Advancing Sustainable Potato Production in the Northwest

Final Report for SW97-074

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $35,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $7,071.00
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Karen Murphy
The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides
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Project Information

Abstract:

Over 100 farmers and at least another 1,000 farmers and farm community members were educated about the benefits of sustainable agriculture practices in potato production in this SARE project. Through a combination of educational activities — including farm tours, farmer meetings, newsletters, presentations, and outreach to the press — farmers and farm communities in primarily Idaho but also other parts of the Northwest learned about the benefits of compost and green manures for building healthy soils and breaking up weed, pest, and disease cycles in potato cropping systems.

This project generated stories in such agriculture papers such as the Capital Press, Magic Valley Ag Weekly, Intermountain Farm and Ranch, Farm Times, Acres, and the Idaho Farmer-Stockman. The Capital Press and the Idaho Farmer- Stockman are regional papers encompassing multiple states, Acres is a national alternative farming publication and the other papers are local agricultural papers. The combined circulation of the local agricultural papers alone is probably close to 20,000-30,000.

An exciting new publication profiling farmers that use sustainable production practices in potatoes was developed out of this project. The Farmer Exchange is a short, easy-to-read newsletter for farmers and others interested in learning what their neighbor farmers are doing. With the help of another SARE project, the first issue was circulated to over 2,500 people across the Northwest. One farmer called us up after reading it and said it was the best thing he’d ever read. The newsletter is just one part of a larger effort to expand communication between farmers about the practices they are trying on their farms.

As a result of this project, between 10 and 15 farmers in south central and eastern Idaho are exploring the use of green manures or other alternative practices on their farms. The project also formed a network of farmers in eastern Idaho that will begin meeting in the fall of 1999 to share information and ideas about sustainable production practices and marketing. In addition, the Shoshone Bannock Tribes (probably the largest potato ground owner in Idaho, leasing out some 140,000 acres for the production of potatoes and wheat) is developing a long-term research and demonstration project on 154 acres to explore the use of green manures and different rotation crops to reduce groundwater contamination and chemical inputs on reservation lease land. This project could have significant long term impacts on potato production in eastern Idaho.

NOTE: This project was specifically an educational outreach project — not a research project — that was intended to take existing research information and inform farmers and the public about it. Consequently some portions of the outline are duplicative. To avoid this we have combined the report sections entitled “Specific Results” and “Dissemination of Findings.”

Project Objectives:

1. Through workshops, farm tours, educational materials, and the media, the project will reach 100 potato farmers with direct, hands-on learning experiences about sustainable potato production, and at least another 1,000 farmers and other interested individuals will read or hear about these practices through other avenues.

2. The project will build one network of potato farmers.

3. Through farm tours and educational materials the project will reach 30 agricultural lenders and educate them about the benefits of sustainable agriculture.

4. The project will work with Kettle Foods, a major Northwest food processor, to build a model processor support program for their conventional and organic potato farmers.

5. The project will actively disseminate existing information, production manuals, and other appropriate information on sustainable practices.

Research

Research results and discussion:
Specific Results to Date/Dissemination of Findings

Objective 1: Through workshops, farm tours, educational materials, and the media, the project will reach 100 potato farmers with direct, hands- on learning experiences about sustainable potato production, and at least another 1,000 farmers and other interested individuals will read or hear about these practices through other avenues.
Through a combination of educational activities including farm tours, farmer meetings, newsletters, public presentations, and outreach to the press — we feel we have accomplished our objective to reach 100 farmers directly and 1,000 farmers and other farm community members indirectly with information about sustainable potato production practices.

Farm Tours / Farmer Meetings / 0ther Events
The project sponsored four farm tours and one farmer meeting, which were positively received. (At one of our tours, two dried bean brokers told the farmer sponsoring the tour that “his tour had convinced them” about the benefits of sustainable farming practices.) The themes of the farm tours were: a) increasing soil fertility and plant vigor through the use of compost and b) using green manures to control soil-borne disease and pests in potatoes. The farmer meeting featured three farmers who talked about alternative cropping systems that they use on their farms. Roughly 40 farmers, farm consultants, or farm managers and over 110 people total attended these five events. Responses on the evaluations were uniformly positive and, even despite bitterly cold weather on one tour, the farmers rated the tour excellent and good.

In addition to the farm tours, NCAP staff addressed roughly 200 farmers and farm consultants at the annual leaseholders meeting sponsored by the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. NCAP’s annual meeting — attended by roughly 150 people — also featured two panels on agriculture and potato production in the Northwest. Staff made presentations at a regional water quality meeting sponsored by government agencies and attended by over 100 people. The project has also been discussed at the annual meeting and other meetings of the Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

We have also developed a mailing list that includes over 1,300 names of primarily farmers. We use this list to mail out notices of our farm tours and other educational events. We have also tried to disseminate information through other organizations that have cosponsored our farm tours and workshops, such as the Idaho Rural Council and Three Rivers RC&D. This means that for each of these events we probably send out between 1,200 and 1,800 announcements. Over time, participation in our educational events has increased. This could in part because people on the list have been receiving mailings about these events four or five times a year for the past two years. Of course there are other factors involved too.

