Growing Organics: Integrating Science, Farmer Indigenous Knowledge, and Experience in Expanding Organic Production in Ohio

Final Report for LNC07-288

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2007: $140,415.75
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Mike Anderson
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
Co-Coordinators:
Carol Goland
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
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Project Information

Summary:

This project, undertaken by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) in partnership with the Ohio State University’s Organic Food and Farming Education and Research (OFFER) Program, was designed to assist farmers in the adoption of certified organic production. The ambitious goal was to increase the number of organic farmers (and organic acreage) in Ohio by 50%. During the 30 month period of the project, work was overseen by an Organic Education Program Coordinator. Project activities and outputs included intensive day-long workshops (Organics 101 and Organics 201), each offered several times, Advanced workshops (1- or 2-hour long) on specialized topics, farm tours of organic farms, two book-length publications: “A Transition Guide to Certified Organic Crop Management,” by Margaret Huelsman, published in March, 2008, and the “Organic Whole Farm Planning Workbook,” by Margaret Huelsman, published in September, 2008, 16 articles (published in the OEFFA News), ten of which became OEFFA Certification Fact Sheets, and 13 fact sheets published by the OFFER Program. Additionally, the Organic Education Program Coordinator facilitated an on-farm apprenticeship program and established a Farmer Information Network. According to our best estimates, the number of certified organic farms in Ohio increased by 45% from 2007 to 2010.

Introduction:

This project was created to assist farmers making the transition to organic production, by providing them with appropriate information and educational opportunities to increase their success. Prior to proposing the project, team members assessed that in Ohio, farmers’ needs for information about organic production were not being met. Our approach recognized that delivering appropriate educational programming to farmers requires providing both technical information as well as experiential opportunities. This is reflected in the diversity of project activities (see below). Outputs included the establishment of a farmer-to-farmer education network, two organic production manuals, farmer-friendly “science you can use” fact sheets, an organic farming apprenticeship program, and the development of several new signature educational programs for transitioning to certified organic production. Progress towards desired outcomes was assessed using standard survey and feedback measurement techniques.

Project Objectives:

The project was developed to increase the number of organic farms in the state of Ohio by 50% and to increase total acreage under organic management in Ohio by 50%. To achieve these levels of growth in organic production, we developed and implemented educational and outreach programs to increase knowledge and skills related to organic crop production and marketing. These educational programs included on-farm workshops, classroom style seminars, field days, an apprenticeship program, development of printed and web-based resource materials, and on-going educational support.

To reach these objectives, project activities were designed to produce the following short-term outcomes, that farmers will:

  • Improve awareness of organic production as an option (and awareness of OEFFA and OFFER as reliable sources of information);
    Increase knowledge of organic production methods, marketing, and compliance with organic certification regulations;
    Develop better skills with regards to managing soil fertility under organic production regimes, season extension, pest and disease management, equipment maintenance, and conducting audit trails;
    Develop favorable attitudes towards organic production as a viable alternative for their own operations.

Expected intermediate outcomes, which encompass changes in the behavior or practices of the target audience, were that farmers will:

  • Utilize OEFFA as a resource for learning about organic production and for educational support in undertaking organic transition;
    Begin (and/or complete) the process of transitioning to organic production practices and seek certification for organic crop production for both row crops and horticultural crops;
    Adopt new crop varieties, increase acreage, or employ season-extension strategies that expand their production capacity (for existing organic producers);
    Undertake apprenticeships at organic farms and adopt organic production practices from the beginning of their own operations (for new farmers).

Specific Components of our educational programs and performance targets identified in the original proposal were as follows:
1. Intensive Organic Production Workshops
A. Introduction to Organic Farming, a 3 part course

  • 300 people will participate in “Organics 101” (which has two versions: one for field crops, one for horticultural crops).
    500 individuals will visit organic farms during summer field days.
    100 individuals will take part in additional workshops (“Organics 201”).

