Tri-State Organic Certification and Conservation Planning Cross-Training

Final Report for EW08-001

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2008: $86,137.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Chris Schreiner
Oregon Tilth
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project delivers training sessions and tools to help natural resource professionals align the different guidance and technical standards provided to organic producers. Traditionally, producers seeking conservation assistance through USDA Farm Bill programs receive guidance from professionals schooled in USDA NRCS standards. Producers seeking organic certification through USDA’s National Organic Program must meet a different set of standards with guidance from other sources. This project helps professionals identify discrepancies between the standards and recommendations for traditional and organic growers. It also brings professionals together to develop successful organic versions of conservation practices that currently pose a challenge for organic certification.

Project Objectives:

The audience for this project includes: organic inspectors, organic certification professionals, conservation planners (from NRCS, conservation districts and Tribes), and conservation managers. In the four field training sessions to be held, it is assumed that approximately 30 individuals will attend each session, for a total of 120 participants.

The focus activities are multi-day training sessions. Four sessions will be held in various eco-regions throughout the tri-state area. Participants will receive continuing education credits. Sessions will include in-class and field components.

Products developed as a result of this project include: training curricula that will be replicable in other regions or future training sessions, specific lesson plans that trainees can use to train others in their local area, field tour schedules and proposed instruction, web-based resources including links from appropriate agencies and relevant information for students, and an updated binder/handbook of relevant conservation and organic materials (updated from information developed in previous WSARE grants). In addition, working with local producers in each of the regions, a series of case studies will be developed that will include an economic analysis, background about the operation, current marketing strategies, conservation history, and organic history.

Introduction:

The 2008 Farm Bill increased opportunities to implement on-the-ground conservation activities across the nation. In addition, some provisions increased coordination for conservation related to organic certification. This trend, coupled with the increasing market demand for certified organic products, will result in increased pressure on organic farms to meet both organic certification requirements and NRCS conservation technical standards. It is important that natural resource professionals – both organic certifiers and conservation planners – have the knowledge and tools to assist farmers and ranchers in meeting these new market and conservation requirements.

While the overall goals of organic certification and conservation practices may be the same, often the methods and implementation strategies have been different.1 In addition, professionals in both the organic and conservation arenas have limited knowledge and experience working in each other’s realms. Although they may be working with the same producer to achieve the same natural resource and agricultural production goals, conservation and organic professionals in the tri-state area (Oregon, Washington and Idaho) have not had the training needed to recognize opportunities to ensure private lands meet both organic and NRCS conservation standards.

Developing comprehensive conservation plans for farmers and ranchers that meet both organic certification and NRCS conservation planning requirements is not easy, especially for soil quality, nutrient and pest management and organic transition plans, which are more complicated systems.2 A collaborative effort in developing these systems has the potential to save time and money while creating a highly effective conservation system for the landowner.

Conservation planners and organic certifiers are the first line of contact for farmers and ranchers. When these professionals are trained, their increased knowledge directly benefits producers and their land. Knowledge gained through these courses will be directly transferred through them to farmers and ranchers throughout the tri-state area.

Two main audiences for this project are organic certifiers and conservation planners. While these individuals have extensive knowledge in their own area of expertise, neither group is fully informed about the other’s goals, procedures or underlying principles. As a result, the potential synergy that exists between organic production and conservation planning is missing. Conservation planners often assume that organic production does not meet NRCS resource conservation standards.2 Likewise, organic certifiers are not generally knowledgeable about NRCS services, programs and resource assessment tools that can build and enhance stewardship practices on organic farms and ranches.3 Improving cross-communication will help these professionals better assist their audiences in achieving the greatest conservation benefit.

While this project will provide training to address gaps in education, the planning team believes the project must go one step further. By training organic certifiers and conservation planners at the same session, networks will be established that will provide education and support after the training is complete. By placing students in a position to lead each other during the training, they will establish relationships built on what their individual expertise can bring to conservation and organic success in the region. Follow-up materials will allow for teams of trainers to carry this expertise back to their regions.

