Growing the Field for Organic Conservation: Training on NRCS CAP 138 and NOP Conservation Standards

Final Report for EW15-020

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2015: $73,447.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Sarah Brown
Oregon Tilth
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Project Information

Abstract:

Oregon Tilth sought funding to improve understanding of natural resource conservation on organic and transitioning farms in Oregon and California. The project proposed training and educational materials for NRCS and other conservation professionals, organic certification staff, and Technical Service Providers (TSPs), who all play important roles in educating farmers about conservation.

Requested funding supported Oregon Tilth and our partner Wild Farm Alliance in developing and delivering on-site workshops, webinars, and toolkits on two topics:

1) the newly revised NRCS Conservation Activity Plan (CAP) 138 supporting organic transition; and

2) the National Organic Program's (NOP's) natural resource conservation standards and technical guidance on conservation.

Oregon Tilth and Wild Farm Alliance have worked closely with NRCS and the NOP to develop the CAP 138 and conservation guidance, designed to improve coordination between the conservation and certification systems and make conservation programs more accessible, affordable, and effective for organic and transitioning farmers. Our organizations are in a unique position to foster integration and communication between traditional agriculture service providers and the organic sector and to recruit and train TSPs that can help farmers complete the CAP 138. Publication of the revised CAP 138 and conservation guidance present an opportunity to expand these educators' knowledge of soil health and conservation on organic and transitioning farms, reduce the barriers to organic certification, and increase organic and transitioning farmers' participation in conservation programs.

Project Objectives:

Primary objectives included:

  1. Increase conservation professionals' understanding of the role of conservation requirements in organic certification and the use of the revised CAP 138 as a conservation and transition tool that reduces paperwork and supports an integrated plan for transition.
  2. Increase certification staff understanding of NOP conservation requirements and the use of CAP 138 as a conservation and transition tool; and improve their ability to identify and evaluate conservation problems, provide allowable technical assistance, and direct and encourage farmers to access resources for help.
  3. Increase the number of qualified TSPs available to assist farmers with the CAP 138, which also can serve as the core contents of the OSP.
Introduction:

The purpose of this project was to advance conservation and agriculture professionals' understanding of organic conservation so they can educate and assist organic and transitioning farmers to improve conservation outcomes. We developed a suite of trainings and resources for NRCS staff, organic certification staff, TSPs, and other providers to increase their knowledge of organic conservation practices and how certification and conservation programs work together, and grow their shared capacity to help organic and transitioning farmers meet their conservation, production, and certification needs and goals.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jo Ann Baumgartner

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Key project activities included:

  1. Development of toolkits with information and reference material to support conservation staff in working with organic and transitioning farmers and certifiers. The toolkits were made available electronically for all NRCS staff and others use.
  2. Development of toolkits for certification staff that contain information, tools including photo series to guide assessment, and reference materials. Toolkits were distributed to the 27 organic certifiers working in California and Oregon.
  3. Develop a train-the-trainer eOrganic webinar for certification managers on the organic-conservation interface and how to train and guide their inspectors and reviewers in working with farmers and conservation staff. The webinar was recorded for subsequent on-demand access.
  4. Wild Farm Alliance provided technical assistance to certifiers as they train staff members and encounter questions and situations requiring individualized support.
  5. On-site workshops in Oregon and California to current and potential TSPs. We expected eight to ten participants in each workshop.
  6. Develop two webinars that prepare TSPs for certification and equip them to help transitioning farmers identify resource concerns and select options to address them.

The first step in the development of project resources was conferring with partners and stakeholders about current needs and any associated or parallel projects. For the development of the certifier toolkit this began with a needs assessment. In order to guide and inform our efforts to increase certification staff understanding of NOP conservation requirements and provide technical assistance and resources, we administered a survey to all 48 US organic certifiers. Nineteen certifiers responded providing information about their knowledge of biodiversity conservation and the NOP and what assistance they could use to improve their work and support farmers. Respondents requested guidance on identifying conditions where the operator needs improvement and help in understanding what is acceptable. This informed the addition of photos depicting Compliance, Minor Concern, Major Concern in our toolkit. More than half the respondents wanted information on natural resources and biodiversity conservation related to processing and handling operations and some wanted specifics related to the harvest of wild crop.

The majority of respondents reported that they did not work with NRCS, which led to the inclusion of relevant program information in the guide and subsequent webinars. Many also reported that they would like assistance updating their Organic System Plans (OSP) so we included a detailed section in the guide providing guidance on how certifiers might approach improvements.

