Training for Organic Farming and Ranching in the Great Plains

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2006: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Charles Francis
Grain Place Foundation
Shannon Moncure
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Animal Production: parasite control, free-range
  • Crop Production: crop rotation
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, networking, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Pest Management: weed ecology
  • Production Systems: holistic management, organic agriculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: organic matter, composting, soil quality/health


    Project Summary from the Pre-Proposal

    Organic products are the most rapidly growing sector of the U.S. food system. Farmers and ranchers in NE, KS, ND and SD have lagged behind those in other states in recognizing and exploiting the potentials of these markets. One reason for low client interest has been lack of experience in organic production and limited resources to provide recommendations on the part of Extension educators and high school teachers. Key farmers and ranchers in each state who are already certified for organic agriculture production are willing to share their experiences with interested educators. This grant describes the ‘train the trainers’ program to provide educators in Extension and high schools with practical information and hands-on experience in organic farming and ranching system practices and design. Nebraska experience with the North Central Regional PDP Project in sustainable agriculture training and workshops across the region in the 1990s convinced us that having information in the system is not sufficient. Educators need to see things in practice, discuss systems with others in the field, and learn through experience about the potentials of new innovations in agriculture. This project will organize and implement four workshops in KS, SD, ND and NE in 2007 and four more in 2008 to help provide needed information and experience. Trainers will be farmers and ranchers who are already active in organic production, and results will be summarized and provided to those who attend and to others in the region. Farmer organizations will be partners in the organization and implementation of workshops.

    Project objectives:

    Overall Project Objectives

    1. Increase knowledge about organic farming and certification among Extension educators & specialists, NRCS technicians, high school teachers, and public sector administrators
    2. Increase the role and visibility of organic farmers in educational planning and programming in the four-state area
    3. Create an information exchange network among organic farmers and public sector educators to improve profitability and sustainability of farming

    2007 Nebraska Workshop

    In Nebraska, the 2007 workshop (which consisted mainly of two on-farm tours near Lodgepole, NE) was attended by five Extension and 11 NRCS participants, as well as many other participants from varying affiliations (e.g. farmers, media). There were more than 50 participants overall.

    All participants who turned in evaluation forms rated their on-farm experiences as a 7, 8 or 9 on a 9-point scale. Some typical comments from the evaluations:
    • Gleaned a lot from how crop rotations and planting times can take care of problem weeds, soil condition improvements, etc.
    • My knowledge of organic farming was very limited so everything was new and I found it very interesting. It opened my eyes to the very process and marketing of organic products. The demand that the market provides.
    • Ken was a wealth of information. Very willing to teach us all. Thanks for talking us through your ups and downs.
    • I learned about his rotations-and especially peas used for fertilizer. Interesting question and answer session incorporated into Ken’s talk.
    • Larry’s experience with row crops and the information of the equipment he uses was valuable and interesting.
    • Appreciated his willingness to share failures.
    • Larry had a wealth of information. He was able to make us think of many issues as we problem solve on our farm acres.

    Several of the participants expressed appreciation for the farmer-lecturers, and interest in applying what they had learned in their work. Some examples from the evaluations:
    • Really feel inspired to pass on info to producers I work with as well as working on making my farmer’s market garden organic, thanks.
    • I feel far more educated on organic farming and feel now that I can pass this information on to other producers that may be interested or have questions.
    • All the presenters had so much knowledge. We could have asked questions for hours of all of them. Thank you for the exposure to the resources (books and such) and to the fine folks that do well in their area of specialty.

    2007 South Dakota Workshop

    In South Dakota, the 2007 workshop (which consisted mainly of an on-ranch tour near Norris, SD and an afternoon presentation/discussion) was attended by at least 1 Extension and 3 NRCS participants, although several participants did not fill out evaluation forms and therefore did not have their attendance recorded. There were about 40 participants overall, including at least six farmers, some of who traveled long distances for the chance to paricipate.

    All participants who turned in evaluation forms agreed that they would recommend the workshop to others interested in the topic. In their comments, participants mentioned a better understanding of the complexity of organic farming and a hope to build networks among other professionals, as well as specific content they found interesting (especially grazing topics).

    The most common methods that participants reported they planned to use to share their newly-gained organic agriculture information with their producer audience included:
    • Answer client questions
    • Develop new contacts and partners
    • Bring new information into regular programming
    • Use in newsletters and media

    2007 North Dakota Workshop

    In North Dakota, the 2007 workshop (which consisted of two on-farm tours and a working lunch in or near Dickinson, ND) was attended by nine Extension and two education participants. Among the other participants were several interested farmers and OCIA representatives. There were about 35 participants overall.

    All participants who turned in evaluation forms agreed that they would recommend the workshop to others interested in the topic. They found the new knowledge offered and the opportunities for networking and professional contacts to be most useful to their work.

    Nearly all participants who filled out evaluation forms reported that they planned to share their newly-gained organic agriculture information with their producer audience by bringing new information into their regular programming.

