Hopland, CA 8
NRCS 4/11-14/06, Bakersfield, CA 35
Cachuma RCD 8/23/06, Santa Maria, CA 35
Sierra RCD 9/29/06, Vinton, CA 35
CA NRCS STAC* 11/21/06, Davis, CA 15
CA NRCS FOTG** 11/29/06, Davis, CA 20
Solano RCD 11/30/06, Suisan City, CA 45
Modoc RCD 12/7/06, Cedarville, CA 12
Westlake RCD 12/9/06, Finley, CA 65
Colusa RCD 12/14/06, Colusa, CA 8
Monterey RCD 12/14/06, Salinas, CA 22
Merced RCD 12/19/06, Merced, CA 10
Lower CO
River RCD*** 12/19/06, Parker, AZ 7

*State Technical Advisory Committee
**Field Office Technical Guide committee
***This RCD covers tribal lands (Colorado River Indian Tribes—CRIT) and includes eastern Riverside County, California.

Outcomes and impacts:

Because of the information conveyed to NRCS and the relationships developed as a result of this project, NRCS will be incorporating some basic information about organics and organic practices as a component of on-going NRCS soil quality trainings held around the country 8-10 times per year (although this number will be reduced due to cutbacks in NRCS budget for FY 2007).

Because of the relationships developed during the NRCS trainings, as well as information conveyed to NRCS personnel during these trainings, NCAT was instrumental in facilitating and encouraging CA NRCS to develop an organics cost-share practice standard. Both the NRCS personnel responsible for developing this new cost share had attended one of the NRCS workshops, as well as the presentation by NCAT staff to the Field Office Technical Guide committee. This EQIP-funded cost-share is part of a revised IPM Practice Standard, and was announced by NCRS CA in October, 2006. It will pay growers $100/acre to underwrite costs of transitioning to organic practices.

NRCS staff and NCAT staff continue to discuss organics and training opportunities for NRCS staff to learn more about organic production practices. RCD and NRCS staff that attended these workshops are now aware of more resources they can refer to about organic production and better understand what the phrase “certified organic” means with respect to both regulations as well as practices.

This project helped establish a relationship between NCAT and the Going Organics mentoring project run by California Certified Organic Growers (CCOF). A representative of the Going Organics project attended several WSARE PDP project-funded RCD workshops. In turn, representatives from NCAT were invited to speak about organics at several Going Organics workshops.

The last NRCS-focused workshop, held the week of April 17, 2006, was a hybrid NRCS/NCAT workshop in that three members of the NRCS Soil Quality Cadre team were major participants in teaching the 3-day workshop. NCAT helped revise the NRCS soil quality course to include organics and more hands-on work in the field. This workshop was the first of its kind in California. It’s expected that several of these workshops, which will include information about organic production techniques, will be held in WSARE states in the coming years. NCAT was also invited to become a member of the NRCS Soil Quality Cadre, the only non-profit organization participating in this team.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

NCAT developed the Cross Compliance Checksheet (see attached form) which outlines practices mandated by organic standards and related them to some equivalent NRCS Practice Standards

NCAT developed a one page, (two sides) simple form (see Appendix IV) with which RCDs could apply for up to $700 to support educational programs related to organics for RCD staff and members. This was very well received by RCDs and NCAT found this process to be an excellent way to support local educational programming.

As a result of relationships with NRCS national personnel developed during the NRCS trainings, an NCAT representative was invited to join the national NRCS Soil Quality Cadre. This team trains NRCS personnel around the county about soil quality, and NCAT has developed an Organics module to include in this training. NCAT is the only non-profit represented on the Cadre.

Because of the relationships developed during the NRCS trainings, as well as information conveyed to NRCS personnel during these trainings, NCAT was instrumental in facilitating CA NRCS developing an organics cost-share practice standard. This EQIP-funded cost-share is part of a revised IPM Practice Standard, and was announced by NCRS CA in October, 2006. It will pay growers $100/acre to underwrite costs of transitioning to organic practices.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

NCAT has completed four workshops targeted at NRCS employees, and 10 workshops targeted to RCD staff and members. In addition, NCAT gave a presentation about organics to NRCS’s California State Technical Advisory Committee (11/21/06) as well as to the Field Office Technical Guide Committee (11/29/06). In all, 396 people attended either the NRCS or the RCD workshops. We estimate that 15% of NRCS personnel in CA received organics training as a result of this project.

Future Recommendations

In view of the growing presence of organics in the market and by farmers wishing to transition to organics, there’s a real need for NRCS staff around the country to develop a better understanding of what organic practices consist of, and what the conservation benefits of organic practices are. We found most NRCS personnel were not well acquainted with the fact that certain practices mandated by organic standards, such as crop rotation, are very congruent with NRCS goals and practice standards. Especially the “higher ups” at the state level of NRCS need to be informed of the scientific basis (peer reviewed papers) that show the conservation benefits that accrue farms using organic practices.

NCAT staff found that demonstrating the real-world differences between organically managed soils and conventionally managed soils is an effective teaching tool and should be included when ever possible. This can be done using soil samples brought into the classroom, or through doing some basic soil tests in the field. Demonstrations involving soil aggregate stability were most effective teaching tool, as these demonstrations can be used to trigger discussions on soil function, soil quality and soil management.

Also, the RCD’s were pleased to have a small source of funds (the Small Grant Program) that could be relatively easily accessed in support of workshops of interest to their members, so we found the Small Grant Program (SGP) to be a very effective outreach tool, although we modified it somewhat: our initial thinking was that RCD staff would attend the larger NRCS workshops, and when they returned to their sites, they could apply for funds from the SGP to do workshops at their local RCD. However, RCD staff have very limited travel funds, and for the most part were unable to attend the 4 NRCS-focused workshops we held. We decided to contact RCD staff by phone around the state and asked if they’d be interested in having a workshop on organics for their staff and members. Many RCDs responded enthusiastically and organized workshops whose attendance in some cases exceeded that of the NRCS-focused workshop.

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.