These answers helped us determine what to include in the tool kit and informed the focus of our one-on-one follow up with individual certifiers.

The development of an NRCS toolkit evolved to take the shape of what is now entitled the National Organic Farming Handbook. Through Oregon Tilth’s national contribution agreement with the NRCS we developed this resource as an NRCS publication in order to ensure maximum recognition, distribution, and outreach and education to conservation professionals. Every effort was made to ensure that this resource was relevant to a national audience and included the best resource available on the most relevant subject matter. Oregon Tilth coordinated a group of over 25 individuals to outline and develop content, representing a diverse cross-cut of NRCS field staff and leadership as well as non-profits, and agricultural service providers. Oregon Tilth served as the Editor and led efforts to provide subsequent training and outreach to NRCS staff, farmers, and other agricultural professionals.

The development of training and recruitment of Technical Service Providers was facilitated by the creation of an MOU between Oregon Tilth and NRCS. This MOU was developed at the national level and provided formal recognition of Oregon Tilth’s training curriculum as meeting the minimum requirements organic TSPs needed to gain certification through NRCS. Working with NRCS at the national, regional, and state levels, Oregon Tilth conducted outreach to recruit and plan logistics of the two in-person TSP trainings. Training locations and dates were selected in conjunction with existing events (Ecofarm Conference and International Organic Inspector Assoc. training) in order to maximize outreach and exposure to potential attendees.

Outreach and Publications

  • Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmer's and Certifier's Guide
  • NRCS National Organic Handbook
  • Organic TSP Trainings: September 30-October 1, 2015, Corvallis, Oregon and January 19-20, 2016, Monterey, California.
  • eOrganic webinar titled How to Implement and Verify Biodiversity Conservation Activities in Organic Agricultural System, October 2016
  • USDA National Organic Program Accredited Certifier Association training, Natural resources and biodiversity on organic farms, Jan. 14, 2016
Outcomes and impacts:

Key outcomes of the project included:

  • Increased NRCS staff knowledge of how conservation programs can help organic and transitioning farmers; and increased skills for helping farmers meet their conservation and organic transition, certification, and compliance goals.

With funding from WSARE, Oregon Tilth staff served as the primary coordinator and editor for the NRCS National Organic Farming Handbook. This thirty-page resource was developed to support NRCS conservation planners and other agricultural professionals as they work with organic producers. The handbook describes organic systems and identifies key resources to guide conservation planning and implementation on organic farms. Producers and other audiences may also find the handbook useful, particularly the resources listed in various sections.

The handbook was developed with a team comprised of NRCS staff and partner organizations from across the country and from a range of disciplines. This nationally recognized resource has been widely adopted and praised by professionals across the country, far surpassing our expectations.

In addition to the toolkit/handbook, Oregon Tilth coordinated and facilitated two webinars to share the handbook and the conversation about natural resources on organic farms with a wider audience. On March 17, 2016, Oregon Tilth coordinated and moderated a webinar on Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation on Organic Farms. This webinar was national in scope and targeted agricultural professionals. Staff from the USDA National Organic Program presented the recently released guidance and discussed compliance as well as opportunities for improvement and assistance on organic farms. Approximately 200 agricultural professionals and 80 farmers attended. On May 26, 2016, in conjunction with NRCS, we held a national webinar to share the National Organic Farming Handbook. This webinar was attended by approximately 200 agricultural professionals and 30 farmers.

Surveys to NRCS state offices found that 46% found the handbook very useful, 35% moderately so, and 21% are still unfamiliar. No respondents found it useless. This was a marked improvement from the previous year when 52% had been unfamiliar, which leads us to assume that our outreach efforts have been successful.

  • Increased certification staff knowledge and skills for identifying conservation problems and providing allowable technical assistance and educational information to farmers; and an expanded role in helping farmers access and benefit from conservation assistance.
  • Increased certification staff understanding of NOP conservation standards and ability to use the new guidance to help farmers learn about and comply with these standards.

Wild Farm Alliance (WFA) led the development of resources for organic certifiers. These efforts focused on the creation of ‘Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmer’s and Certifier’s Guide’. The Guide clarifies the National Organic Program’s (NOP) new Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation Guidance (released January 2016). The Guide will also increase organic farmers’ and certifiers’ understanding of the myriad of benefits provided by biodiversity conservation. Outcomes ranging from enhanced pollination and improved pest control, to cleaner water sources can help an organic operation perform optimally. WFA’s new Guide gives farmers and certifiers practical and effective information to not only be in compliance but also to take advantage of the ecosystem benefits related to biodiversity.

