Organic Education: Increasing Opportunities for Farmers and Processors

Final Report for LNC06-265

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $114,811.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

This project was designed with the long-term outcome of increasing farmers’ and processors’ profit margins by entering into organic markets by creating and implementing two curriculums:
1) an education and mentoring program focusing on organic agriculture methods for farmers
2) an education program about organic processing and niche markets for processors.

The organic farming curriculum and mentoring program was successfully developed and implemented. The organic processing curriculum was developed, but was not able to be implemented due to lack of participants.

Introduction:

Out migration, an aging producer base and limited job opportunities continue to be serious problems in many North Dakota communities. By increasing producers’ and regional processors’ profit margins, farm families and regional processors can sustain their rural way of life. Organic markets continue to offer significant opportunities for Midwestern producers and processors. According to the Economic Research Service (ERS), organic farming has become one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture. ERS also states that consumer demand for organic products has shown double digit growth for more than a decade, which has provided incentives for many farmers to become certified organic.

Adopting organic farming practices requires farmers to take on different risks than farming conventionally–especially during transition to organic. These transitional risks can include the steep learning curve during the first years of transitional production, lower yields while soil structure is being rebuilt and beneficial insect populations are restored, and farmers cannot receive organic premiums during the three-year transition period for land to be certified organic (Hanson et al., 2004). While these transitional risks are not long-term, they are stumbling blocks for transitioning farmers. The Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability (FARRMS) project was designed to help transitioning and beginning farmers manage these risks and become sustainable organic producers.

A 1998 survey conducted by the Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural & Environmental Policy identified a two primary challenges for all food processors: producing a consistent product and securing shelf space in the supermarket. However, the report also identified additional challenges for manufacturers of organic food products, including: securing a large enough and cheap enough supply of organic ingredients and maintaining the products’ organic integrity during processing (Dimitri & Richman, 2000). The National Organic Program (NOP) has very specific criteria and rules for organic food processing. Phase 2 of this project was designed to educate food processors about the organic standards, sourcing organic ingredients, and maintaining all the necessary organic records.

Project Objectives:

This project is designed with the long-term outcome of increasing farmers’ and processors’ profit margins by entering into organic markets. The project also strives to create additional markets for all organic farmers in the region by growing the number of regional organic processors.

Objective 1: The establishment of an education and mentoring program focusing on organic agriculture methods. Target audiences: beginning farmers and conventional farmers considering transition into organic production.

Short-Term Outcome 1: Increasing conventional and new farmers’ and processors’ knowledge of organic farming practices.

Intermediate Outcome 1: Increasing the number of farmers implementing organic practices in North Dakota.

Objective 2: The establishment of an education program about organic processing and niche markets. Target audiences: organic farmers and regional processors.

Short-Term Outcome 2: Increasing farmers’ and processors’ awareness of organic and niche markets, which have the potential to increase profit margins.

Intermediate Outcome 2: Increasing the number of regional processors marketing organic products and sourcing regional organic raw products.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Virgil Dagman
  • Dwight Hofmann
  • Rick Mittleider
  • David Podoll
  • Karri Stroh

Research

Materials and methods:
Phase 1: Development & Implementation of Organic Farming 101

FARRMS adapted the Land Stewardship Project’s (LSP) Farm Beginnings™ curriculum to create the Organic Farming 101 curriculum. The curriculum was a good fit for the Organic Farming 101 course because the content was participant driven and addressed the holistic management practices needed to be a sustainable farmer.

To assist with the adaptation, implementation and evaluation of the Organic Farming 101 curriculum, FARRMS formed and convened a Steering Committee, comprised of organic farmers, organic inspectors and a Farm Business Management instructor, which met several times to determine seminar/curriculum topics, review evaluations and suggest changes for the course.

Organic Farming 101, a 10 session organic farming curriculum, was developed based in part on the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings program. However, the Organic Farming 101 curriculum emphasized organic production and certification and changed much of the Farm Beginnings curriculum to specifically address organic farm management, certification and marketing in North Dakota. Once the curriculum was developed, course instructors were recruited for the various topics. Most instructors were experienced organic farmers as well as having other organic experience such as inspecting organic farms or some other expertise.