References:
1. Environmental Benefits of Conservation on Cropland, 2006, SWCS, Ankeny, Iowa
2. Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2006 Edition / EIB-16, ERS/USDA
3. Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? D.G. Hole, A.J. Perkins, J.D. Wilson, I.H. Alexander, P.V. Grice and A.D. Evans, , Biological Conservation, Volume 122, Issue 1, March 2005, Pages 113-130.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Brian Baker
  • Rex Dufour
  • David Granatstein
  • Russ Hatz
  • Meta Loftgaarden
  • Miles McEvoy

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

In 2009, the Organic Conservation Cross-Training Series was developed and delivered to help in-the-field conservation planners and organic certification professionals correlate the requirements of organic certification with those of traditional conservation practices and Farm Bill programs. The Organic Conservation Cross-Training brought organic professionals and natural resource specialists together to:

  • Learn how traditional conservation practices can benefit organic systems,
    Advance solutions that shape conservation practices to organic operations, and
    Increase the scope of conservation assistance available to organic producers.

Four sessions were held, each focusing on a different type of organic cropping system. Topics covered identified areas of need, including soil quality, nutrient management, wildlife habitat as well as insect, weed and disease management.

One of the keys to the success of this training format is ensuring that a good cross-section of participants attend each session. The four training sessions were attended by a variety of professionals in natural resources and the organic industry in the tri-state area, including:

  • Organic certification professionals
    Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation planners
    Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) planners and district managers
    Other government agency natural resource professionals

The grant project planning team developed training curricula that can be replicable in other regions or future training sessions. Materials developed include a multi-day training agenda, involving in-class presentations, group discussion activities, pre- and post-tests, and site-specific, inquiry-based field activities. Participants were eligible for continuing education credits at all four sessions. Each training session included in-class and field components, covering the following areas:

  1. Classroom instruction on requirements of organic certification, including: the process that producers must to follow to become certified, organic standards and requirements, training on how organic certification translates to stewardship in the field, the verification of conservation standards and the transition to organic production for producers.
    Classroom instruction on NRCS programs/practices and their relationship to organic certification, including the Field Office Technical Guide, conservation planning process, conservation field tools and conservation programs in the 2008 Farm Bill.
    Producer panels to provide participants a chance to talk directly with organic farmers and ranchers about the challenges of organic transition and conservation activities.
    Classroom and field training on specific practices that intersect both conservation planning and organic certification, including pest management, nutrient management, habitat management, biodiversity and soil quality.
    Field examples on organic farms/ranches and case studies of organic certification and NRCS programs as in-field demonstrations.
    Classroom participants were given opportunities to engage in dialogue about unique ways to address conservation and organic certification requirements where NRCS technical standards and organic certification requirements may have common goals but divergent approaches/pathways to achieve their goals.
    Breakout sessions utilized a format designed to keep all participants engaged. When NRCS materials were presented, NRCS participants led the break-out groups, serving as the ‘expert at the table’ and providing a field perspective for those sessions. The same was true for organic certification staff when organic training was provided.

In lieu of providing participants with a resource-intensive (i.e. paper) large binder/handbook, the planning team developed an electronic resource CD for training participants that compiled electronic files and web-based links from appropriate agencies and organizations on relevant conservation and organic resources. When installed in a computer, the electronic resource CD can be used to easily create bookmarks, grouped by topic, in the user’s internet browser, thereby providing a mechanism for easy reference and use of resources.