In addition to the Guide, Oregon Tilth worked in conjunction with NRCS to develop two outreach flyers focused on organic and transitioning producers. These flyers are now available on the national NRCS organic webpage and have been shared with all organic certifiers. Oregon Tilth includes these flyers in new client packets and makes them available at conference.

WFA has distributed 566 guides to organic certifiers so far with more planned. A second printing run is already being planned to ensure that all the certifier and inspectors who would like copies receive them. WFA also created and has distributed over 6,000 postcard-sized handouts for inspectors to share with farmers. 

The electronic link of the Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmer’s and Certifier’s Guide has been disseminated to all 27 organic certifiers that work in California and Oregon, and to the other 21 certifiers who work in the US. Printed copies of the Handbook, along with the two NRCS organic fact sheets have been sent to 19 of the 27 organic certifiers and the remainder will be sent upon confirmation from the certifier.

Wild Farm Alliance and Oregon Tilth have also engaged directly with certifiers and their staff. WFA has provided direct technical assistance to six certifiers on updating their Organic System Plans (OSP). Two others have reported that our Guide was instrumental to the creation of their updated OSPs. Calls have been scheduled with seven more certifiers to work on their OSPs. Of the others left, two have declined our offer to assist with OSP updates and the others have not gotten back to us yet.

In October 2016, WFA co-presented in an eOrganic webinar with Assistant Professor John Quinn titled How to Implement and Verify Biodiversity Conservation Activities in Organic Agricultural System. This webinar provided critical information on the new NOP Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation Guidance. In this webinar we shared effective strategies for farmers and certifiers on how to ensure organic farms are in compliance. We discussed USDA NRCS opportunities that support producers in their efforts to implement many of conservation practices. We also shared examples that suggest compliance, and minor and major issues related to the Guidance.

Of the 136 people to attend the webinar, 46 were certifiers or inspectors. We also reached many other types of farming experts, including 15 agricultural professionals, 4 extension, 16 government agencies, 10 nonprofits, and 17 university researchers or educators . During the webinar, we asked who would like to be notified of more information in the future and 54 sent us their contact information, 18 of who were certifiers or inspectors. Since the webinar was posted on YouTube, over 400 people have viewed it.

Forty-eight participants completed the webinar evaluation. Nineteen of the respondents were organic inspectors or certifiers, of whom 15 were located in the Western States. About 75% felt their understanding of the topic was moderately to significantly improved. Almost 80% said that they intend to apply the knowledge gained from the webinar and about the same number said the information was not too technical or too basic, but just right. Over 80% will recommend this webinar to others.

Wild Farm Alliance and Oregon Tilth worked with three certifiers to facilitate ‘internal’ staff trainings in the forms of webinars. We estimate that 60 individuals attended these.

Lastly, Oregon Tilth staff attended the Jan. 14, 2016 USDA National Organic Program Accredited Certifier Association training to present on natural resources and biodiversity on organic farms. Over 120 agricultural professionals were in attendance. Outreach flyers and resources were shared with certifiers and all certifiers were encouraged to distribute resources to their farmers.

  • Increased number of certified TSPs in CA and OR with the knowledge and skills to help farmers prepare the CAP 138.

We held two in-person trainings for potential organic TSPs. The first was held September 30-October 1, 2015 in conjunction with the International Organic Inspector Assoc. training in Oregon. The second training was held January 19-20, 2016 as a pre conference to the Ecofarm Conference in Monterey. Eight individuals attend each course. Oregon Tilth led the workshops with presentations from the Wild Farm Alliance and USDA NRCS. All sixteen participants received certificates of completion. All sixteen participants reported an increase in knowledge across relevant topics and that they would pursue NRCS certification to become organic TSPs.

An electronic survey follow-up in late 2016 found while none had yet been certified as organic TSPs they still intend to complete the requirements. Of the six respondents to that survey 100% had used the resources and knowledge gained from the training, 83% had shared it with colleagues, and two had used the knowledge and resources with farmers they work with.

In advance of these trainings two webinars were held to prepare potential TSPs for successful access to and completion of the certification process with NRCS. These webinars were hosted by Oregon Tilth and included the National NRCS TSP Coordinator. Each webinar was attended/viewed by all 16 workshop participants in advance of the in-person trainings.

  • Increased understanding of conservation and certification resources among other service providers, including Extension and Soil and Water Conservation District staff.

This projected impacted a much wider audience than just NRCS, NOP, and organic certifiers. In 2016 Oregon Tilth was asked to speak at the Oregon CONNECT conference to introduce the National Organic Farming Handbook. The audience primarily included staff from Oregon’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts, 25 individuals were present. We know agricultural service producers were attendees at the other webinars as well.

