Progress report for LNC17-397
Problem: Crop farmers who transition to certified organic grains report increased profitability, improved soil health, and improved quality of life through enhanced economic stability, key factors used to determine sustainability in agriculture. However, certified organic land accounts for less than 1% percent of the U.S. farmland, and even less in Indiana.
Approach/methods: We will survey and interview Indiana grain farmers (including conventional, those interested in organic certification, and those certified) to identify the most salient constraints and facilitators. Key informant interviews with organic grain buyers, such as processors, wholesalers, and distributors, will identify the marketing opportunities and bottlenecks for organic grain in Indiana. A farmer-to-farmer education and outreach component will include workshops with panels of experienced farmers, and farm visits focused on topics that have been identified as key challenges and strategies for sustainable grain operations. The construction of a farmer-buyer gap analysis will provide needed information on marketing outlets for the workshops and other outreach, to increase the viability of organic grain production in Indiana. Our methods will inform development of a farmer-to- farmer based education initiative that accounts for a range of systems and scales, and provides resource publications to be used across the state and region. In order to increase farmer participation, a farmer advisory board will be formed to guide both the research and outreach components of the project.
Outcomes: Indiana grain farmers will gain knowledge about new market opportunities and support programs for the transition period. New linkages forged between farmers, grain buyers, extension, and other education and certifying agencies, will support the adoption of enhanced sustainable agricultural practices.
Relevance: As the demand for organic grains continues to outpace supply, conversations with Indiana farmers highlight the importance of research and education on organic grain transition. Organic certification offers important economic opportunities for crop farmers in the North Central Region (NCR), as certified farmers tend to be more profitable due to price premiums. Wider adoption of organic practices would also contribute to the long- term sustainability of NCR agriculture by meeting current market demands using practices that increase soil and plant health, and protect waterways.
This project will foster new collaboration between farmers, grain buyers, extension educators, and farmer-based organizations. These collaborations will facilitate market access and create a supportive network to facilitate peer- to-peer education and information exchange among key actors in the organic grain industry. The research will generate knowledge of the constraints and opportunities for transitioning to certified organic grain production and will inform education and outreach activities that result in increased certification, improved organic product availability, and new market opportunities. Wider adoption of organic practices will enhance the environmental sustainability and economic viability of grain farms in Indiana.
As the demand for organic grains continues to outpace supply, conversations with Indiana farmers highlight the importance of research and education on organic grain transition. Organic certification offers important economic opportunities for crop farmers in the North Central Region (NCR), as certified farmers tend to be more profitable due to price premiums. Wider adoption of organic practices would also contribute to the long- term sustainability of NCR agriculture by meeting current market demands using practices that increase soil and plant health, and protect waterways.
- (Educator and Researcher)
The project approach includes three research phases. The use of mixed methods will allow each phase to inform the development of proceeding phase(s), as well as the collection of data that will allow for both breadth and depth to be derived from the results.
Phase 1 includes the surveying of conventional grain farmers, conventional grain farmers interested in organic transition, and certified organic grain farmers (all from Indiana), along with follow-up interviews with select respondents (year 1). Our primary research question asks what factors contribute and hinder farmers that are in transition from conventional grain production to certified organic grain production. To this end, we are embarking on a mixed-methods, interdisciplinary project that includes collecting survey and interview data from farmers and institutional grain buyers, as well as from farmers via an in-depth case study. We hypothesize that various individual and industry characteristics and contexts affect one’s interest and inclination to a) consider a transition to organic methods and production, and b) to actually adopt a new approach that contrasts with one’s current management style.
Phase 2 includes key informant interviews with organic grain buyers, wholesalers, processors, and distributors in the organic grain supply chain in the North Central Region of the US, obtained from directories of organic buyers (year 1). We collected information from buyers of organic and/or non-GMO grains. Data will be used to publish a research article that investigates grain buyers’ preferences for purchasing agreement, grain quality, as well as buyers’ perceptions on the organic grain industry. Data from Phase 2 was also used for a M.S. thesis in Agricultural Economics, where the data was analyzed and used to test the formal hypothesis, “Committed organic buyers will aim to build stronger relationships by offering more assistance to producers than pragmatic buyers in order to ensure the future success of the organic industry”. The goal is to categorize buyers and to find differentiating characteristics, preferences, or perceptions among buyers. Buyers purchasing organic grains (i.e. transitioning and certified) have different preferences than those purchasing organic and conventional grains.
Phase 3 is focused on a case study of Indiana organic grain farmers, which will provide us with the opportunity to deep-dive into the transition experiences of five farm operations and the farmers managing these operations. The case study will provide detail-rich, context-specific examples of the organic transition experience of a diverse set of farms, revealing significant differences in motivating factors, production and marketing strategies, and more. These experiences, shared through a publication and at an educational workshop or conference, will provide others with the opportunity to learn about the nuances of transitioning to organic and help others to avoid potential mistakes and identify successful strategies that may inform their decisions and strategies in transitioning acreage in their own operations.
Phase 1 included surveying a total of 383 conveniently selected Indiana farmers, including conventional only grain farmers (n=95) and farmers with some or all of their land certified organic (n=288). Additionally, we completed approximately 60 follow-up interviews with purposely-selected farmers from the survey respondent list.
The survey instrument included four distinct sections with a total of 31 questions. Section 1 focused on farm level and farm operator questions. Section 2 centered on a series of Likert scales directed at understanding motives, values, barriers, and facilitators. Section 3 entailed a modified population based survey experiment regarding various narratives associated with transitioning to organic systems. Finally, section 4 solicited demographic data from participants and inquired on their interest to participate in a follow-up telephone interview. In order to solicit data from the aforementioned types of farmers, we used three survey-data collection approaches. We solicited data from farmers attending the 2017 Indiana Farm Bureau’s annual meeting. Secondly, we solicited data from farmers transitioning acreage to certified organic via our contacts at OEFFA and Eco-Cert. Third, we solicited data from farmers who already have certified organic acreage by sending a paper questionnaire to all Indiana grain farmers listed in the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database. Finally, we solicited survey responses through attendance at Purdue Extension training sessions in hopes of capturing a larger sample of the conventional only farmers. A $5 cash incentive was used in soliciting data through all means, to significantly increase response rates.