Following is a summary of each of the training sessions:

Training #1

Dates: April 20-23, 2009

Focus: Organic Dairy

Location:
In-class components at Hilton Garden Inn, Corvallis, OR
Field activities at Double J Jerseys, Monmouth, OR

Participants:
8 organic professionals (4 WSDA Organic Program, 3 Oregon Tilth, 1 independent organic inspector);
8 conservation professionals (5 OR NRCS, 1 OR SWCD, 1 ID NRCS, 1 WA NRCS).
Total 16 participants

Trainers/Speakers:
Chris Schreiner, Oregon Tilth
Bonnie Cox, Oregon Tilth
Meta Loftsgaarden, OR NRCS
Russ Hatz, OR NRCS
David Granatstein, WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources
Rex Dufour, NCAT
Woody Lane, Lane Livestock Services
Host Organic Dairy Farm Site: Jon Bansen, Double J Jerseys
Organic Producer Panel: Elanor O’Brien, Persephone Farm; Meliton Martinez, King Estate Winery; Eric Pond, Greenleaf Farms
Video compilation speakers: Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University; Lisa Sedlar, New Seasons Market; Mace Vaughan, Xerces Society
Total 14 trainers/speakers

Training #2

Dates: June 8-11, 2009

Focus: Organic Grain Crops

Location:
In-class components at Washington State University (WSU) campus, Pullman, WA;
Field activities at Boyd Farm, WSU Organic Research Trials and USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) field site; both farm sites in Pullman, WA

Participants:
5 organic professionals (4 WSDA Organic Program, 1 Oregon Tilth);
10 conservation professionals (5 WA NRCS, 3 OR NRCS, 2 UT NRCS)
Total 15 participants

Trainers/Speakers:
Chris Schreiner, Oregon Tilth
Miles McEvoy, WSDA Organic Program
Meta Loftsgaarden, OR NRCS
Russ Hatz, OR NRCS
David Granatstein, WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources
Rex Dufour, National Center for Appropriate Technology
Ian Burke, WSU Crop & Soil Sciences Department
Host Organic Grain Farm Sites: Pat Fuerst and Dennis Pittman, WSU Organic Research Trials at Boyd Farm and David Huggins, USDA ARS Organic Research Trials at Pullman Management Unit
Organic Producer Panel: David Ostheller, Ostheller Farms, Inc.; Gregg Beckley, G & L Farms, Inc.
Video compilation speakers: Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University; Lisa Sedlar, New Seasons Market; Jon Tester, United States Senator, Montana; Mace Vaughan, Xerces Society
Total 16 trainers/speakers

Training #3

Dates: August 3-6, 2009

Focus: Organic Tree Fruit

Location:
In-class components at Holiday Inn Express, Pasco, WA
Field activities at Hi Point Orchards, Mesa, WA

Participants:
7 organic professionals (5 WSDA Organic Program, 2 Oregon Tilth)
10 conservation professionals (7 OR NRCS, 2 WA NRCS, 1 NRCS Western National Technology Support Center)
Total 17 participants

Trainers/Speakers:
Chris Schreiner, Oregon Tilth
Les Eklund, WSDA Organic Program
Russ Hatz, OR NRCS
David Granatstein, WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources
Rex Dufour, National Center for Appropriate Technology
Paul Jepson, Oregon State University, Integrated Plant Protection Center
Host Organic Tree Fruit Farm Site: Rick Orozco, Hi Point Orchard
Organic Producer Panel: Jason Brown, Mercer Canyons, Inc.; Stacy Gilmore, Douglas Fruit; Dave Horn, Watts Brothers Farms, LLC
Video compilation speakers: Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University; Lisa Sedlar, New Seasons Market; Jon Tester, United States Senator, Montana; Mace Vaughan, Xerces Society
Total 14 trainers/speakers

Training #4

Dates: September 21-24, 2009

Focus: Organic Annual Vegetable Crops

Location:
In-class components at Best Western Willamette Inn, Wilsonville, OR
Field activities at Mustard Seed Farms, St. Paul, OR

Participants:
7 organic professionals (3 OR Dept. of Agriculture, 2 Oregon Tilth, 1 WSDA Organic Program, 1 Stellar Certification Services)
13 conservation professionals (8 OR NRCS, 2 WA NRCS, 1 ID NRCS, 1 Environmental Protection Agency, 1 NRCS Western National Technology Support Center)
Total 20 participants