  • Successful implementation of the revised CAP 138 and increased use of this tool by transitioning farmers.

The revised CAP 138 is in use by NRCS. It is widely recognized as one of the primary tools USDA offers to support transitioning farmers. Exact contract numbers are not known at this time but are expected to be more widely available late in 2017.

  • Stronger links between NRCS and the NOP and a more accessible and effective support system for organic farmers to address conservation needs.

One of the most beneficial results of the recent NOP guidance is the increased communication and coordination between NRCS and the NOP. The USDA Organic Working Group has developed an Organic Conservation team that seeks to coordinate efforts and reduce redundancy. The NOP continues to invite Oregon Tilth to participate in their trainings for certifiers to ensure that conservation continues to be a part of the dialogue. Recent conversations with other certifiers indicate that OSP changes are continuing to be made. Oregon Tilth is working with the Accredited Certifiers Assoc. to develop a working group on this topic.

  • Increased farmer awareness of NOP conservation standards and the CAP 138.

As a result of this project we expect that a large number of organic growers have an increased understanding of NOP conservation standards and the resources available to support them. Oregon Tilth and WFA continue to be engaged in educational opportunities on these topics. Over 100 farmers attended our webinars and certifiers have reported the inclusion of these materials on their websites and in new applicant mailings.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Oregon Tilth and Wild Farm Alliance are pleased with the outcomes and impacts of this project. Our primary accomplishments include:

  • Publication of ‘Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmer’s and Certifier’s Guide’ and distribution to all organic certifiers in Oregon and California.
  • Publication of the NRCS National Organic Handbook.
  • Invitation to speak at the National Organic Program annual certifier training on the topic of natural resource management and the National Organic Handbook.
  • Two in-person trainings for organic TSPs.
  • Two webinars for organic TSPs.
  • One webinar for organic certifiers.
  • Three staff trainings on natural resources and biodiversity for organic certifiers.
  • One national webinar on the National Organic Handbook.
  • A workshop at the Oregon CONNECT conference to share the National Organic Farming Handbook with Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

NRCS and non-profit partners are looking to Oregon Tilth for future recommendations and feedback on training TSPs and possible next steps for recruitment and Oregon Tilth continues to work closely with NRCS to assess the CAP 138 and potential improvements. Through our contribution agreement Oregon Tilth serves on the USDA Organic Working Group and provides feedback on our experience working with TSPs and certifiers to support natural resource management on organic farms. The USDA NOP recently requested Oregon Tilth’s involvements in the 2017 organic certifier training to focus on natural resource management resources for growers. At the 2017 Organicology Conference Oregon Tilth and Wild Farm Alliance will be leading a farm tour focused on the topic. There are over 40 agricultural professionals registered.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

This project reached an estimated 722 individuals through webinars (584 agricultural professionals and 138 farmers) and 161 through in-person trainings. All 16 participants of the TSP training stated they would pursue certification to support transitioning and organic farmers. The National Organic Farming Handbook and the ‘Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmer’s and Certifier’s Guide’ have reached thousands of individuals, including all certifiers in Oregon and California. Our expectation is that they will continue to be disseminated and shared by organic certifiers and the USDA.

Future Recommendations

Natural resource and biodiversity management on organic farms is evolving. With the recent NOP guidance farmers are revisiting their practices and having to reassess how they’re meeting the organic regulations. The USDA NOP and NRCS are actively coordinating to reduce redundancy and streamline requirements. Organic certifiers and conservation planners are assessing their own tools and resources to support the farmers they work with. This project made a significant impact in supporting agricultural professionals working with organic producers but there is a clear need for this work to continue.

In our annual survey to NRCS state offices, when asked what the primary barriers are to successful organic assistance, 53% of NRCS state offices reported lack of staff’s technical expertise and 42% reported lack of certified organic TSPs. 38% reported a need for introductory level training and 53% of respondents reported a need for ‘secondary-level’ training on organic topics. Priority training topics continue to be cover crops and nutrient and pest management. Conservation professionals continue to request trainings and technical assistance from organic professionals. This work must continue to make organic technical assistance available in all areas of the country and accessible by all farmers.

Organic certifiers continue to assess and incorporate our project’s deliverables into their OSPs and staff trainings. With the recently released NOP standards on animal welfare there is a continued need to assess impacts related to natural resource management. We are encouraged by the initiative some organic certifiers have taken in regards to OSP revisions and we hope to facilitate and support a larger certifier-to-certifier dialogue this year.

Information Products

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.