Course participants were recruited and the classes were held between October 2007 and March 2008 in the FARRMS classroom in Medina, ND. Four farm tours were held during the summer of 2008. In the first year, the Organic Farming 101 participants were quite diverse – ranging from already certified organic producers to people completely new to farming. This made small mentoring groups impractical for the program. Instead, FARRMS matched all participants who were interested and ready for a mentoring relationship in one-on-one mentoring with experienced farmers. Five participants were matched with one-on-one mentors in 2008.

Evaluation: Course participants completed a pre-questionnaire prior to the start of the course. This questionnaire included a self-assessment, as well as basic multiple choice questions about organic certification and terminology. Additionally, this tool was used to collect demographic information. An evaluation consultant completed a full review of the curriculum, conducted exit interviews with participants and instructors and reviewed all event evaluations. All evaluation reports are attached to this report.

Based on the evaluations of participants and instructors, revisions were made to the Organic Farming 101 curriculum. The course was canceled in 2008-09 due to lack of participants registering for the course. NCR-SARE granted a one-year extension for the grant.

To help explore what might be negatively impacting the participation in the Organic Farming 101 course, FARRMS hosted four focus groups around North Dakota with a variety of participants, ranging from Extension professionals to conventional and organic producers and others interested in agricultural education. A summary of the findings is included in the following section.

The Organic Farming 101 course was held again in 2009-2010, using the revised curriculum. Participants had the option of participating in a one-on-one mentoring program and two participants were matched with mentors. Participants completed pre- and post-questionnaires and session evaluations.

Phase 2: Development & Implementation of Organic Processing & Niche Markets Curriculum

In the fall of 2008, FARRMS began working with International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) as co-sponsors of a two-day organic processing training to be held in April 2009. IOIA has a long history of training independent organic inspectors. They also have done some training sessions for individual processors. The processing training was supposed to target newly certified organic processors and processors considering organic certification and would include on-farm processors as well.

Curriculum development included a “virtual” organic processing tour of the North Dakota State Mill and Elevator, a certified organic flour mill. This virtual tour included detailed photographs of the processing facilities, organic processes and organic record keeping. IOIA revised a basic organic processing training curriculum used for inspector training.

The initial Organic Processing Training was scheduled for April 2009. Initially, a number of people expressed an interest in the workshop. However, due to the economic downturn, several potential attendees were unable to register for the workshop. FARRMS postponed the workshop until the fall of 2009 and still was unable to recruit enough participants for the training. At the end of this grant, no Organic Processing Training has been held. IOIA decided to hold the training as a web-based training program. FARRMS requested approval from the NCR-SARE Executive Committee to reallocate the training funds to support the web-based program, but the change was not approved.

Research results and discussion:

Phase 1 of the project was successfully completed. The Organic Farming 101 curriculum was developed, implemented and refined. A steering committee of four members was established and met as needed. The Organic Farming 101 course was offered two times once in the fall of 2007-2008 and again in 2009-2010. A total of 19 people participated in the training during the two offerings of the class (see further discussion of participant demographics in the following section). Participants ranged from beginning farmers to certified organic producers. Participants indicated the strongest element of the class was the farmer/rancher instructors.

Mentorship component: 7 participants were matched with one-on-one mentors.

Field Days: 6 Field Day/Farm Tours were held with a total of 101 attendees. The topics included: organic mulch gardening, market gardening, an organic farm tour, and soil health/monitoring workshops.

Discussion: Following the Farm Beginnings curriculum as a guide, FARRMS designed the Organic Farming 101 curriculum to be a 10-session course taking place on Saturdays between October and March. FARRMS was able to offer need-based scholarships for the course through another grant program. Many participants and potential participants indicated it was difficult to commit to such a long training period – especially with North Dakota winters. Most participants and instructors traveled at least an hour one-way to get to the training site. Participants all agreed the farmer instructors were the strongest aspect of the course.