B. 500 people will participate in advanced workshops on selected organic production topics.

2. The Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA) Apprenticeship Program We expect 60 apprentice participants.

3. Printed Resource Materials
A. Organic Production Manual (provided to workshop participants) will be developed based on research results from the OFFER program and distributed to Organics 101 participants.
B. A regular column in the OEFFA newsletter on organic production (“Ask an Expert”) will be developed.
C. The OEFFA website will be expanded and improved to provide greater ease of use, including the addition of keyword searching to the array of published information on the website and creation of a moderated user forum for discussing organic production issues.

4. On-Going Educational Support
A. A staff position designated as the organic education outreach coordinator will provide general and specific assistance to producers interested organic production and, more generally, ecological agriculture.
B. As part of its ongoing support, OEFFA will help farmers connect with the many marketing opportunities available, including OEFFA’s Good Earth Guide to Organic and Ecological Farms and Gardens in Ohio. The Good Earth Guide will be circulated to roughly 1500 consumers throughout OH and is available on the OEFFA website (13,000 hits/month).
C. The Organic Education Program Coordinator will establish an effective farmer-to-farmer knowledge network.

5. Farmer Advisory Council
The creation of a Farmer Advisory Council, consisting of a diverse group of organic farmers, varying with regards to expertise, farm operation, and geographical location within Ohio, will strengthen existing farmer input to the OFFER Program and will also serve as an advisory committee to OEFFA’s Organic Education Program Coordinator.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Mike Anderson
  • Deborah Stinner

Research

Materials and methods:

During the project period, OEFFA built on its past experience to develop a program specifically focused on transitioning to organic production. Our methods were informed by previous surveys of Ohio farmers, in which they reported that their primary information source about organic production practices is “OEFFA or OEFFA Conferences” and that their next most important source of information for organic farmers is other farmers (Rzewnicki 2000). Thus, the activities of this project emphasized the delivery of information to farmers following this prescription, and sought to balance the indigenous knowledge base represented by farmer experience with the further understanding provided by careful scientific research.

In addition, we approached the adoption of organic farming practices as part of a larger class of problems collectively known as the adoption of innovations. The traditional model used to understand the process by which individuals accept innovations posits a series of stages: (1) initial awareness; (2) interest; (3) decision to adopt or reject; (4) implementation – a trial adoption that can lead to the final stage: (5) confirmation, in which the innovation is fully adopted and integrated as part of practice (Rogers 2003). In Rogers’ model, characteristics of the potential adopter, perceived qualities of the innovation, and the social context are significant variables influencing this process. Refinements of this model have demonstrated additional critical factors include knowledge (“objective knowledge,” i.e., technical information) and also familiarity. Familiarity is the experientially-based understanding that comes from personal observation, opportunities for hands-on experimentation, and even the stories of peers (Kaplan 2006). While this experience is important for learners at all stages, it may be especially important for new organic farmers, among whom, according to Thilmany (2006), a large proportion are coming from urban and suburban backgrounds. Thilmany stresses that “practical experiences . . . . may be the most effective ways to support classroom education” (Thilmany 2006:7).

Activities and outputs for the Growing Organics Program were thus based on a variety of educational opportunities that, in the aggregate, provided both technical information needs and fostered the development of familiarity, and which served to meet the needs of our (current or future) organic farmer audience.

SARE funding allowed OEFFA to hire its first ever Organic Education Program Coordinator, a position which was key to achieving the proposed objectives. Mike Anderson, a long-time organic farmer with prior experience in both organic farming research and organic farming education, was hired in November 2007. During the 30 months of the project, he organized multiple educational programs, oversaw OEFFA’s Apprenticeship program, and provided direct technical support to hundreds of transitioning farmers.