Follow-up telephone interviews solicited data from 30 survey respondents. Interviewees were selected based on results from the survey in order to ensure equal representation of farmer types and a dual split between those interested and disinterested in organic transition and certification.
Phase 2 data for was collected in 2018 using a questionnaire composed of 69 questions that met Internal Review Board (IRB) requirements of exemption. The survey focused on information pertaining to grains purchased, types of purchasing agreements, purchases of imported or small/minor grains, sample, storage and transportation requirements, preferences of buyers, relationship formation and maintenance with producers, business demographics, and buyer perceptions of the organic grain market. The instrument was tested with several collaborators on this project that purchase organic and/or non-GMO grains and was adapted based on their recommendations.
A list of 255 unique operations was compiled by leveraging personal contacts and networking, as well as online searches and databases such as The Non-GMO Sourcebook, the USDA Organic Integrity Database and Mercaris. The survey was then offered to this group of organic and/or non-GMO grain buyers throughout the North Central Region of the US. Data collection began on May 22, 2018 and ended on November 15, 2018. Identification of applicable respondents and solicitation of responses was challenging, leading to a nearly six-month collection window. Of the 255 unique operations identified and contacted, responses were gathered from 45 operations. Respondents identified as business owners, managers, and/or executive board members for smaller operations and grain brokers, traders, and merchandisers for larger operations. Consequently, the response rate for this study was 18%, which is considered to be acceptable for a study of this design. A total of 45 surveys were completed with 21 surveys being completed via phone interview and the remaining 24 being completed online. All data was recorded and stored anonymously.
Data were collected using a mixed methodology approach, which included phone interviews and use of an online questionnaire. Potential respondents with connections to extension personnel were personally urged to participate. Initially, potential participants were contacted via phone, if a phone number was available, and emailed otherwise to schedule a 30- to 45-minute phone interview. Two weeks after initial contact was made, a follow-up communication via phone, email, or both (if possible) was made to schedule a time for a phone interview to those that did not previously respond. A third follow-up was sent to potential participants three weeks after the initial invitation. If no response was received one week after the second follow-up communication, an alternate contact within the same company was identified (if possible) and the communication process was repeated.
Phase 3 utilized a lengthy selection process to recruit and select case study participants. A protocol detailing the initial recruitment phase, selection process, consent, and case study project details (interviews, etc) was approved by Purdue IRB. An invitation explaining the case study project included a two-page pre-screening application that potential participants could submit if interested in being considered for the project. The pre-screening application provided us with information about the potential participant, including location, farm operation acreage and enterprises, transition plan, acreage, and crops, and why they are interested in participating in the project. This invitation was sent to farms that were known to be transitioning acreage, or planning a transition of acreage in Indiana. Based on the pool of pre-screening applications, five applicants were selected to participate in the project. The applicants were selected based on farming experience, scale, location, and transition plan to ensure a diverse range of participants in the project. This recruitment and selection process occurred during the summer 2018.
Initial farm visit interviews commenced in December 2018 and concluded in January 2021. One in depth farm visit interview was conducted following each growing season, typically during the off-season, to limit time burden on participating farmers during the growing season. Additionally, occasional phone calls and emails with participating farmers during other times of the year, including the growing season, kept lines of communication open and allowed for updates on each farms’ progress in the transition process and experience. In total, each case study farm participated in three in-depth interviews face-to-face or via Zoom (2021 due to COVID-19).
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Phase 1 concluded the survey and interview work. The following paragraphs detail pertinent results and findings from the survey and interviews. Additionally, we are beginning to consider practical implications as it pertains to various audiences.
During this phase, we surveyed Indiana grain farmers, seeking to learn about farmers’ perceptions of barriers and opportunities as it pertains to organic grain production. We distributed approximately 1,100 surveys and received 383 in return (95 conventional growers and 288 farming all or partially certified organic). Generally speaking, we found organic growers to be younger, more often male, attained less formal education, having more people living in the household, and grossing less farm income than their conventional counterparts. Based on these numbers and discussing the matter with other scholars, we believe that our organic sample is weighted towards members of Plain communities. Indiana likely has Amish that account for 90% of its organic row crop, grain farmers.
Regarding barriers, land tenure and ownership appeared quite significant as organic farmers more commonly owned a higher percentage of their land than did conventional growers. Additionally, conventional farmers seem to hold a different idea of what makes a “good farmer” when compared to organic growers, with items such as crops being planted first, using latest chemicals, equipment, and other technologies being more important when compared to organic growers. Alternatively, organic growers showed more of a concern for maintaining soil organic matter, using cover crops, and limiting pesticide usage than the conventional growers. There are also key differences in where farmers get information and what social groups influence their decisions. Organic growers are less likely to get information from traditional sources such as state departments of agriculture, county/state extension services, FSA, lenders, landlords, NRCS, crop consultants, etc., and more from non-traditional sources (non-profit organizations and organic certifiers). Family members and other farmers seem to equally inform both groups.
