Facilitating Change: Reducing the Risks of Transitioning to Organic through a Comprehensive Farmer-and Extension-Based Training Program

Final Report for LNC08-291

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $144,543.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Kathleen Delate
Iowa State University
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Project Information


Making the transition from conventional to organic farming requires a skill set that is often not taught at land-grant universities. This project was established to support farmers and agricultural professionals in obtaining hands-on instruction for learning organic certification rules and practices to aid the transition. Thirteen courses and trainings in organic agriculture, to a total of 501 Extension, NRCS, producers and students, were supported from 2010 to 2012 by this USDA-SARE-NCR grant project. Evaluations from courses and trainings showed a very good to excellent rating from 82% of attendees and extensive knowledge gain (average of 80% reported increase in knowledge). In 2012, a 16-week course on Organic Agriculture was held from January to May 2012 for 34 attendees and an intensive Field Day/workshop emphasizing organic vegetable production practices was held on July 23 for 66 participants. Barriers to organic transition identified through these trainings include the need for greater availability for cost-share programs and additional training from Extension and land-grant universities.


Since 1996, the U.S. organic industry has grown from a $4 to $31 billion industry in 2011, and Iowa has experienced a five-fold increase in organic acreage during the same period. Iowa was listed by the USDA-Economic Research Service (ERS) as having the tenth largest number of organic farms in the U.S. in 2008. Technical assistance to expand the productivity and scope of organic and alternative horticultural/agronomic operations has assisted in Iowa’s ranking as one of the most productive organic states in the country. USDA-NASS (2011) cited Iowa as producing the largest amount of organic soybeans, oats and hogs in the country, and Number 2 in organic corn bushels. Organic agriculture was a comparatively new industry in the U.S. and in Iowa in 1996, so methods to support organic producers, processors and marketers in their educational training needs has been a cornerstone of the Iowa State University Organic Ag Program. A USDA-SARE-NCR project was established in 2009 to support specific “transitioning to organic training.”

Project Objectives:

(1) Determine perceived organic production adoption barriers; (2) Develop a responsive web-based (Adobe Connect™) and face-to-face Extension-led training program; (3) Train and support interested producers, private and public agriculture professionals and organic farmer-mentors in the Iowa Organic Association, in maintaining good organic farming practices and prudent production, marketing, financial and risk mitigation strategies; and (4) Evaluate the training through surveys and personal interviews with participating audiences.


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  • Dr. Craig Chase


Materials and methods:

Several courses and trainings in organic agriculture in Iowa for Extension, NRCS, producers, and students were supported from 2010 to 2012 by this USDA-SARE-NCR grant project. Each project in 2012 is discussed separately in chronological order in the next section.

Research results and discussion:

“Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” 16-Week Iowa State University Course
A sixteen-week course on “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” was developed and offered from January 10 to May 24, 2012, at Iowa State University. The course was open to Extension staff, NRCS, producers and students. Anyone wanting to take the class for credit could sign up for HORT/AGRON/SUSTAG 484/584, “Organic Agriculture: Theory & Practice” (3 credits), and take the class as a Pass-No Pass or fully graded course. In 2012, 34 students registered, with 10 on-line students/producers from as far away as Missouri. The organic class was picked up by iTunes and is available internationally through the internet (one student from Spain documented the value of the course). The course was co-taught by K. Delate and C. Chase (Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture). The course was shown as an Adobe Connect™ session, broadcast each week on the internet, and archived for later viewing (class session list in Table 1). Thus, attendees could view from home computers or attend class on campus to interact with others in the class. Guest lecturers included organic farmers who presented personal experiences related to production and marketing, including price structures. Details on NRCS cost-share programs pertinent to organic producers were presented by NRCS staff. Participants taking the course for credit were given five homework assignments, which addressed current topics in organic agriculture, such as the impact of high corn prices for ethanol on numbers of transitioning farmers. A term paper, midterm- and final-exam were also required for participants signed up for University credits. Participants were asked to submit questions at the end of every class period, which were then for answered outside of class and uploaded as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the ISU Organic Ag webpage.

