Because of expanding organic markets and increasing environmental concerns, interest in organic farming is growing rapidly. However, organic farming requires more intensive management than conventional production, and the knowledge and skills required for successful organic farming are not readily acquired through existing information sources. If left to trial and error, novice organic farmers usually make many “mistakes” in the beginning, yielding disappointing results. The Southeast Iowa Organic Farming Mentor Program was initiated to link experienced organic farmers with beginning organic farmers to help them avoid common pitfalls and enjoy a measure of success from the beginning. The program provides a progressive learning environment for all involved.
Our project was originally set up to link six organic farmer mentors with six apprentices in 1997. When word of the mentor project got out, we were contacted by others who wanted to try organic farming with mentor assistance. At that point, Vision 2020, a project of Iowa State University (funded by the Kellogg Foundation) agreed to provide additional support to enable us to expand the project and continue it for at least three years.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
In 1997, the year we initiated the program, 14 “apprentices” formally participated. In 1998 and 1999 we had 17 and 19 apprentice participants, respectively. Additionally, many others attended our winter meetings and summer field days. We ask perspective apprentices to complete an application form to provide us with information on their operations and enable us to better meet their needs. For those who wish, we assist in creating a formal link for them with a suitable mentor. However, most of the apprentices prefer a less structured approach, participating in meetings and field days, and calling on appropriate mentors for individual assistance as needed.
Each year, 6 to 8 mentors also have participated. Several of the apprentices from the first two years are now serving as mentors. Each year we hold about four winter meetings and a couple of summer field days. In our winter meetings we provide a forum for the mentors to discuss their experiences and perspectives on a range of topics of special interest to organic farmers, including crop rotations, soil fertility, weed control, harvest problems, and marketing. This provides a good interactive learning environment for the apprentices – as well as for the mentors. Usually we break into small discussion groups at the end of the meetings to provide apprentices the opportunity to get more detailed advice on specific questions they have.
In 1997, 1998, and 1999, our apprentices farmed 990, 2000 and 600 acres organically, respectively. Although the 18 apprentices in 1999 only farmed a total of 600 acres organically, their total combined production (including conventional production) was 3150 acres. If our program helps them to have a successful experience farming small areas organically, we should expect they will continue to convert more of their cropland to organic production in the future.
A video documentary of the Mentor Program has been completed. The video production was funded in part by the SARE grant, with additional funding provided by a grant from the EPA 319 program.
The state Outreach Coordinator of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has been in contact with us about the potential for us to work with her in initiating an organic mentoring project within NRCS. We will continue to pursue that opportunity.
During the short lifetime of this program, we have observed tremendous changes in the organic farming environment. In 1996 we observed that many farmers were interested in organic production but were hesitant to try it, probably for two reasons: 1) fear that their farm would turn into a weed patch, and 2) fear that their neighbors would ridicule them. In that environment, we structured the mentor program with a small incentive payment for participating apprentices, to entice those who were wavering. Since the, prices for conventional commodities have plummeted, a lot of land that had been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program became eligible for certified organic production, and organic soybeans have come into vogue as a specialty crop among conventional farmers. Now, many conventional farmers are interested in trying some organic production. With this new environment in mind, we are changing how we allocate our resources – from trying to entice prospective organic farmers – to making sure we adequately compensate our mentors for their time and energy, so we can ensure the sustainability of our program.
We have foraged a link with an organization, the Southeast Iowa Organic Association (SEIOA) that should ensure the long term sustainability of our program. At a recent meeting of SEIOA, a committee was formed to take responsibility for outreach activities for the organization, in essence to assume the activities of the mentor program, including informational meetings, field days, and workshops. This is a natural home for the organic mentor program, both programmatically and geographically. SEIOA already maintains a regional database of organic farmers and sends our regular mailings, which in the future will include our program activities.