From the interviews, three main themes emerged. Farmers often spoke of the competition for farmland. One person stated, that “Yeah. It’s very competitive. Not a lot of land comes up for rent. Farmers are farming their own land longer than they ever used to and usually when ground comes up for rent, I would say about 50 percent of the time it goes privately to somebody who is related, or a good friend, or a neighbor and the other 50 percent of the time when there may be a number of farmers who have an opportunity to rent it, it is pretty competitive to pick up that land. You’ve got to be pretty aggressive.” Others discussed the relationship between landlords and being a renter, with one noting, “I’m to a point where I feel comfortable with the ground that I rent. I feel like I don’t have to worry about losing it. The folks that really don’t care how I take care of the soil, I’ve already lost that ground. I don’t have it, so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” A third important theme was variability in landlords. As one English farmer noted, “I think that’s the main reason they chose me to farm their farm. I’m one of the.. there’s a lot of Amish in that area that are organic and they have a one-bottom plows and five-acre farm fields. But to get somebody with technology and larger size equipment that can cover more ground- it’s kind of a limited market. So, they actually sought me out rather than, I didn’t have to go knocking on doors, they just found me.”
Phase 2 preliminary data suggests that 15 (33.3%) of the participating operations had more than $20,000,000 in gross sales, while 14 (31.1%) had gross sales between $500,000 and $5,000,000 for 2017. Twenty-two (48.9%) of the operations identified as a grain processor, 14 (31.1%) as a grain broker, and 13 (28.9%) as a feed mill. It is important to note that identification categories were not mutually exclusive. Buyers that stated their grains are related to the livestock industry predominantly cited poultry for egg production, followed by dairy.
Thirty-seven buyers (82.2%) stated they purchased organic grains in 2017 and 38 (84.4%) stated they purchased non-GMO, while only 19 (42.2%) purchased conventional grains as well. Predominant grains purchased, regardless of class, were corn, soybeans, and wheat. Food-grade grains were purchased more for all classes, except for conventional, where feed-grade grains were more significant. Seventeen (37.8%) of the buyers stated they experienced increased grain deliveries to their operation in the fall season. Organic purchasing agreements are dominated by a fixed quantity forward contract (39%), followed by spot or open market purchases (36%) and fixed acreage forward contracts (22%). Transitioning, non-GMO, and conventional purchasing agreements were led by spot or open market purchases for this population. Average length of organic contracts is 5.72 months, with 55.7% of the contracts drafted pre-planting. Organic grains suppliers received grain payment on average of 23.28 days after delivery, while non-GMO was 18.11 and conventional 15.83 days.
Participating operations identified expected market demand, expected domestic supply, and anticipation of future prices as the top 3 drivers behind organic price premiums. Transitioning grains were given non-GMO price premiums by most of the buyers (88%). Others offered organic premiums or no premiums for transitional grains. Thirty-nine percent of the buyers stated they had purchased imported organic grains, and 69.2% of this group stated that imported organic grains were cheaper, while 30.8% stated imported organic grain prices were the same as domestic prices.
Buyers require organic certification and a clean truck affidavit from grain suppliers. Buyers do not require crop insurance, but do prefer the supplier to deliver and clean the grains. Thirty-seven (82.2%) of the buyers offer pricing information to suppliers, 34 (75.6%) offer marketing information, and 24 (53.3%) offer agronomic assistance to grain suppliers. Buyers perceive the organic market as offering access to price premiums and new markets, and believe organic allows for product differentiation. Buyers also believe that the organic grain industry relies heavily on imports, and non-GMO grains are a step towards organic certification. The different buyer classification can be found in Figure 1 Figures SARE Organic Grains.
The first analysis in the present study is a comparison of different organic buyers. Previous literature suggests buyers that are more committed to the success of the organic grain industry will be more philosophically and environmentally driven than pragmatic organic buyers. Figure 1 illustrates the bifurcation strategy adopted from Darnhofer et al. (2005) that was used to create the categories between pragmatic and committed buyers. This work defines pragmatic conventional grain buyers as those that may have interest in purchasing organic grains, but refrain due to perceived barriers or an awareness of increased risk. The pragmatic conventional buyer may purchase non-GMO grains, but will not purchase organic grains. Pragmatic organic grain buyers are classified as those that purchase organic grains, but are mainly financially motivated. Pragmatic organic grain buyers purchase organic grains along with other classes of grains like non-GMO and/or conventional. Lastly, committed organic grain buyers are defined as those that purchase organic grains, but may also purchase non-GMO grains. Committed organic grain buyers are deeply invested in organic grain production and interested in the success of the organic grain industry, thus they may purchase non-GMO grains as a way of assisting producers during the transition to certified organic production as transitional grains can be marketed as non-GMO. Having more of a philosophical interest in the organic grain industry likely drives the committed organic buyer to ensure the growth and success of the industry. Committed buyers may do this by forging stronger relationships with grain suppliers than pragmatic buyers. Therefore, it is hypothesized that committed organic buyers will build stronger relationships by offering more assistance to producers than pragmatic buyers in order to ensure the future success of the organic industry. Additionally, it is hypothesized that the committed organic buyer will also require more documentation of organic practices than pragmatic buyers (i.e. truck affidavit) but will not require the producer to clean grains or pay for grain delivery. As committed organic buyers are invested in the growth and success of the organic grain market, they will likely be more concerned about organic integrity than pragmatic buyers. Providing documentation of proper organic and IP practices ensures that organic integrity is not compromised and does not hinder growth of the organic grain industry.
Committed buyers purchased a greater percentage of food-grade organic, transitioning and non-GMO grains, than pragmatic buyers (Figure 2). Results of committed organic buyers versus pragmatic buyers suggest no differences in most business demographics (P ≥ 0.11). The majority of both committed and pragmatic buyers (80%) experienced a shortage of domestic organic grains, aligning with current market trends. A larger proportion of pragmatic buyers (87%) in this comparison identify as sellers when compared to committed buyers (44%; P = 0.03). Sellers typically serve larger markets and purchase a greater diversity of grains. Therefore, pragmatic buyers having a greater proportion of sellers than committed buyers indicates that the bifurcation in the subsample of online respondents is leaning more towards the conventionalized market structure. Committed organic buyers are smaller in terms of gross sales (P = 0.03). Further, respondents also represent bifurcation in regards to pragmatic buyers being larger than committed buyers.