Research results and discussion:

Organics 101
The “Organics 101” course provided an introduction to transitioning to organic production. During the project period, this course was offered four times (March 20, 2008, December 2, 2008, March 12, 2010, December 2, 2010), with 239 farmers participating. We had originally intended to offer separate versions of this course, one for farmers growing horticultural crops, the other for those growing field crops. Once into the planning phases, though, we realized that there was significant common material for both groups. Thus, the eventual format consisted of having both groups learn together for half the day, with topics focused on the certification process, soil biology in organic production systems, strategies for transitioning, and managing fertility and pests. In the second half of the day, the two groups separated, with horticultural crop farmers hearing, for example, about variety selection and locating organic seed, while the field crop producers heard about design of effective rotations for organic grain. Presenters included a mix of researchers, agricultural educators, and established organic farmers.

In our evaluation of the program, we asked participants about their likelihood of seeking organic certification prior to and following the workshop. On a 1-5 scale, with 1 being “Certainly no” and 5 denoting “Certainly yes,” 22% of respondents self-rated as a 1 or 2 prior to the program, reduced to 10% after the program; 30% self-rated as a 4 or 5 prior to the program, doubling to 60% after the program.

Organics 201
The “Organics 201” course was offered twice. The focus of this course was to help farmers achieve organic certification for the first time, by working closely with them to establish their Organic System Plan (OSP). Instruction focused on a step-by-step explanation of the organic standards as they appear on an Organic System Plan, with substantial time allowed for farmers to begin to fill out the OSP and have questions answered by staff. Substantial attention was also devoted to understanding the record-keeping requirements of organic certification. In total 75 farmers participated in Organics 201. All of the participants received a binder with 46 articles on organic production and certification written by OSU research scientists, OEFFA staff, and other organic farming organizations. Participants also received a copy of the “Organic Whole Farm Planning Workbook.” Most participants left the event with a complete or nearly complete Organic System Plan written.

We also had 9 NRCS professionals attend these trainings. At the time we proposed this work, we did not anticipate the organic transitions provisions that have been added to EQIP funding, and were pleased to have this course available to help NRCS personnel become more familiar with organic production and certification.

Advanced Workshops
These briefer workshops were designed to provide opportunities for organic growers at all stages in the adoption process to customize their educational endeavors. Workshop topics highlighted research results from the Ohio State University Organic Food and Farming Education and Research (OFFER) Program as well as the tried-and-true practices of existing organic farmers. Over the course of the project, a total of 60 advanced workshops were offered, providing an estimated 2,877 learning opportunities. (Because people may have attended more than one workshop, it is impossible to know how many unique individuals were served.) Topics included (these are representative, not comprehensive):

  • Soil Testing and Organic Farming
    Management and Resources for Organics
    Grower Perspectives on Weed Control
    Plant Disease Control
    Organic Corn Variety Performance and Management
    Understanding Soil Biology and Its Role in Organic Crop Farming Systems
    Using Cover Crops to Improve Soil Productivity
    Recordkeeping Made Easy for Certified Organic Producers
    Growing Apples Organically
    Modified Relay Intercropping
    Weed Control in Organic Vegetables
    Marketing to the Restaurant Industry
    Extending the Growing Season: Early Vegetables
    Producing, Processing, and Marketing Your Grain
    Organic Blackberry and Raspberry Production

Farm Tours
Farm Tours were designed as an experiential complement to the more formal instruction provided by Organics 101, 201, and Advanced workshops. Over the thirty months of this project, a total of 45 farm tours were held and were attended by a total of 1,366 people. Farm tours included the following foci (many of these were the subject of several tours):

  • Organic specialty crop greenhouse
    Diversified organic market garden farm
    Farm producing for a CSA
    Organic grain
    Vegetables and cover crops
    Organic production and on-farm processing
    Ridge till organic grain
    Organic vineyard
    Organic vegetables and cannery
    Produce, specialty grains, and livestock

Apprenticeship Program
We view farm apprenticeships as a win-win for established and aspiring organic farmers: additional labor on the farm for the former, and the opportunity to learn under the guidance of a seasoned farmer for the latter. OEFFA’s program consists largely in facilitating apprentices and mentors finding each other. The OEFFA website hosts sections where potential host farmers can provide information about their farm operations, labor needs, and what they can offer an apprentice. Another section of the website provides a place for potential apprentices to post information about themselves, including their interests and availability. Each applicant then has access to view each others’ listings and contact a potential match, as appropriate. In the course of this project, 26 individuals were placed on OEFFA farms through the OEFFA Apprentice Program.