A challenge for the course facilitators was the diversity of the participants – ranging from non-farmers looking for more information and a place to start to experienced conventional farmers transitioning to organic production to long-time certified organic producers. While this diversity led to many rich discussions and examples, it was difficult to meet all the needs of participants with one presentation on a topic. Some participants needed the most basic information while others needed more advanced information.

Phase 2 of the project was not successfully completed due to lack of participants. A virtual tour of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, a state-owned organic mill, has been developed. The other training components were being developed by IOIA and have not been paid for with any SARE funds.

Research conclusions:

Organic Farming 101: 19 total participants ranging from non-farmers to certified organic producers.

Evaluation results: Comparing the pre-questionnaire and post-questionnaire responses, all participants reported increased knowledge of organic concepts in their self-evaluations as well as demonstrating increased knowledge of basic organic principles in multiple choice questions.

One-on-one Mentoring: 7 participants were matched with one-on-one mentors throughout the course of the grant. Anecdotal evidence indicates these mentoring relationships were beneficial to course participants and provided needed information and resources not provided in the Organic Farming 101 course.

Field Days: 6 Field Day/Farm Tours were held with a total of 101 attendees (most of the attendees were not course participants.) Event feedback was very positive.

Organic Processing Training: no training sessions were held.

FARRMS will continue to use the Organic Farming 101 curriculum. However, it will no longer be advertised as an “organic” farming curriculum. While the course will continue to follow organic principles, FARRMS will market it as the Sustainable Farm Series in an effort to expand the number of participants. Based on feedback from focus groups and from Organic Farming 101 participants, the course will be shortened to five Saturday sessions. FARRMS will provide an optional organic certification session for participants who are interested. These changes will be introduced in the fall of 2010. FARRMS will also continue to host summer field days featuring organic production methods.

Economic Analysis

The cost for the Organic Farming 101 course (not including field days) was $3,177.79 per participant. This cost would be less in following years because the curriculum has been developed. However, it is still necessary to review and revise the curriculum before each course based on feedback from participants and instructors. FARRMS charged participants $250 for the course. Need-based scholarships were available for applicants through another grant. FARRMS explored increasing the cost of the course to $500 and participants and others indicated that was too expensive, even for a 10-session course. This does leave the question of how to make an educational program of this type sustainable and/or self-funding. FARRMS continues to explore this issue, but for the time being will continue to subsidize such educational programs through grants.

Farmer Adoption

Of the 19 participants in Organic Farming 101, eight producers have certified organic farms, two producers are currently transitioning their farm into organic production, and one market garden/CSA producer uses organic production practices, but is not certified. The result is 58% of the Organic Farming 101 participants are currently using primarily organic practices in their farming operations. Another 26% are not currently farming at all. And the other 16% are conventional farmers who indicated they would adopt some of the practices discussed in the course into their conventional operations.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:
  • 1) Organic Farming 101 evaluation reports
    2) Organic processing virtual tour
    3) Organic Farming 101 curriculum: A 10-session organic farming course including whole farm planning, organic farm management, financial management, organic certification, organic livestock production, marketing, and community resources

    To access any of these materials, contact NCR-SARE to see the hard copy of the report, or contact FARRMS at 701-486-3569 or info@farrms.org.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Based on our difficulty recruiting enough participants for the two day organic processing training, FARRMS asked interested parties what prohibited them for registering. The primary response was that the slow economy prevented travel. Another person indicated that the time out of the office for travel and training was prohibitive. We also suspect that the slow economy dissuaded some processors from considering significant production changes or adding new products such as organic lines. A web-based organic processing training may be one way to providing the needed training without the expense of travel and time away from the office.

FARRMS is also exploring offering web-based educational seminars on specific organic production topics. More research needs to be done to see which producers will take advantage of this type of education and how it can be done most effectively.

Finally, these types of education and mentoring programs are expensive. Course fees only cover a fraction of the overall cost of the program. It is crucial to find other ways to ensure the sustainability such educational programs.

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.