Organic Conservation Program Training for NRCS and Extension
Webinar training for NRCS field staff in IA, MN, ND, and SD resulted in improved knowledge of how organic certification complements conservation programs (EQIP, CSP). Field tours of organic farms attracted many attendees and effectively demonstrated organic production methods. Documents to recruit new Technical Service Providers attracted some interest, but few TSP applicants in the first year. Evaluation of training impacts on NRCS assistance to farmers is to be completed in year 2.
1. NRCS and Extension staff in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska will learn how to help farmers and ranchers become eligible for and apply for new USDA organic and related conservation programs.
2. Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) and state partners will host webinar and farm-tour training sessions for these ag educators about Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) rules, organic certification, organic farming practices, information resources, and local contacts.
• 40 NRCS and 5 Extension attendees in each state at web seminars
• 30 NRCS and 5 Extension attendees in each state at farm tours
3. Organic farming/ranching experts and other crop advisors will be encouraged to certify as NRCS Technical Service Providers to assist with organic and other conservation planning.
• 10 TSP candidates in each state; 3 TSP applicants/state
1. Webinars. MOSES based curriculum had been modified by CFRA for use with Nebraska NRCS training and served as the foundation for developing web-based training for this project. CFRA in collaboration with MOSES modified and changed the curriculum where needed. Information on National Organic Program rules and procedures, examples of successful applications, and resources for local, regional and national assistance and information were included. CFRA researched and included state-specific rules into each state presentation and worked with LSP, FARRMS, MOSES and NPSAS to include segments that incorporated them into the appropriate state-tailored curriculum.
Each state’s training included an organic grower who was able to share his or her experiences with training participants, answer questions and give practical application of the things that participants were learning. The participation of the growers helped stimulate a number of questions from trainees. It was also very helpful to have NRCS program experts available to explain how this training fit specifically into CSP and EQIP programs when such questions arose. Having NRCS program experts participate in the training in that manner also helped develop this training as a partnership between the agency, CFRA and the state-based organization specific the location of the training.
Web based trainings were presented to more than 200 NRCS employees in South Dakota (7/8/10), Minnesota (8/25/10), Iowa (9/22/10), and North Dakota (12/7/10). (Note: It was not possible to know exactly how many NRCS and Extension actually participated in the training because of the NRCS webinar system. It only allowed for so many available telephone lines and as a result, many times there was more than one person sharing a telephone and computer but using only one phone line. South Dakota, for example, required staff to “cluster” in offices, traveling to a somewhat central location in order to participate. While there could have been at least 10 or more staff participating at designated training site, it only registered as one.)
Center for Rural Affairs staff and state partnering organization, where feasible, presented the training on-site from NRCS offices using their equipment and web training systems. For example, a representative from Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota was present for and participated in the Minnesota NRCS training; a member of FARRMS from North Dakota participated in that state’s training on site. NPSAS and MOSES representatives were able to join by teleconference for the South Dakota and Iowa trainings. Having state “go-to” organizations who could work with NRCS after the trainings were completed was an important part of this project. Each partner organization took a key role in the training which allowed them to begin to build relationships with NRCS or strengthen those relationships, particularly important since three of the four State Conservationists were new. Incorporating these organizations into the training allowed NRCS to know the state organic experts and would be able to continue that relationship after the training was done.
Curriculum was changed as needed after each state presentation based on comments and suggestions received. For example it was strongly suggested that a one-page document that contained the “top ten” most important information be developed and shared with trainees. They would then be able to refer back to that information. We incorporated that suggestion and it was well received.
It was quite difficult, however to invite non-NRCS people (Extension and potential TSPs) into the training sessions since each state NRCS office set up the phone bridge and did so for the number of its own expected participants only. In addition, oftentimes NRCS scheduled the sessions on short notice with a limited number of phone lines, requiring non-NRCS people to travel to an NRCS office to participate in the training since access information for the sessions was controlled by the agency.
To mitigate this problem in Nebraska we made ample announcements about a parallel (non-SARE) project that conducted organic EQIP information sessions in multiple locations around the state. To mitigate the problem in other states, we relied strongly on our partners to advertise their respective farm tours to NRCS and non-NRCS. Information on farm tours follows.
We were able to identify how many people took the pre and post tests, but it should be noted that not all who participated took a pre and/or post test. In some instances, some employees completed a pre test but not a post test; in other instances, post tests were completed with no pre test taken. Those results were not factored into the data analysis or data collection since there was no way of doing an evaluation of learning without pre and post test comparisons. In addition, we assume that there were participants who neither took a pre or post test.