Committed buyers purchased a greater percentage of organic grains through contracts with fixed quantity, followed by spot market and contracts with fixed acreage. The amount of purchases from spot markets are higher for pragmatic buyers (Figure 3). Buyer perceptions of the organic grain market did not differ (P ≥ 0.31), with the exception of all committed organic buyers stating that customer demand for organic is increasing, while only 51% of pragmatic buyers reporting the same (P = 0.02). This may also add to the idea that the organic industry is going through a potential bifurcation. Findings suggest committed organic buyers offered more transitional support than pragmatic buyers.
The length of contracts among committed buyers lasted on average 7 months, while contracts for pragmatic buyers were shorter, averaging less than 4 months (Figure 4). Purchasing agreement characteristics did not differ among committed and pragmatic buyers (P ≥ 0.11), with one exception. Committed organic buyers did not require the supplier to pay delivery, while 27% of pragmatic buyers required delivery be paid by the supplier (P = 0.09). This could suggest increased support by committed organic buyers. The majority of both committed and pragmatic buyers (56%) purchase grains mostly with forward contracts which are methods used to secure an adequate supply. Lack of statistical differences in other purchasing agreements measurements suggest that committed organic and pragmatic buyers have similar contract requirements in terms of storing, handling and transporting grains among online questionnaire respondents. Therefore, producers working with committed or pragmatic buyers can expect similar requirements in contract terms. The top 3 most important factors determining price premiums for committed buyers are expected market demand, expected domestic supply, and anticipation of future prices. On the other hand, the top 3 most important factors determining price premiums for pragmatic buyers are expected market demand, anticipation of future prices, and quality of grain supplied (Figure 5).
Phase 3 data from the 2018-2020 growing season interviews includes notes typed by the researcher (Michael O’Donnell), audio recording files (mp3), and transcriptions of each audio file. These data have not been analyzed in detail. However, ahead of the second and third rounds of interviews, the previous interview notes were reviewed to provide context for the subsequent interviews, and to help identify areas of review and topics to be covered to build on the discussions. Themes have emerged showing similarities and unique differences between farms going through the transition process. These themes also show similarity to the Phase 1 farmer survey and phone interview results. Some of the interesting themes that are emerging are:
–Motivations for transitioning: Some farmers have expressed financial reasons as the primary (and even sole) reason for choosing to transition acreage to organic grain production. All farmers are motivated by the potential financial returns of organic production, but some have other motivating factors, including a desire to be rewarded by a market for adopting soil health practices; a desire to get off of the “input” treadmill and handling/use of synthetic pesticides in conventional farming; a desire to stop expanding farmed acreage and the potential for organic farming to permit this; the challenge of a different farming system.
–Transition cropping strategies: farms are using a diversity of approaches to transition acreage, most are using annual grain crops to varying levels of diversity, while others transition acreage with grazing or forage crops (hay). Farms also differ in attempting no-till or minimum tillage practices with transitional crops, particularly with soybean acres.
–Peer and community/network reaction to transitioning: Farmers experience different responses from their peers, family members, and other members of their networks to their decisions to transition acreage to organic production—supportive, neutral, intrigued, and hostile. And these farmers respond to those reactions and feedback in different ways. A couple of farms have lost leased/rented acreage from landowners who were concerned about having weeds on their farms or other potential misconceptions about organic production being an “extractive” farming practice. One farmer had a “delivery” of jugs of herbicide arrive at his home that is surrounded by a transitioning field of soybeans with some limited weed pressure, that he suspects was left by another farmer in the community who was expressing his concern or disdain for potentially weedy fields. Some farmers also described positive reactions and support from family and other members of their networks. One farmer avoids telling anyone in his network or community that they have acreage in transition (this farmer also happens to be one who is purely motivated by financial reasons for transitioning acreage), but has described interactions with folks who suspect they are transitioning acreage.
–Equipment and retooling: All farms have made financial investments to retool their operations in order to manage organic grain production, mainly in the area of tillage and cultivation and other weed management tactics. The level or pace of investments differs with some farmers making substantial investments in new equipment in order to be prepared with an arsenal of tools to manage weeds in different conditions. Several farmers come with strong no-till or minimal tillage systems on their conventional acreage, and have different feelings about bringing tillage and cultivation to their transitional/organic acreage, but all recognize that some level of soil disturbance relative to their conventional acreage is a necessity.
Data from the two rounds of interviews will be analyzed in detail to identify themes, common experiences, strategies, and challenges, and differences that emerge between farm operations and farmer experiences. The final round of interviews were be conducted in fall 2020 and winter 2021.
In 2021, the case study data will be fully analyzed to inform the development of an Extension publication and possible peer-reviewed journal article(s).
One of the case study farmers participated in educational/outreach programming, e.g., Andy Ambriole, BioSteward Farms, participated in the farmer panels of the Transition to Organic Grain Production Workshop on day one of the 2019 Indiana Organic Grain Farmer Meeting.
Phase 1: There appears to be three main themes that summarize our findings. First, large system dynamics are a critical consideration for the adoption of organic practices and pursuit of certification. Within such, the predominance of rented land and tight margins create short-term orientation that constrains long-term investments like organic certification. Additionally, the system lock-in aspects, which include large scale, low labor, and high inputs that collectively comprise and agricultural treadmill inhibit adoption. Second, social pressures abound in the data and are present as both barriers and facilitators to the decision. In both positive and negative directions, the influence of service providers, dominant values/mental models, social pressures (more so negative ones against organic), social networks (or lack thereof), and lack of peer models and mentors are significant variables. Third, market questions and concerns, including barriers to markets and uncertainty about markets and prices appear to limit shifts towards organics. Finally, demographics appear vital in the story of who is shifting to organics. Our data indicated that as farmers age the likelihood of transitioning to organic decreases. Additionally, members of Plain communities, predominantly Amish, are engaged in a style and scale of farming that best lends itself to organic production systems and certification.