Newsletter / 0ther Educational Material Development and Distribution
The project developed two issues of the The Farmer Exchange. The first newsletter was distributed to over 2,500 people across the Northwest. Thanks to another SARE project the first issue of The Farmer Exchange was reprinted and inserted in an educational packet developed for a Northwest regional compost education project being jointly sponsored by Washington State University, Oregon State University, and the University of Idaho. The second newsletter was distributed to over 1,000 people. Our original goal was to distribute only 400 copies of each newsletter, so this is a significant expansion in our outreach work. The response from farmers has been positive. When asked what information was useful at one of our workshops, one farmer responded that he wanted more publications like The Farmer Exchange. Another farmer called us after receiving the newsletter in the compost information packet and said it was the best thing he had ever read.

Media Work
The project generated a number of stories — often on the front page — about sustainable farming practices in key regional and local agriculture publications in the Northwest. Print media covered our activities at least 20 times; radio stations aired our Public Service Announcements multiple times, and we have had some expanded radio coverage. The bulk of the stories have been printed in agriculture papers such as the Capital Press, Magic Valley Ag Weekly, Intermountain Farm and Ranch, Farm Times, Acres, and the Idaho Farmer-Stockman. The Capital Press and the Idaho Farmer-Stockman are regional papers encompassing multiple states, Acres is a national alternative farming publication, and the other papers are local agricultural papers. The combined circulation of these agricultural papers alone is probably close to 20,000 30,000.

Objective 2: The project will build one network of potato farmers.
We have organized a group of farmers that want to participate in a network to discuss production and marketing issues. It is still too early in the formation of this network to make long-term predictions about its success.

In March of 1999 we sponsored a workshop in Aberdeen, Idaho, out of which a number of farmers became interested in forming a network to discuss production and marketing issues. We recruited additional farmers and conducted a number of followup calls to figure out when we should hold the first meeting and how to structure the discussion. The farmers wanted to begin meeting in late fall after harvest and meet monthly after that. The first meeting will be held in December.

Objective 3: Through farm tours and educational materials the project will reach 30 agricultural lenders and educate them about the benefits of sustainable agriculture.
This part of this project has been more difficult for us to complete to our satisfaction. We have developed an introductory packet for loan officers. It consists of a series of fact sheets that lay out the principles and background of sustainable agriculture and how it applies to potato production. The development of these fact sheets took more time and resources than we anticipated and consequently we have not embarked on the outreach portion of this objective. However, because we received additional funding from SARE for a second year of educational work we intend to undertake our outreach efforts over the next six months. We have made connections with at least one loan officer who is interested in working with us to promote sustainable agriculture amongst his peers. We are very excited about this opportunity.

Objective 4: The project will work with Kettle Foods, a major Northwest food processor, to build a model processor support program for their conventional and organic potato farmers.
This fall we completed our report on processor incentive programs aimed at assisting growers in reducing their chemicals inputs and employing more sustainable production practices. We shared this report with Kettle Foods and initiated a discussion with them about sustainable agriculture incentive programs they could develop. They are enthusiastic about working with us. Tentatively, we are planning to: a) meet to discuss goals for such an incentive program and b) organize a meeting of all Kettle Foods growers to talk about the goals and the kinds of incentive programs that growers would be interested in participating in. We are still in the early discussion stages with Kettle Foods. However, we think this could be a very interesting process.

Objective 5:
We continue to produce and distribute information on sustainable agriculture. We developed extensive information packets for all the farm tours, which included copies of research findings from the University of Idaho and Oregon State University, as well information about SARE and the Farmer/Rancher grant program. Our winter ’97 issue of the Journal of Pesticide Reform focused on pesticide use in potatoes and was distributed to our mailing list of approximately 2,000 people. This article was also reprinted by Acres, a national alternative farming magazine. We also put together a series of materials on sustainable potato production. for distribution at the agriculture show held in Boise, Idaho, in January 1998.

Research conclusions:

This project focused on educating farmers and others about the benefits of using green manures, compost, and crop rotations. It is difficult to quantify the outcomes, but we will give a few examples of the short- and long-term potential.

First, out of our cooperative efforts with the Shoshone Bannock Tribes in eastern Idaho, the Tribal Business Council passed a resolution setting up a 154-acre long-term demonstration project on the reservation to look at cropping systems that will reduce chemical use and contamination on reservation lands. This project is significant for several reasons. In any given year the Tribes could manage 1/8 of all acreage in potatoes in Idaho — this is a significant agricultural landscape. Farmers that farm reservation land also frequently farm land off the reservation, so changes in rotation practices made on the reservation may also extend to land off the reservation. There are some 140-200 farmers that farm reservation land. This is a significant number of people that will be affected by this project. And, changing practices on the reservation could have long-term positive benefits for tribal lands and resources and the health of tribal people. Beyond these issues, the Tribes are faced with difficult choices about how they will manage their land in the future. This project will provide information critical to that decision-making process.

