Elementary Organics: Multi-track Training for Minnesota's Agricultural Educators and Advisors

2003 Annual Report for ENC02-065

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2002: $59,360.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Meg Moynihan
Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Elementary Organics: Multi-track Training for Minnesota's Agricultural Educators and Advisors


As a result of two, day-long regional training sessions in Central and Southeast Minnesota, 95 agricultural professionals increased their knowledge about, reconsidered their attitudes toward, and increased activity in organic agriculture. Pre-training, end-of-training, and follow-up surveys measured progress toward short and intermediate term incomes. Respondents rated the workshop structure and content high, generally preferring sessions led by organic farmers and small group farm visits. Six to nine months after the course, most respondents reported assisting growers and/or colleagues on organic topics and indicated continuing interest in organic agriculture topics. The project will deliver four additional training sessions before its conclusion.

Objectives/Performance Targets

The following desired outcomes were specified in the “Elementary Organics” PDP Proposal:

Short-term outcomes: 250 participants…
S-1 …are aware of the scale and scope of organic production in MN and the US, including production, domestic and international market, and consumer trends.
S-2…know the National Organic Program Final Rule exists and, in basic terms, what it says.
S-3…understand the steps required for producer and processor certification, including the role of inspectors and certification agencies and the elements of required farm plans.

S-4…know about and have access to 5-10 sources of information about organic production and marketing.

Intermediate outcomes: 250 participants…
I-1…provide appropriate technical assistance or information to organic growers OR refer them to appropriate sources;
I-2…accept the notion that organic can be a viable production system;
I-3…identify resource materials that would help them assist clients, but that don’t currently exist;
I-4…share knowledge about organics with peers/colleagues.

Long-term outcomes
L-1 Organic programming is “institutionalized”: organic producers and their needs are considered by land grant universities, Extension, state and federal agricultural and conservation agencies and private entities as a matter of course. Here, the interest is in long-term, internalized changes. When this goal is realized, organics will not be considered a “fringe” element, but one of many accepted and acceptable management options.
L-2 Organic farms that are economically successful and conserve resources contribute to the long-term sustainability of farming in Minnesota. Meeting specific organic production criteria is not enough. Crucial to this outcome are organic systems that are sustainable into the future because they nurture the health of land, people and communities. Sustainable organic farms would protect personal health of farmers, their families, and their neighbors; enhance natural resources like soil quality, and biodiversity; and improve farm and community profitability by providing products that an increasing number of food buyers are willing to pay more for, and by providing local value-added processing opportunities.


In 2003, the project held two of the six planned regional training sessions designed to introduce agricultural professionals to organic concepts, practices and resources. The Giziibii Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) program coordinated local arrangements for the January, 2003 training in St. Cloud (Central MN), immediately preceding the Minnesota Organic and Grazing Conference. Hiawatha Valley RC&D coordinated local arrangements for the June, 2003 training in Plainview (SE Minnesota). Publicity in print media, radio, and electronic networks filled both courses to capacity.

The project reached many of the target audiences specified in the PDP proposal, including Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, Minnesota State College System Farm Management Program, crop consultants, and lenders.

A 10-question pre-course evaluation was administered to encourage participant awareness about their pre-course level of awareness in areas of production practices, programs, and certification. Responses indicated that participants rated their own understanding of organic agriculture relatively high (around 80%), associated “organic” with limitations on input use and believed the biggest motivator for farmers to “go organic” was economic. They were least familiar with barriers like processing capacity, the National Organic Rule, and the State Department of Agriculture’s role in organics.

Survey instruments were also used to examine progress toward short-term and intermediate-term outcomes. A same-day, post-course survey measured short-term outcomes, asking respondents to compare their ability to answer client questions about a number of topics before and after the training. They were offered a 5-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “like an expert.” To measure progress toward intermediate (behavior change) goals, a post-course survey was mailed to participants six to nine months after the training. It was returned by 52% of the trainees. Since the training formats were nearly identical, evaluation data from both sessions were combined for ease and clarity of reporting.

Participant evaluations validated the effectiveness of the pedagogy, which used a model based on adult learning preferences and that was outlined in the grant proposal. (Appendix A.) During the morning, sessions included farmers’ presentations about their motivations and organic practices, an overview of organic production and market trends, and an introduction to the National Organic Rule and certification process. The afternoon was given over to small group visits – one group visited an organic crop farm, another went to an organic livestock farm, a third visited an organic vegetable farm, and a fourth met with retailers. Respondents who completed end-of-day surveys rated the quantity and quality of information high (average score 4 out of 5). About 97% said it was worth the time and effort to attend, and 83% said they’d recommend the training to a colleague. The favorite portions of the day were morning organic farmer presentations (nontraditional presenters for groups of trainees like these) and afternoon organic farm visits/tours (active and inter-active learning). There was a great disparity in their reaction to the session on the National Organic Rule. At one training session, four participants named it as their favorite, and four called it the least useful session. At the other, one person called it “favorite” and 11 participants identified it as the least useful session. Different presenters taught this topic at both sessions and the disparity may be due to presenter quality and effectiveness.