Phase 1 Professional Implications
- Policies that incentivize and support larger-scale operators in organic transition and certification appear critical and are absent from the current conversation.
- Better options for higher prices during the transition period would help bridge the gap during the adjustment phase when yields might decrease slightly and organic price premiums are unavailable.
- Advisement for longer-term lease arrangements to ensure land commitments will remain intact as one invests time and other resources into the organic transition of rented ground.
- Partner programs to pair up farmers producing certified organic grains with those interested or in transition are critical.
- Tailored messaging towards farming legacy and stewarding Eden, protecting the earth and being good stewards of “God’s creation,” appears to strongly resonate with sub groups of Indiana farmers. Consider the best marketing approach and message that is being communicated.
- Indiana’s growth in organics has been in large part led by the state’s Amish producers, who are also a critical group for specialty crop production. We need to better understand the growing population and their role in Indiana’s agricultural system.
- Farmers appear to be converting for practical reasons, while many are still stymied by the dominant ideas behind what makes a good farmer.
- One key to developing the organic grain system will be getting non-farmer ag professionals on board while simultaneously developing critical infrastructure like organic grain elevators, etc.
Phase 2: Our results confirmed our hypotheses that committed organic buyers tend to support the sustainability of the organic grain industry. One way to support the long-term success of the organic industry is by prioritizing building long-term relationships with their grain suppliers. A bigger percentage of committed buyers perceive that flexibility on time of delivery or payment is an important factor to build and maintain those relationships, when compared to pragmatic buyers. Similarly, quality of grain sourced was placed as of higher importance among more committed buyers than their counterparts (P < 0.01). As relationships buyer-farmer have a higher importance for committed buyers, their perceptions regarding on how to build and maintain relationships with producers also differs from their pragmatic counterparts. Our findings suggest that committed buyers are more invested in the success of the organic grain industry, aligning with the committed organic producer classifications outlined”
As hypothesized, the integrity of the organic industry seems to be more important for committed than pragmatic buyers. Committed buyers placed more importance on requiring visits to their suppliers’ operations (P = 0.10), which may be an indication of their investment on the integrity of organic standards. Grain suppliers intending to contact or work with committed organic buyers should be willing to allow committed buyers visiting the farm.
The educational approach used in this project emphasized a farmer-focused peer-to-peer learning format. A transition to organic workshop and one regional farmer meeting were offered in year 3 (2020) of the project, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic placing restrictions on our in-person programming opportunities. This followed two years (2018-2019) of very successful education and networking programs as described below. A series of farmer meetings/field days were to be offered in spring and summer months of year 3 (2020) of the project, but were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In lieu of these in-person events in 2020, we developed a series of educational videos from the field or organic and transitional grain farms throughout the state of Indiana that are available for viewing as a playlist on the Purdue Extension YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtXSf1tu3Jd8e1ToNr8Gvxq32iiywiMIX. Videos of educational sessions from the 2019 and 2020 Indiana Organic Grain Farmer Meetings are also available through the Purdue Extension YouTube channel and archived on the Purdue Extension-Organic Agriculture website at https://www.purdue.edu/dffs/organicag/articles/. Finally, educational content related to organic grain transition and markets was added to the Purdue Extension-Organic Agriculture resource webpages at https://www.purdue.edu/dffs/organicag/transition-certification/ and https://www.purdue.edu/dffs/organicag/market/.
In winter 2020, Purdue Extension-Organic Agriculture hosted the Indiana Organic Agriculture Roundtable Series, a series of 4 regional meetings, to provide a forum for Indiana’s organic agriculture industry/community to provide input to Extension and the College of Agriculture on the needs and opportunities for growth and sustainability of the industry in the next 5-10 years. Although this needs assessment and industry networking forum was open broadly to all parts of the organic sector, a large contingent of attendees represented the grain farming sector. The qualitative data collected from the Roundtable Series was summarized in an extensive report that will guide organic agriculture programming efforts into the future, with an emphasis on transition and organic grain production.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We surveyed buyers of organic and conventional grains to understand their preferences regarding grain deliveries, purchasing agreements, and perceptions on the organic grain industry. We published an extension article and are currently drafting a journal publication.
Annual meetings with the advisory board members, composed of organic farmers and representatives of institutions and associations from the organic grain industry, has also offered us an opportunity to present preliminary findings from our research.
- 1 extension report was published on Phase 1 research, farmer survey, and is available at https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/HO/HO-312-W.pdf
- Three articles are in development from Phase 1 survey research:
Farmer, J., Bruce, A., Giroux, S., O’Donnell, M., and Benjamin, T. (in progress). Use of varying narratives to communicate organics with commodity grain farmers. Intended for Agriculture and Human Values.
Giroux, S., Bruce, A., Farmer, J., O’Donnell, M., and Benjamin, T. (in progress). Cultural models of the “good farmer” among Indiana grain farmers. Intended for Journal of Rural Studies.
Bruce, A., Giroux, S., Farmer, J., Sullivan, E., O’Donnell, M., and Benjamin, T. (in progress). Land tenure and transition to certified organic grain production in the US Midwest. Planned submission to Land Use Policy.
Bruce, A., Giroux, S., Farmer, J., Sullivan, E., O’Donnell, M., and Benjamin, T. (in progress). Untangling the complex barriers to organic certification for grain farmers in the US Midwest. Planned submission to Sustainability.
- Presentation: Farmer, J., Bruce, A., Giroux, S., Dickinson, S., and O’Donnell, M. (2019). Conventional to organic transition amongst Indiana grain farmers: A narrative approach to understanding farmer attitudes. 2019 Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society. Richmond, VA: August 7-August 10.
- Presentation: Bruce, A., Farmer, J., Giroux, St., and Dickinson, S. (2019). Land tenure and the transition to certified organic grain production in Indiana. 2019 Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society. Richmond, VA: August 7-August 10.