    2007 Kansas Workshop

    There was no workshop in Kansas in 2007, due to unusually large stressors to Extension staff and local farmers by the spring tornadoes in that state.

    2008 Nebraska Workshops

    Two workshops were completed in Nebraska in 2008. The first, in Grant, NE, consisted of interactive discussions and panel presentations by farmers and NRCS personnel. This workshop was attended by four Extension and five NRCS participants, and also included a large contingent of farmers: eight organic producers and 13 considering transitioning to organic. There were 33 participants overall.

    This workshop’s most popular topics were all connected with the actual practices of organic farming, especially organic inputs and the experiences of the currently practicing organic farmers. The attendance and interest of the NRCS participants, who worked in the area of water quality, brought an added benefit to the program.

    The second Nebraska workshop took place in Kearney, NE, and was part of the larger Nebraska Agriculture Education Association annual conference. Ninety attendees participated in a presentation led by Chuck Francis, and received a new grant-supported resource: a folder containing both actual organic farming resources, as well as a list of online resource links the participants could investigate on their own after the conference. This new resource also was disseminated at other events and sites throughout Nebraska once it had been created for this purpose, especially through the Center for Rural Affairs.

    The most important impacts of this change in methodologies were twofold: first, the creation of an extensive resource that could both supplement in-person experiences and also stand alone meant that the organic agriculture education “news” could spread in a different way throughout interested educators. Many NAEA participants, for example, expressed satisfaction at having something to hold in their hands, take back to their workplaces, and even reproduce for their students and fellow educators. Second, the ability to speak with so many high school educators after struggling to do so throughout 2007 was a great success. It had been essentially impossible to attract these teachers to stand-alone conferences, but the fact that so many made the annual NAEA conference a must-attend event made it clear that we had made a significantly positive change to our planning.

    2008 South Dakota Workshops

    Two workshops were completed in South Dakota in 2008. The first, in Madison, SD, was hosted by the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society and consisted of two on-farm tours and an interactive discussion at the conclusion of the day. This workshop was attended by eight Extension, ten NRCS and two high school educator participants, and also included a large contigent of farmers: 12 organic producers and 25 considering transitioning to organic. There were about 67 participants overall.

    Both of the farms involved in this event were large and diverse, providing a huge amount of information and examples of concepts for the participants to experience firsthand. The panel discussion at the end of the day gave all participants a way to ask questions connected to the earlier tours, and to integrate their new knowledge into their existing frames of reference.

    The second South Dakota workshop took place in Pierre, SD, and, similarly to the Nebraska Agriculture Education Association annual conference, integrated a presentation by Chuck Francis into the South Dakota statewide vocational agriculture educators’ conference. Seventy-nine attendees participated in this presentation, and received the resource folder described in the previous section. Twenty-five other conference participants picked up a copy of the resource folder as well, citing personal interest or the intent to give the folder to a friend or relative who was in need of such information.

    The same impacts were realized by this resource development and integration into high school educator annual conferences in South Dakota as in Nebraska: the ability to reach new audiences and a wider ultimate impact on both educators and the young people they teach.

    North Dakota 2008 Workshop

    In North Dakota, the 2008 workshop (which consisted of an on-farm tour and break-out sessions in the afternoon, in and near Tappen, ND) was attended by currently organic producers, producers thinking of going organic, extension educators, resource management staff and agricultural educators. The workshop was sponsored by FARRMS and the Mercer County Extension office.

    Participants in this workshop also received the same resource folder provided to Nebraska and South Dakota participants.

    Evaluations were positive. Suggestions included start to finish farm planning (“whole farm planning process”) and information on “microproducers” (urban producers, market gardeners etc.). The topics were all marked “important” by at least one attendee and “somewhat important” by others.

    Kansas 2008 Workshop

    The 2008 workshop in Kansas was a cooperation between the north central region of SARE, the Kansas Rural Center, the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas State University Research and Extension, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. There were 25 attendees, including some from Extension and NRCS.

    This workshop, in and near Sabetha, KS, consisted of participatory discussions throughout the morning, with a tour of a grain mill and an organic farm in the afternoon. Participants in this workshop also received the same resource folder provided to Nebraska and South Dakota participants.

    2009 One-Year, No-Cost Extension

    The one-year, no-cost extension that took place in 2009 focused on reaching the orginal project’s goals through different means. While Chuck Francis continued to participate in workshops attended by agriculture educators, we also developed a new, revamped website and a new organic agriculture book. Though the method focus shifted, however, the objectives of the project remained the same.

    Evaluating the website has proved difficult with typically anonymous online traffic, however, traffic numbers continue to rise as more educators discover the resources available in condensed form.

    The organic book, offered to all members of the organic agriculture educator contact list compiled over the first two years of the project, was accompanied by a paper or online evaluation survey in order to provide us with impact information. Of the 27 respondents to the evaluation, three NRCS, 15 Extension, and three high school educators participated. The evaluation participants all found the book to be potentially useful, especially in the areas of crop rotation, pest management and marketing. For more information on the organic farming book, see its dedicated section below.

    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.