Ongoing Educational Support
Key to the success of this work was to have a staff position designated as the Organic Education Program Coordinator. One important job of the coordinator was to provide general and specific assistance to producers interested organic production and, more generally, ecological agriculture. This direct technical assistance proved to be in high demand, and the Organic Education Program Coordinator responded to 384 requests for assistance during the project period. These information requests came from organic, transitional, and conventional farmers.

The topics which generated the most frequent requests for assistance were:

  • Marketing
    Pricing
    Pest control
    Seed sources
    Transitioning to organic production

Farmers were assisted in connecting with marketing opportunities through OEFFA’s “Good Earth Guide to Organic and Sustainable Farms and Gardens,” which is a local foods directory. The print version was distributed to 3000 consumers from 2008 to 2010. The online version, which provides a searchable database, was visited approximately 37,000 times during the project period (extrapolating from website analytics available beginning March 2009).

One of the most important responsibilities of the Organic Education Program Coordinator was to establish an effective Farmer Information Network to help additional serve the needs of those who contact OEFFA seeking help and information regarding specific topics. This network was founded on the belief that these callers would be best served by talking directly to other farmers who have faced the same challenges and have first-hand experience solving them.

For this reason, we formed the Farmer Information Network. Its purpose it to tap the indigenous knowledge of organic farmers to assist individuals who have specific questions about organic food production and marketing. As part of OEFFA’s membership survey, distributed in the spring of 2010, we asked respondents about their willingness to mentor beginning farmers, answer questions from current farmers, and also asked them to identify their areas of expertise. We received a fantastic response to the survey, and almost 70 individuals indicated an interest in helping other farmers.

As a result, when a farmer contacts OEFFA with a question we don’t know the answer to, we will identify a farmer who has expertise in that area and ask the caller to contact that farmer directly. Not only will this help provide better information and advice to farmers, it will also help build the organic farming community by introducing members to one another. It provides one additional step to ensure the long-term sustainability of the educational supports established as part of the Growing Organics program, even after SARE funding ends.

Research conclusions:

With regards to outreach, we reached many of our performance targets, though fell short on others:

Participants in Organics 101
Goal: 300
Actual: 221
79% of participants in Organics 101 responded with a “4” or “5” (where 1 = “little” and 5 = “lots”) to the statement “Today’s program provided the information I need.”

Participants in Organics 201
Goal: 100
Actual: 79
78% of participants in Organics 101 responded with a “4” or “5” (where 1 = “little” and 5 = “lots”) to the statement “Today’s program provided the information I need.”

Participation in Field Days and Farm Tours:
Goal: 500
Actual: 1366

Advanced Workshops at Annual Conference
Goal: 500
Actual: Over the course of the project, a total of 60 advanced workshops were offered, providing an estimated 2,877 learning opportunities (some individuals attended multiple workshops).

Apprentice Program
Goal: 60
Actual: 26

Though we did not set a goal for the direct technical assistance that we expected the Organic Education Program Coordinator to provide, we found that this was one of the most valuable services the project offered. The Coordinator responded to 384 requests for assistance, and in a summary evaluation we found that 77% of respondents found this assistance “somewhat” or “extremely” helpful.

The ultimate measure of impact for this project, of course, is the adoption of certified organic production. As noted, the number of certified organic farms in Ohio increased by 45% from 2007 to 2010. Certainly, not all of this can be attributed to the project, nor can all of the project’s impacts be included in these dates (its impact will continue beyond its duration) or even in this particular measure (some may have adopted organic methods but chosen not to become certified).