Trainers/Speakers:
Chris Schreiner, Oregon Tilth
Meta Loftsgaarden, OR NRCS
Denise Troxell, OR NRCS
David Granatstein, WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources
Rex Dufour, National Center for Appropriate Technology
Paul Jepson, Oregon State University, Integrated Plant Protection Center
Host Organic Vegetable Crop Farm Site: David Brown, Mustard Seed Farms
Organic Producer Panel: Katie and Casey Kulla, Oakhill Organics; Joe Siri, Siri and Son Farms
Video compilation speakers: Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University; Lisa Sedlar, New Seasons Market; Jon Tester, United States Senator, Montana; Mace Vaughan, Xerces Society
Total 14 trainers/speakers

Organic Conservation Cross-Training Series Summary

68 Total Participants

  • 41 conservation professionals
    27 organic professionals

33 Different Trainers/Speakers

  • 14 Organic Producers
    6 Land-Grant University Staff
    4 Organic Certification Professionals
    3 NRCS Professionals
    2 Sustainable Agriculture Non-profit Organizations
    1 United States Senator
    1 USDA Agricultural Research Service Staff
    1 Private Sector Consultant/Educator
    1 Retail Market Professional

Outreach and Publications

Conservation planning for organic farms case studies

Using the four host farms for the training sessions, four different case studies were developed. The case studies are structured so that they follow the USDA NRCS 9-step conservation planning process, while also conveying some of the information about the farm management systems and opportunities for conservation assistance identified during the training. The case studies also offer background about the operation, including when they transitioned to organic, economic considerations, conservation history and marketing strategies.

Topical resource guides

The Organic Materials Review Institute was tasked with developing technical resource guides to assist conservation professionals with understanding organic management systems, certification requirements and market opportunities. The following six guides were developed:

  • Organic Practice Guide – provides an overview of organic crop and livestock management systems
    Can I Use This Fertilizer on my Organic Farm? – provides information to growers and agricultural professionals on the requirements for fertility and crop nutrient management and how to evaluate whether fertility inputs are in compliance with the USDA National Organic Program standards
    Can I Use This Pesticide on my Organic Farm? – provides information to growers and agricultural professionals on the requirements for pest management and how to evaluate whether pesticides are in compliance with the USDA National Organic Program standards
    Organic Market Overview and Considerations – provides information on market trends and statistics, consumer demographics, market segments, marketing channels and export market opportunities and obstacles
    Organizations, Resources and Events for Organic Farming Information – a compiled list of governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations providing information and resources related to organic agriculture
    Selected Annotated References – a listing of over 75 publications, research papers and reports related to organic management systems
Web page development (in lieu of satellite broadcast)

As the planning team developed curriculum, we recognized the importance of in-field activities and integration, which made the satellite broadcast model (included in the initial project proposal) impractical and inappropriate. In lieu of the satellite broadcast, we developed a web page (http://tilth.org/education-research/nrcs) that compiles materials developed for the trainings as well as web-based resources shared in the electronic resource CD provided to training participants. Website content is organized into six broad categories including, general information, instructor materials, and specific training materials for each of the four different cropping systems covered.

Developing the webpage allows a broader geographical audience to have access to resources developed and encourages local adaptation of training materials. Webpage statistics from the first month of going online indicated that a total of 409 page views occurred. The top five pages viewed were:

  1. General information
    Vegetable farm training
    Organics and conservation video
    Instructor materials
    Grain farm training
Evaluation results

Cross-training sessions evaluations
Participants were asked to complete training evaluation forms at the conclusion of each session. Participant satisfaction with all four training sessions was high, with 98% of the participants responding that their overall satisfaction with the training was either “very satisfied” (63%) or “satisfied” (35%). Training components that consistently received the most positive evaluations and feedback included:

  • Group interactions and discussions between organic and conservation professionals
    Farm tours and in-field activities
    Organic Producer Panels
    Presentations by University faculty on the research and science underlying organic management practices

6-month evaluations
All participants were requested to complete a questionnaire 6 months after their training session to evaluate transfer of information to colleagues and use of information in their profession. Separate questionnaires were sent to organic and conservation professionals. Response rates on the 6-month evaluations were 55% for conservation professionals and 65% for organic professionals.