- Extension publication published: Lancaster, N., A.P. Torres, M. O’Donnell, T. Benjamin, A. Bruce, & J. Farmer. 2019. Is Organic Right for My Grain Operation? An Overview of the Corn, Soybean, and Wheat Markets. Purdue Cooperative Extension Publication
- Extension publication being drafted to be submitted in May 2021: Marques, J., A.P. Torres, J. Farmer, & L.H. Vilas de Boas. In Process.The types and preferences of organic grain buyers in the Midwest.Purdue Cooperative Extension Publication
- Torres, A.P., Lancaster, N.E., & Vilas de Boas, L.H. 2020. Characterizing Organic Grain Buyers in the Midwestern United States. Sustainability, 12(12):51-69.
- See education and outreach activities in the previous section of this report, above.
- Soil health in organic row crops and roller crimping
- Interseeding cover crops
- Organic seed corn production
- Manure application regulations and manure management in organic row crops
- Mechanical weed control in organic row crops
- Weed management in organic grains systems
- Value-added and food-grade production
- Organic transition and cropping systems
- Experience in organic crop rotations
- The basics of organic grain production
- Knowledge on organic transition strategies and considerations
- Information about organic grain markets
- Knowledge about organic crop budgets and financials of transition
- Information pertaining to certification to the National Organic Program
Indiana Organic Agriculture Roundtable Series:
A summary of the Roundtable Series meetings and outcomes is available at https://www.purdue.edu/dffs/organicag/roundtables/.
2020 Indiana Organic Grain Farmer Meeting:
The Purdue Extension-Organic Agriculture program planned and hosted the 2020 Indiana Organic Grain Farmer Meeting on February 19-20, 2020 at the Beck Agricultural Center at West Lafayette, Indiana. The annual event started as a small gathering of farmers in northwest Indiana in 2016 to gauge interest in organic grain farming, and has since grown to a two-day education and networking conference and trade show to bring together the growing organic grain farming community in Indiana and surrounding states. The program was promoted with a press release, emails, printed rack cards, and social media posts (with assistance from Purdue Agricultural Communications). Participants were able to attend one or both days of the conference.
On February 19, the Transition to Organic Grain Production Workshop was designed for farmers exploring or just starting a transition of acreage to certified organic grain production. It alternated between formal presentations on a range of topics and moderated panel discussions with four organic farmers with a range of farm sizes, enterprises, markets, and experience. The farmer panel discussions allowed attendees to learn directly from practitioners as they reflected on each of the following presentation topics:
•Certification and transition process,
•National Organic Program regulation,
•Organic and transitional crop budgets and markets,
•Basics of organic grain production, and
The first day concluded with an evening social to allow for additional networking time.
On February 20, attendees were offered a wider range of advanced and comprehensive production and marketing topics offered in both general and breakout sessions. A trade show allowed attendees to network with industry representatives from 30 organizations, including seed dealers, input suppliers, equipment reps, agronomists, certification agencies, and more. Topics covered on the second day included:
-diversified cropping systems;
-nitrogen cycling in cover crop and manure;
-large-scale organic transition and managing parallel production;
-organic grain commodity market update;
-organic no-till research update and farmer panel.
A total of 212 participants registered for the two-day event. Registrant information included gender, age, ethnicity, race, as well as role in agriculture, acreage farmed or advised, and type of acreage farmed or advised. Although there was not much diversity in gender, ethnicity, and race, there was a wide range of ages (about 40% between 18 and 39 years, 48% age 40 and older), roles (58% farmers, and 42% a variety of agricultural professionals), acreage size (12% under 250 acres, 35% from 251 to 2,000 acres, and 33% over 2,000 acres) and acreage types where respondents could choose multiple responses (54% transitioning acreage, 51% certified organic, and 49% conventional) represented.
DAY 1: TRANSITION TO ORGANIC GRAIN PRODUCTION WORKSHOP
There were 50 participants who completed the Day 1: Transition to Organic Grain Workshop survey either on paper (36 responses) at the end of the day on February 19th or online (14 responses) using a link that had been emailed.
Many participants agreed or strongly agreed their understanding of Day 1 topics increased. Ninety-percent or more of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their understanding improved for: 1) organic transition strategies and considerations (94%), 2) basics of organic grain production (92%), and 3) certification to the National Organic Program (NOP) (90%).
Most participants found Day 1 sessions useful. All participants (100%) rated as moderately or very useful: 1) Certification to NOP, by Seeley, and Transition Tools and Strategies by O’Donnell and Glazik. Around three-quarters of participants (77%) found Cultivating the Right Mindset for Successful Transition keynote by Klaas Martens of Lakeview Organic Farm, and farmer panel discussions (73%) as very useful.
When asked if they plan to apply any ideas learned during Day 1 to their farm operation or agricultural business/organization, 92% of those 47 responses indicated they would. Participants responded to a follow-up item about which ideas they would apply, and the most common items mentioned were cover crops, transitioning to organic, and crop rotations.
Participants (n=49) were asked if they planned to use information learned to develop or make changes to their organic transition plan or current organic/transition grain production, and 67% said yes. When participants responded with specific information they would use, most common responses were aspects of transition and financial considerations. Nearly 30% of respondents indicated this did not apply to their situation.
Participants were asked if they planned to share any relevant information they learned during Day 2 with other individuals. Nearly all participants (95.8%) indicated yes. Topics they would share included transition strategies, use of cover crops, and economic information about organic farming.
The calculated Net Promoter Score (NPS)® for Day 1 participants was +66 (on a scale from -100 to +100) and is considered an excellent rating*. When asked about the primary reason for their score:
1) “detractors” comments were not given,
2) “passives” comments were about a good, helpful meeting, and
3) “promoters” comments were about the excellent conference with a lot of relevant information
Participants attending Day 1 activities were asked if they would be interested in attending more educational programs covering the topics presented. Nearly all (98%) respondents were interested in future educational opportunities like those presented. When asked what topics they would like to learn more about, topics included getting and keeping certification and learning what products are allowed with organic farming.