An important impact of this project is on OEFFA’s own organizational learning and development, which will guide our work even as funding for it from SARE ends. One notable lesson is that having a staff position dedicated to providing direct technical assistance for organic production is highly valued, not only by those who use it (the farmers) but also by other stakeholders throughout Ohio. Producers with questions about organic production are routinely referred to OEFFA by other NGOs, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, NRCS, and Extension. Thus we felt it vitally important to be able to offer this service and over the course of the project were able to develop an internal funding stream to assure its continuation, at least as a part-time position. We see the creation of the Farmer Information Network as an additional step in assuring that this vital service continues.

Farmer Adoption

As part of the Organics 101 evaluation, we asked farmers about their likelihood of becoming a certified organic producer prior to and following the program.

As is apparent in Chart 1, the proportion of producers who felt it less likely that they would become certified organic was reduced from 21% (those answering with a “1” or “2) prior to the program to 10% following the program, while the proportion who felt likely to become a certified organic producer (those answering with a “4” or “5”) rose from 30% to 60%.

Participants reported that hearing from other farmers made them more comfortable using organic production methods (82% responding with a “4” or “5”) and hearing from extension professionals and researchers also made them more comfortable, in about equal measure (85% responding with a “4” or “5”). This suggests that our approach, in providing both technical information (as represented by agricultural educator professionals and researchers) and experientially-based information (as represented by farmers) were both essential elements in helping to move farmers along the path towards adoption of certified organic production.

Responses from participants in the Organics 201 course (Chart 2) show much the same pattern. Given the nature of the program – preparation of an Organic System Plan – those who attended were already more likely to adopt certified organic production. No participants reported being “Certainly Not” likely to adopt. Those responding with a “4” or “5” (“certainly yes”) increased from 49% before to 71% after the program. As in the Organics 101 program, participants valued both hearing from other farmers (63% responding with a “4” or “5” that they felt “more comfortable using organic production methods after hearing from other farmers today” and 70% responded with a “4” or “5” that they felt “more comfortable using organic production methods after hearing from extension professionals and researchers today.”

These results held in our summary survey to participants of the Growing Organics Program (see Table 1).

From the perspective of evaluation, of course, we understand that the intention to adopt certified organic production is not the same as actually doing so. However, given the timeline of this program and its evaluation, “intention” is the best proxy we have at this time for measuring farmer adoption of certified organic production and, indeed, is a necessary precursor to the behavioral change.

According to our best estimates at this time, the number of certified organic farms in Ohio has increased from 352 in 2007 to 509 in 2010. This is a 45% increase in the total number of organic farms since 2007. Accurate organic acreage data was recorded by OEFFA Certification in Ohio for the first time in 2009. In late 2009 USDA ERS staff travelled to Ohio to compile data on certified organic acreage for ’06 – ’08. As these data become available we will identify that rate of change in the amount of acreage under organic management.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

With partner the Organic Food and Farming Education and Research Program at Ohio State University, this project published two significant printed resources to provide information for farmers transitioning to organic production in Ohio: A Transition Guide to Certified Organic Crop Management, by Margaret Huelsman, published in March, 2008, and the Organic Whole Farm Planning Workbook, by Margaret Huelsman, published in September, 2008. These books provide clear, well-organized information for conventional farmers who are considering organic production. These books were provided to all participants in the Organics 101 and Organics 201 courses and were made available for sale to those unable to attended the courses.

Informational materials of use to the organic grower on the OEFFA website (www.oeffa.org) was expanded and improved to provide greater ease of use. Prior to this project, there existed an impressive array of resources on the website, but the sheer quantity was both a strength (so much information) and a weakness (the difficultly of sorting through it). The project accomplished an extensive review, revision, and re-organization of these web-based resources, providing a significant improvement in functionality and usability.