When asked if they had shared information and/or resources gained at the training with others, 88% of the organic professionals and 90% of the conservation professionals replied affirmatively. The most common method of sharing information was through informal discussion, followed by sharing hard copy materials provided as handouts and sharing the online resources provided on the CD. Three organic professionals and two conservation professionals indicated they had given training presentations on new information and resources.

Other notable findings from the 6-month evaluations related to how participation in the training impacted participants’ work as agricultural professionals. Organic professionals reported an increase in the use of resource assessment tools (50% indicated increased use) and in-field soil quality assessment practices (69% indicated increased use). Also, 75% of organic professionals indicated an increase in the number (or frequency) of discussions with producers about opportunities to enhance the conservation benefits of their organic management system as well as referrals made to NRCS conservations districts or other sources of assistance to pursue conservation enhancements. Conservation professionals reported an increase in conservation plans made for organic producers (25% indicated increase) and enrollment of organic producers in Farm Bill programs (35% indicated increase).

When asked whether participation in the training increased the number (or frequency) of contacts made with other professionals for advice or consultation, 31% of organic professionals indicated increased contact with conservation professionals and 42% of conservation professionals indicated increased contact with organic professionals.

Outcomes and impacts:
Acquisition and application of new information

Participants at each of the training sessions were required to take a pre- and post-test, as an indicator of acquisition of new information during the training. Separate tests were taken by organic professionals and conservation professionals. Test results indicate notable acquisition of new information for both groups. In aggregated test results from all four training sessions, organic professionals improved the number of correct answers by 23% and conservation professionals improved by 15%.

Evaluations completed at the conclusion of each training session indicated a high likelihood that training participants will apply new information and resources they acquired in the professional services they offer to farm operations, with 100% of the participants responding that they would either “definitely” (81%) or “likely” (19%) apply new information and resources in their services to farm operations.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative support

In 2009 and 2010, the NRCS National office announced the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative. The Organic Initiative is a nationwide special initiative to provide financial assistance to National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic producers as well as producers in the process of transitioning to organic production. Applicants must either have an organic system plan that meets the NOP guidelines or certify that they are working toward one.

The information provided at the training series helped bridge the knowledge gap on organic management systems and certification requirements for participating conservation professionals. Thus, the training supported their efforts and ability to enroll producers in the EQIP Organic Initiatives offered in 2009 and 2010. Training materials, all of which have been made available via development of a new section of Oregon Tilth’s website, will provide resources and reference documents in support of ongoing efforts to enroll producers in future EQIP Organic Initiatives.

Networking across conservation and organic professionals

One of the stated objectives of this project was to increase networking and collaboration across organic and conservation professionals. Following are several cases in which professional networks developed as a result of the project led to illustrate increased communication and coordination between organic and conservation professionals.

NRCS web trainings for EQIP Organic Initiative:
The Oregon NRCS office invited Oregon Tilth’s Chris Schreiner to participate in web trainings for field staff on implementation of the EQIP Organic Initiative for both 2009 and 2010 program implementation. Web trainings were held on February 19, 2009 and February 16, 2010.

On April 14, 2010, NRCS staff invited Oregon Tilth’s Chris Schreiner and Tiffanie Huson Labbe to participate in a web training on the EQIP Organic Initiative for the NRCS Pacific Islands Area field staff.

Information offered by Oregon Tilth staff during the NRCS web trainings included clarification on the organic certification process, standards and documentation. Examples of opportunities for conservation assistance on organic farms was also discussed with participants, informed by field findings from the 2009 cross-training sessions.