Participants of Day 1 were given the opportunity to provide any additional comments. Most prominent themes were that the Day 1 was well executed, and participants were appreciative of the event:
“Each were excellent with great content & life experience. Like listening to actual organic producers
“I appreciate the farmer panel, farmer point of view. Klaas Martens is great!”
“Nice variety of speakers and experiences.”
DAY 2: INDIANA ORGANIC GRAIN FARMER MEETING
There were 85 surveys collected for Day 2: Indiana Organic Grain Farmer Meeting either on paper (56 responses) at the end of the day on February 20th or online using a link (29 responses) that had been emailed.
Many participants agreed that their understanding of the covered topics increased. Nearly all participants (93%) agreed or strongly agreed that their understanding improved for Cropping System Diversity and Crop Rotation. Nearly all Day 2 participants found the sessions moderately or very useful. The percent of participants who found individual sessions very useful ranged from 58% to 74%. Nearly three quarters of participants found these sessions very useful: Growing High-Yield Organic Corn by Fehr (74%), and Intentional Biodiversity and Whole-Farm Systems Thinking by Martens (73%).
When respondents (75) were asked if they plan to apply any ideas learned during Day 2 to their farm operation or agricultural business/organization, 96% indicated they would. Asked which ideas they would apply, most common responses included: cover crops, no-till, and crop rotations.
Participants were asked if they planned to use information they learned to develop or make changes to their organic transition plan or current organic/transition grain production. Of the 76 responses, 85% said they did plan to use information learned to develop or make changes. Cover crops and rotation were the most prominent themes. Some 14% indicated that this question about transition plans did not apply to their situation.
Participants were asked if they planned to share any relevant information they learned with others. Most participants (91%) indicated yes, they planned to share information learned at Day 2. The most prevalent response was they would share the use of cover crops.
The Net Promoter Score® (NPS®), as described in the Day 1 information presented earlier in this report, was also included in the Day 2 survey. The calculated NPS® for Day 2 participants was +72 (on a scale from -100 to +100) and is considered a “world-class” rating. When asked about the primary reason for their score:
1) “detractors” comments were not provided,
2) “passives” comments were about a good, informative meeting, but some presentations could be better organized, and
3) “promoters” comments included: the meeting was excellent and was a good opportunity to grow network.
Participants attending the Day 2 were asked if they would be interested in attending more educational programs covering organic production topics. Nearly all (97%) respondents were interested in future educational opportunities.
Participants of Day 2 were given the opportunity to provide any additional comments about the sessions or presenters. Most prominent themes were that the event was well done, much appreciated, and that Klaas Marten’s sessions were enjoyed and valued.
On the Day 2 survey, participants were asked if they had attended the meeting in the previous year. Of 79 respondents, 38% (30) had attended in 2019. These returning participants were asked to name something they are doing differently on their farm/operation as a result of attending last year. Two common themes were: cover crops, and roller crimping for beans. Those who attended last year were also asked what benefit they realized for themselves and/or their farm/operation. Common themes were better understanding, confidence and ideas, and connections, contacts and networks.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATIONS
Results of the 2020 Indiana Organic Grain Farmers meeting surveys of participants show that:
•Over 200 people interested in organic production attended the two-day meeting and felt the event was educational and useful, and they appreciated taking part. Many have had interactions with Purdue Extension personnel.
•Day 1 participants increased their understand of organic transition and certification. They plan to apply what they learned, especially transition plans and financial information. They will share what they learned about transition strategies, use of cover crops, and economic information with others.
•Day 2 participants increased their understand of organic production including cropping systems diversity and crop rotation, organic no-till, and nutrient management. They found information presented very useful, including growing high-yield corn, and intentional biodiversity and whole-farm system thinking. They appreciated the panel of farmers discussing organic no-till. Most of them plan to apply what they learned to their farm/operation, and to their transition or current organic production plan. Most plan to share what they learned with others, especially the cover crop information.
•Returning attendees from the 2019 Meeting, are doing things differently as a result of what they learned, including cover crops and roller crimpling. As a result of attending last year, participants have benefited by building confidence, understanding and ideas about organic production; and have connected with other farmers, made more contacts, and built a network of others in organic agriculture.
•For this Two-Day Meeting, based on the Net Promoter Scores® of +66 and +72, (considered excellent and world class) participants were very satisfied, had great experiences, could be considered loyal attendees to the event, and if given the opportunity would speak highly of it to others.
As a result, it is recommended that Purdue Extension and those involved in the planning of the Indiana Organic Grain Farmer Meeting, continue to provide sessions featuring organic production, certification, planning and strategies.
As presentations by Purdue Extension, and by featured, established organic farmers who shared what worked and experiences that didn’t work were valued by participants, it is recommended that Purdue Extension continue to focus on these practical, useful, applicable, and relatable kinds of organic production presentations.
Many attendees had connections with Purdue Extension. It is recommended that Michael O’Donnell communicate, share, and train as appropriate these Purdue Extension colleagues in organic production to strengthen the professional development and skill among Purdue Extension for enhancing connections with organic producers.
As participants were very satisfied with the meeting and plan to share what they learned, and there are returning attendees to this annual event, it is recommended that Purdue Extension share marketing and recruitment efforts for the 2021 meeting and other relevant organic programming and events with attendees and encourage them to share that information with others.
Finally, it is recommended that Purdue Extension continue to build, support, and encourage connections and networking among those interested in organic production across Indiana and beyond.