The end-of-day evaluation instruments measured progress toward specific short-term outcomes (Fig. 1):

S-1 Awareness of the scale and scope of organic production in Minnesota grew by almost 85% (1.8 points), the largest awareness shift of any area about which they were asked. Attendees’ knowledge about the organic market opportunities in the U.S. improved 39% (about one point).

S-2 Knowledge about the National Organic Program Final Rule increased 84% (1.4 points).

S-3 Participant understanding about the certification process and roles of farm plans, inspectors, and certifying agencies increased by roughly 67% (about 1.4 points)

S-4 Trainees reported their knowledge about where to find info about organic topics increased 74% (1.7 points) Each trainee left with access to information in the form of a thick binder, which included a copy of the federal rule, a number of ATTRA and other publications on organic crop, livestock, and vegetable productions, and information on consumer trends and markets, certifying agencies, and information-providing nonprofits like MOSES. (See I-1)

The follow-up evaluation, administered six to nine months after the training, was returned by more than half the participants. It measured progress toward intermediate outcomes and whether any changed attitudes or knowledge (short-term outcomes) translated themselves into activities and behaviors (intermediate outcomes) in the workplace.

I-1 About 65% of respondents reported that they provided technical assistance or information (or referrals) to organic growers. Most reported helping between 1 and 5 growers. By far the most common area of assistance was helping growers understand and participate in federal programs (like Minnesota’s organic transition program offered though the USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, conservation planning, or organic crop insurance). Others said they provided financial or lending assistance, production help, or connected the grower with information and resources, including certifiers. Fewer than half reported using the resource book provided at the training.

I-2 Six to nine months after the training, 76% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that organic can be a viable production system. While 24% of respondent said they were neutral to that statement, none disagreed with it. These responses suggest that participants are probably willing to discuss clients’ organic questions seriously, rather than dismissing them as unrealistic.

I-3 When they were asked to identify additional resources that would help them assist clients, 63% were able to name at least one item. Most frequently cited were information on marketing, rules and regulations, input appropriateness and availability, conservation issues, and production issues like rotations, weed and insect controls.

I-4 The training created discussion about organic among peers: 92% of respondents reported telling their colleagues about the short course and 55% reported that their colleagues had asked them questions about organic. In addition, 55% said that since the training they had learned about organic farmers in their area about whom they weren’t aware previously.

At this point in the project, progress toward long-term goals has not been measured.

The only significant barrier the project encountered arose when the University of Minnesota Extension Service announced a reorganization last summer. Extension educators, who are important participants as trainers and trainees, were unclear about their changing roles and responsibilities within the extension structure, so a summer session in the Northwestern region was postponed. Internal State of Minnesota protocols have resulted in some contracting delays, but have not caused any major rescheduling needs. Extension and University travel funds have been reduced since the proposal was submitted, so there is a possibility that the project will need to ask NCR-SARE to adjust budget items.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

To date, approximately 30 individuals (including 11 farmers) have provided organic training to 95 Organic Short Course for Ag Professionals “graduates” conversant with elementary organic topics. Approximately 87 of them have shared information about the training with their colleagues and 61 have provided direct assistance to organic growers (or growers interested in organic topics) since attending the courses. Before/after evaluation data indicate that participants are more interested in organic production, more confident in its validity as a production method, better equipped to assist producers w/ questions, aware of organic topics they want to know about than before the training. In addition, most have become aware of organic clientele they weren’t aware of before. Perhaps because of a shift in attitude, 52 report they have learned about organic growers in their area that they didn’t know existed.

In the coming year, the project plans to implement post training conference calls, hold four more trainings (SW, NW, NE, Metro Twin Cities), continue pre, end-of, and post training assessment, and share information about participants’ desires for additional education on organic marketing, agronomic production topics (pest and weed control), livestock production, certification, and economics topics (and desires to visit more organic farms) with Midwest Organic and Sustainable and Education Services (MOSES), which is also a recipient of a SARE PDP grant for organic education. MOSES was identified as a potential intermediate training venue in the “Elementary Organics” proposal to SARE. Because fewer than half the participants to date report using the take-home resource binder, the project team will reconsider the size and contents of this resource, concentrating only on that information the trainees report using or wish they had more of.