The Organic Education Program Coordinator, in collaboration with OEFFA Certification staff, wrote 16 articles for the OEFFA News. These focused on the following topics:

2008
  • The Use of Compost and Manure on Organic Farms
    Crop Rotations and the Organic Production Standard*
    Seed Sourcing*
    Alternatives to Treated Lumber*
    Post-Harvest Handling of Produce to Minimize Microbial Contamination*
    Labeling Requirements for Organic Products*

These six articles were distributed to 1,204 individuals via the newsletter.

2009
  • How Decisions are Made in an Organic Certification Agency
    The 2008 Farm Bill and Its Impact on Organic Farmers in Ohio
    Marketing Resources for Organic Grain, Forage, and Meat Producers
    Dairy Herd Healthcare*
    Rodent Control On Organic Farms*
    Decision Making in an Organic Certification Agency

These six articles were distributed to 1,436 mailboxes via OEFFA’s newsletter (1,023 print and 413 electronic copies).

2010
  • Labeling Organic Products Revisited
    What is Regulated (and isn’t) by the NOP (2 part article)
    Controlling insect pests on organic farms

These four articles were distributed to approximately 2,600 individuals via OEFFA’s newsletter (print and electronic copies).

*Articles marked with an asterisk have been re-published as farmer-friendly factsheets, available on the OEFFA website and in response to inquiries to our office.

In addition, OFFER researchers published 13 farmer-friendly fact sheets, which were distributed to Organics 101 and 201 participants as they became available. The fact sheets (and authors) were:

  • Holistic Management As a Whole Farm Planning Tool (D. Stinner)
    Organic and Conventional Cropping Systems Comparison: 2008 Report for Northwest Ohio (D. Stinner, and A. Sundermeier )
    Organic Transition Strategies at the Hirzel Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Site, Bowling Green, Ohio (A. Sundermeier)
    Plant Nutrients Which Impact Organic Soil Productivity (A. Sundermeier)
    Innoculants and Soil Amendments for Organic Growers (S. Park, C. Cao, and B. McSpadden Gardener)
    Managing Weeds in Organic Field Crops (J. Cardina)
    Cropping Practices and Weed Management in Organic Systems (J. Cardina)
    Crop Rotation and Weed Management (J. Cardina)
    Biopesticide Control of Plant Diseases: Resources and Products for Organic Farmers in Ohio (C. Cao, S. Park, and B. McSpadden Gardener)
    Organic Corn Production (P. Thomison)
    Selecting Hybrids for Organic Corn Production (P. Thomison)
    Identity Preserved Specialty Corns for Organic Corn Production: Some Commonly Asked Questions (P. Thomison)
    Evaluation of the Agronomic Performance and Grain Quality of Organic Certified Varieties and Hybrids (P. Thomison et al.)

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

The “Growing Organics” project focused on expanding organic crop production. Yet despite this clear focus on crops, we found many farmers attended educational programs despite their primary interest being in organic livestock production. We need a “Growing Organic Livestock” program to help farmers successfully adopt organic livestock production. The organic meat sector is currently one of the fastest growing in the organic industry, with total retail sales having increased by a factor of 46 between 1997 and 2007. With consumers willing to pay a substantial price premium, the potential to provide enhanced profits and stability for farmers makes organic production attractive. The organic provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill, such as funding under EQIP for transition payments, are increasing demand for education on organics substantially. Despite these positive signs, organic livestock production is nonetheless a challenging endeavor. An area for future study/outreach would be to provide information and education to farmers to assist them in the successful adoption or expansion of organic livestock operations.

An additional area in need of further work is to assist all organic farmers (of both crops and livestock) with educational support and assistance in business planning and management. Specifically, work should focus on farm business planning to mitigate risk related to financial needs and record keeping, legal issues, marketing opportunities, and farm insurance. Skillful production practices alone are not enough. They must be accompanied by equally knowledgeable and adept business management.

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.