* The Net Promoter Score® (NPS®) is a measure of customer loyalty that helps inform decision-makers of the experiences they are providing. Loyal, passionate customers engage more, are willing to pay more, contribute suggestions, and share praise of the organization to friends and colleagues. Understanding word-of-mouth as most effective for referral and recruitment for Extension, it is easy to see NPS® is an important metric. When asked how likely they would be to recommend a program to a friend or colleague, participants respond using a scale from zero (not at all likely) to ten (extremely likely). Participants selecting zero to six are considered “detractors” (critics or unhappy customers), those selecting seven and eight are considered “passives” (satisfied but unenthusiastic), and those selecting nine and ten are considered “promoters” (loyal enthusiasts).
NPS® is determined by subtracting the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters and can range from -100 to 100. A positive score is considered a good rating. The larger the positive number, the stronger the level of customer loyalty. Global NPS® standards set any positive score as good, with 50 to 70 being “excellent” and scores greater than 70 as “world-class.” Customer Guru reports the average 2020 NPS® of 19 international education organizations is 52.3. Fred Reichheld, co-creator of NPS®, cautions about using NPS® as a standalone measure of loyalty. Follow-up questions about reasons for a high or low score are vital to understanding in which areas an organization is excelling or where opportunities exist for improvement. Using NPS® to make data-informed decisions that reinforce positives and minimize or resolve issues is important for successful participant engagement.
2019 Indiana Organic Grain Farmer Meeting:
Interest in the two-day conference exceeded expectations with over 90 attendees on March 6 and 180 on March 7, with over 200 unique participants over two days. Demographic information was collected from attendees through the online registration process. The majority of attendees (78%) are from Indiana, but some traveled from Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Approximately 57% indicated that they are farmers, with the remainder being a mix of agricultural professionals, extension and conservation agency staff, and certification agency staff. Eighty-one percent are male, 98% non-Hispanic, and 96% white. Approximately 58% are under the age of 50, and 43% under 40– a fairly young demographic for Indiana where the average age of farmers (principal producers) is nearly 57 years old (USDA, 2017 Ag Census).
On March 6, for the Transition to Organic Grain Production Workshop, 53 attendees completed the post-program evaluation (N=53), for a response rate of 59%. Respondents indicated that they improved their understanding of the following topics as a result of attending the program:
-certification to the National Organic Program (89% agree or strongly agree);
-organic crop budgets and financials of transition (77%);
-organic grain markets (77%);
-organic transition strategies and considerations (98%);
-basics of organic grain production (88%).
Ninety-six percent of respondents plan to apply ideas learned during the workshop to their farm operation or agricultural business/organization, including information on cover crops, crop rotations, financial planning, and transition cropping strategies. Of those indicating that they operate a farm, 97% plan to use the information learned during the workshop to develop or make changes to their farm’s organic transition plan or current organic production, including recordkeeping techniques, market opportunities, and cropping system strategies. In addition, 92% plan to share information learned during the workshop with other individuals, such as farmers, colleagues, and peers. When asked how likely it is they would recommend the workshop to a colleague or fellow farmer, respondents’ averaged 8.8 on a scale of 0 (not likely) to 10 (very likely).
Forty-one percent of respondents have interacted with a Purdue Extension educator or specialist over the past 6 months. Ninety-eight percent of respondents indicated that they are interested in attending more educational and networking programs on organic agriculture.
On March 7, 68 attendees completed the post-program evaluation (N=68), for a response rate of 38%.
Respondents indicated that they improved their understanding of the following topics as a result of attending the program:
-organic crop rotations (97% agree or strongly agree);
-organic grain markets (81%);
-value-added and food-grade production (87%);
-weed management (91%);
When asked to rate the usefulness of different sessions and activities, 91% of respondents found the break times to visit with trade show exhibitors to be moderately to very useful.
Ninety-nine percent of respondents plan to apply ideas learned during the program to their farm operation or agricultural business/organization, including information on crop rotations, weed management, and adding small grains to their cropping systems. Of those indicating that they operate a farm, 94% plan to use the information learned during the program to develop or make changes to their farm’s organic transition plan or current organic production. One respondent stated: “Most of it – unbelievably valuable – Purdue Extension at its best!” In addition, 96% plan to share information learned during the program with other individuals, such as farmers, colleagues, and peers. Another respondent stated: “Everything. I think a course like this should be required to become certified organic, so many farmers are doing it way wrong.” When asked how likely it is they would recommend the program to a colleague or fellow farmer, respondents’ averaged 9.5 on a scale of 0 (not likely) to 10 (very likely), indicating that they are very likely to recommend the program to others.
Sixty percent of respondents have interacted with a Purdue Extension educator or specialist over the past 6 months. Ninety-seven percent of respondents indicated that they are interested in attending more educational and networking programs on organic agriculture.
Respondents from both days provided additional written comments about the program:
“Really great gathering of experts to illustrate organic grain growing.”
“Excellent information, resources, speakers and food. One of the best informational sessions I’ve attended.”
“Well done! Have talked to 3 others today (Monday) who agreed it was a good format and time well spent. ‘One of the best’ was the comments. I agree. Hats off to O’Donnell and Perkins – you are elected IN Organic Champions”
“As an exhibitor I was well pleased with the whole program, top to bottom. I believe the speakers and content was outstanding.”
“Great job – we have a lot of work to do. More research in Indiana on these systems. More market information.”
“Thank you for arranging this program. I learned so much and have more confidence to just get started. Getting in touch (face to face) with vendors was so valuable.”
“Purdue should have more organic events and research. As an Agronomy alum I’m sad to say I’ve learned more since I graduated three years ago.”
“[G]lad to see youth in the room”
“Please hold again next year!”
“Great workshop – hopefully in the future there will be demand for a whole day workshop on each of these topics (nutrient mgmt., weed mgmt., rotations, etc.)”
“Very nice schedule. Nice breaks and great food. Great resources with each vender. The speakers were funny and informative. Overall a great learning experience.”
“You all made a difference in me getting started in my venture. I needed supply contacts. I got all I need I think. The vendors all seemed very credible and helpful.”