Because the course included participants with diverse experiences, the initial questions determined baseline characteristics of each attendee. These questions were structured to provide an understanding of the range and nature of organic agricultural knowledge at the initiation of the course. The balance of the evaluation was to determine gains in organic knowledge resulting from participating in the course and methods that could be altered to improve the course. Analysis of the course evaluations revealed that at the start of the class only 8% of responding participants felt they had a solid grasp of organic agricultural production. By the end of the course, 90% of the participants felt they had an excellent understanding of organic crop and animal production. Suggestions for dividing the course into Beginning– and Advanced–Organic Agriculture were supported by the majority of the participants. Participants rated presentations by organic farmers as an important component of the course. Several participants expressed interest in organic farming as a career. Barriers to organic transition identified through these trainings include the need for greater availability for cost-share programs and additional training from Extension and land-grant universities.

Horticultural Crops Field Day and Workshop
Sixty-six producers, Extension staff and educators participated in an all-day Field Day and Workshop at the ISU Horticulture Farm in Gilbert, Iowa, on July 23, 2012. Efforts for these programs included preparation and presentation of research demonstration plots showing the transition from conventional to organic vegetable production in the Organic Transition (ORG) experiment. In the three years of the ORG, yields of organic vegetables have been equivalent to or greater than their conventional counterparts. In addition to excellent yields, results from the ORG experiment demonstrated that overall soil quality was highest in the organic crop rotations that include cover crops of hairy vetch/rye. Soils in all organic plots received only cover crops and manure-based amendments. The results suggest that organic farming can foster greater efficiency in nutrient use and higher potential for sequestrating carbon. In addition to the ORG experiment, participants received instruction on nutrient management through cover crops and compost, and the importance of maintaining soil biological health. Local farmers presented information on marketing local produce and the increasing interest in Local Foods. Workshop participants listed their key horticultural research needs which included more information on organic practices and cover crops.

Research conclusions:

Outcomes of this NCR-SARE project over three years included the following:
-Intensive hands-on training in thirteen “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” sessions for 501 producers, Extension and NRCS staff, and students in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri
-Increase in ‘knowledge gained on organic practices’ by an average of 80% of surveyed participants in evaluated sessions
-Use of mobile nitrogen sources and toxic pesticides reduced by those making the transition to organic agriculture by utilizing instead cover crops and compost
-Income increase from organic premium prices with those making the transition to organic agriculture, averaging $200/acre, from organic corn and soybean crops
- 28% more tons CO2 equivalents acre-1 yr-1 sequestered when producers transition to organic production compared to conventional no-tillage production

Economic Analysis

Though not part of the training sessions, economic analysis of organic crops has been a part of the Organic Ag Program, and all economic results have been transferred through trainings. From our research, the increase with those making the transition to organic agriculture has averaged $200/acre, from organic corn and soybean crops.

Farmer Adoption

Though not a specific objective of this project, from surveys conducted in the ISU Organic Ag Program, we can cite an increase in organic production in Iowa (from less than 29,000 acres in 1996 to 106,000 acres in 2011) and greater interest in attending ISU organic trainings (a 22% increase in attendance at the Iowa Organic Conference from 2011 to 2012).

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Delate, K., C. Cambardella, C. Chase, A. Johanns, and R. Turnbull. 2012. The Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) experiment supports organic yields, soil quality, and economic performance in Iowa. Crop Management. Accepted 9/13/12.
Delate, K., D. Cwach, and C. Chase. 2011. Organic no–till system effects on soybean, corn and irrigated tomato production and economic performance in Iowa, USA. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 27(1):49–59. doi: 10.1017/S1742170511000524.
Singerman, A., K. Delate, C. Chase, C. Greene, M. Livingston, S. Lence and C. Hart. 2011. Profitability of organic and conventional soybean production under ‘green payments’ in carbon offset programs. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems doi:10/1017/S1742170511000408.
Wiltshire, K., K. Delate, M. Wiedenhoeft, and J. Flora. 2010. Incorporating native plants into multifunctional prairie-pastures for organic cow-calf operations. Renewable Ag. & Food Systems. Published on-line 25 Sept. 2010: doi:10.1017/S174217051000044X.
Wiltshire, K., K. Delate, J. Flora, and M. Wiedenhoeft. 2010. Sociocultural aspects of cow-calf persistence in a peri-urban county in Iowa. Renewable Ag. & Food Systems. Published on-line 10 December 2010. doi:10.1017/S1742170510000505.
Romero, F., K. Delate, D. Hannapel, P. Murphy, and L. Liu. Horticultural and biochemical variations due to seed source and production methods in three Echinacea species. Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants 16:167–192. DOI:10.1080/10496475.2010.511072.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Barriers to organic transition identified through these trainings include the need for greater availability for cost-share programs and additional training from Extension and land-grant universities.

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.