Second, Kettle Foods is interested in supporting their conventional farmers in efforts to explore more sustainable production practices. While Kettle Foods is not Simplot or OreIda, it is growing and its influence could extend to a range of natural foods companies. In addition, Kettle brings a new group of farmers into this conversation that we have not been in contact with before.

Third, while it is still early, we think that the farmer network holds a lot of promise for increasing the use of sustainable practices and expanding outreach to other farmers in eastern Idaho. There are very few farmers in eastern Idaho that are using sustainable practices. The network will provide support to those farmers that are and diminish any isolation.

And finally, over the last three years we have seen more and more farmers — both conventional and organic — attending our tours and workshops. There are a lot of reasons for this, the farm crisis probably being the major one, but it is a strong indication that farmers are looking for new solutions. In all our evaluations, farmers always state that they want more workshops, farm tours, and conferences on sustainable agriculture. With SARE support this project has offered farmers a set of solutions that they can consider and has helped them establish new relationships with other farmers that may have some ideas.

Participation Summary

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

We are aware of between 10 and 15 farmers in south-central and eastern Idaho that are exploring the use of green manures or other alternative practices on multiple acres of their farms as a full or partial result of this project. If these projects are successful, we assume that the farmers will expand these alternative practices to encompass more acreage. These farmers are well known and respected in their communities.

As mentioned earlier the Shoshone Bannock Tribes have set up a 154-acre sustainable agriculture demonstration site that could have long-term implications for eastern Idaho potato production.

At least one farmer that we worked with to get a SARE Farmer/Rancher grant has a new-found interest and desire to explore further research and demonstration projects on his farm. He put his heart and soul into this demonstration project and, even though the results did not turn out as we had expected, the fact that he conducted the research on his farm was, we believe, an empowering experience for him. That’s exciting to see.

Reactions from Farmers and Ranchers

The reaction from farmers that we work with on an ongoing basis and Tribal representatives has been positive. We’ve gone back through our evaluations to see if we could find any good quotes but most of them relate to what people want to see in future workshops or tours. The numerical rankings for the tours and workshops were uniformly high. In our annual report for contract #SW98-031 (to continue this education work) we have more specific comments.

Just recently we have received a number of thanks from farmers for doing this work and sticking with it. Many farmers in the beginning told us that potato production was a “tough nut to crack” and that they were glad we were “hanging in there.” As an environmental organization, we obviously have a few trust hurdles to overcome with farmers, but we feel that our work has been well received by farmers and the press. This past year we hired Jeff Rast, a former extension agent who lives in Idaho, to work on this project. Jeff has been a real asset to this project because he lives in Idaho, but, most importantly, he is well respected and brings with him a number of existing relationships with farmers.

On a separate note we have been treated very fairly by the agricultural press in Idaho. There is a tendency in the farm press to lump sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture together. We believe that this approach can be negative for sustainable agriculture. However, in Idaho the agriculture reporters have, for the most part, not characterized sustainable agriculture as being only organic agriculture. Thus conventional farmers are not being continually told that they have to be organic in order to be sustainable.

Producer Involvement

We had roughly eleven farmers involved in this project on an ongoing basis (not including farmers in the network). Three farmers were involved in reviewing each issue of our newsletter, The Farmer Exchange. We sponsored conference calls with the farmers and our other project cooperators to discuss our educational activities. We worked with some farmers to develop joint projects and seek support from the SARE Farmer/Rancher grant program. We tried to get them to do more interviews with the press, but that is like pulling teeth. We have addressed the number of farmers participating in our events in different parts of this report.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Over this past year we have recognized the importance of on-farm demonstration projects as a critical step in encouraging farmers to adopt sustainable production practices. In our evaluations one farmer said to us that having a small amount of money to cover the costs of experimenting with a new practice made all the difference, especially with potato and grain prices as low as they are. With that in mind we have encouraged farmers to apply for SARE Farmer/Rancher grants at every educational event we have sponsored. We have also mailed out copies of the grant form to farmers we thought might be interested in applying, and we have offered to help farmers put the proposals together. We worked with three farmers to develop a $9,000 grant to the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program to explore the use of green manures and rape seed meal as controls for nematodes. This grant was awarded and the work is underway. So we will continue to encourage farmers to conduct demonstration projects on their farm. The networks will be a good arena to get more farmers involved in on farm research and demonstration.

We were really pleased with the recent release of the SAN publication on on-farm research and have requested copies of a number of the references. We will distribute this information to farmers in the network, the Tribes, and farmers that we work with on Farmer/Rancher grants.

The Shoshone Bannock Tribes sustainable agriculture demonstration project is an extremely important project. We have put a lot of energy into working with the Tribes to develop a framework and funding for the long-term maintenance of this project.

We didn’t have as good attendance as we had wanted on some of our farm tours. We’ve found that between planting, watering, harvest, haying, and the weather, it can be really difficult to squeeze in farm tours. So we decided that in the second year of our educational work we would sponsor workshops and conferences in the non-farming season. You will see in our annual report how this worked out.

Given what farmers have written on their evaluation forms, continued funding for outreach and educational projects such as this one are important.

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.