Presentation to Oregon NRCS leadership team:
On February 25, 2010 Oregon Tilth’s Chris Schreiner gave a presentation to the Leadership Team of the NRCS Oregon office. The presentation gave an overview of statistics and trends in Oregon's organic agriculture sector. It also summarized themes from the organic & conservation cross-training sessions held in 2009.

Presentation to state technical advisory committees:
The proposal also included presentations to the respective NRCS state technical advisory committees, as requested. On September 2, 2010, Oregon Tilth’s Chris Schreiner provided an overview of the training series to the Oregon Technical Advisory Committee, which includes the Oregon Wheat League, Oregon Small Woodlands Association, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Xerces Society, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Farm Service Agency, Oregon Association of Conservation Districts and Oregon Departments of Agriculture, Environmental Quality, Fish and Wildlife, Forestry, along with many other organizations. State technical advisory committees in Washington and Idaho received offers to also have a presentation provided at upcoming meetings.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Products developed

As a result of this project, we have developed training curricula that is replicable in other regions or future training sessions. Training resources developed and available to the public include agenda and presentations, field tour schedules and proposed instruction, and an electronic resource CD that compiled electronic files and web-based links from appropriate agencies and organizations on relevant conservation and organic resources.

NRCS / Oregon Tilth shared position - Organic Conservation Specialist

Conservation programs and cost-share funding administered by the NRCS are giving increased prioritization to working with organic producers and growers interested in transitioning to organic management. In 2009 and 2010 combined, the NRCS allocated $100 million nationwide through the EQIP Organic Initiative to support growers implementing organic management practices. The challenge in successfully implementing these new NRCS initiatives is a lack of agency infrastructure (technical understanding and expertise) for organic production systems.

Based on the success of the cross-training series, Oregon Tilth approached the NRCS about establishing a shared national position to develop new technical information and training that will allow NRCS conservation planners to assist owners and managers of private working lands to make informed management decisions, using the latest and best technology to enhance resource conservation on organic agricultural production systems. National support and shared funding for the position was formalized through a Contribution Agreement signed by NRCS and Oregon Tilth in the summer of 2010.

The Organic Conservation Specialist position is the first of its kind. The purpose of the position is to 1) increase knowledge of USDA conservationists regarding organic agriculture production systems, 2) develop technical information for use by agency staff, 3) increase knowledge of organic certifiers regarding resource conservation, and 4) enable more strategically focused and effective outreach efforts in order to increase conservation assistance to organic producers.

The position is an Oregon Tilth employee and based at the NRCS West National Technology Support Center (NTSC) in Portland, OR for a two-year term. Following an extensive candidate search, Sarah Brown was hired and started work in September 2010. In her new position, she will help deliver locally adapted training and develop technical resources to align efforts of conservation and organic professionals working with private landowners. This will ultimately benefit local producers who are trying to navigate the maze of organic regulations and conservation cost-share programs to develop sustainable agricultural systems.

Recommendations:

Future Recommendations

The NRCS mission of “helping people help the land” aligns with many of the principles underlying organic agriculture. As a partner, NRCS offers well-established assessment tools, technical support and funding streams that could be used to assist well-managed organic farming systems realize their full resource conservation potential. As an agency, NRCS is very decentralized with many implementation decisions and priorities deferred to state and local offices.

A common theme from many of the cross-training evaluations was that more training and technical resources were needed to actualize the full potential for NRCS to assist organic producers in establishing well-managed farm systems that maximize natural resource conservation. The recent creation and hiring of the Organic Conservation Specialist position as well as USDA’s funding of a national Conservation Innovation Grant project titled “Integrating Sustainable and Organic Agriculture into NRCS Programs” will address some of the agency gaps in infrastructure (technical understanding and expertise) for organic production systems. However, funding support for additional locally-adapted training of conservation professionals, organic certification professionals and organic producers will help create the professional networks and in-the-field understanding that is critical to achieving long-term success.

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.