However, we were pleased that a total of 188 NRCS staff in all states completed pre and post tests, which exceeded the goals set in our proposal. (See copy of test that served as both pre and post test at the end of this report.) Learning was demonstrated by all test results though South Dakota had the highest pre-test scores. See table below:
• Webinar re-evaluation and changes will be finalized in year two. Once those changes have been made webinars will be stored on the Center for Rural Affairs web site and NRCS/Extension websites as needed for future use or review through the project period. At the completion of the project, materials will be transferred to state entities for use beyond the project period.
• CFRA will analyze and re-evaluate how to bring this training to Extension educators in the project states since the structure of the webinar training was not conducive to including non-NRCS participation.
• CFRA will conduct follow-up evaluation with training participants in Year 2 to determine subsequent application of organic practices to EQIP and CSP contracts, and extent of Extension programming related to the training materials
2. Farm Tours. Farm tours were held in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota and as noted prior, a strong effort was made to make Extension aware of organic farm tours in Nebraska. What follows is a state-by-state report.
Minnesota: Land Stewardship Project hosted three field days: one on a certified organic small grain farm in Madison, Minnesota; one on a certified dairy research facility at the University of Minnesota; and one at a certified organic vegetable farm in Delano, Minnesota. Farmers were invited to the first two farm tours but not to the third. The reasoning behind this was to offer additional opportunities for NRCS, Extension and farmers to interact since many of the farmers in attendance were doing so to learn how to become organic. Topics covered included cover crops to build soil fertility, organic dairy practices, transition to organic, and experiments with cover crops to address changing weather patterns.
Interest appeared high from NRCS staff with 13 reservations made for the first tour shortly following the webinar training. However, the first tour had to be rescheduled because of bad weather and no NRCS or Extension attended the rescheduled farm tour. Three NRCS staff and 19 farmers attended the second farm tour and only one NRCS staff attended the final tour. NRCS staff told the LSP organizer that shortly after the rescheduled first farm tour, staff had received a directive from their national office that resulted in additional workload with short turn-around time. That no doubt impacted attendance at the Minnesota farm tours.
Iowa. MOSES put on five field days around the state. Four of the field days put on by MOSES were done in concert with Practical Farmers of Iowa, and all five field days included agricultural professionals as well as farmers.
1. Konstantinov Farm, Clarinda, IA- Southwestern IA
2. Klinge Farm, Farmersburg, IA- Northeastern IA
3. Cody Farm, Elkhart IA, Central IA
4. Koshmeder Farm, Riceville IA- North Central IA
5. Mugge Farm, Sutherland, IA- Western IA
Emphasis was placed on soil building strategies on organic farms, as well as weed and pest control at all of the farm tours.
Outreach was done for each of these field days to NRCS and extension staff via email and personal phone calls. Many staff stated they would attend, but did not. In response to calls after the field day, they stated they had too much other work to do and at the last minute, decided they could not fit attending the field day into their schedule.
Approximately 12 NRCS and 9 extension or other government personnel attended the 5 field days in IA. Each field day had between 25 and 45 attendees, with farmers the majority of the participants at each location. Written evaluations collected at the field day illustrated that these attendees learned a variety of new aspects of organic farming that they had not known before attending.
North Dakota. FARRMS hosted four farm tours and on mulch tour. Organic farm tours were made mandatory by NRCS in North Dakota – the only state in our trainings that made farm tours mandatory. Three of the four tours were attended by 47, 67, and 57 NRCS staff respectively. Additionally, FARRMS hosted a mulch tour that brought 15 Extension and 30 NRCS staff.
South Dakota. NPSAS offered a two day training for NRCS and Extension educators in August along with one farm tour open to NRCS, Extension and farmers and two high tunnel tours.
The two-day training was well attended by NRCS and drew 33 NRCS staff and 1 Extension Educator. Low attendance by Extension was credited to the fact that 4-H events were scheduled for the same time period. This training got very good feedback from attendees and an interest expressed in holding an organic farm tour in Sioux Falls later on. Information was not gathered from the farm tour as to how many attendees were NRCS and/or Extension, though over 60 people participated.
Topics Presented in the two-day training included: national organic rule; crop soil management; certification overview; harvest handling; storage and buffers; organic livestock management and marketing; challenges in organic food production; “what’s happening” in South Dakota organic sector; and information on SARE.
NOTE: Participation by NRCS and Extension in farm tours and field days was outstanding in North Dakota because the training was made mandatory by the State Conservationist. Workload played a factor in low participation rates in other states as indicated by the change in activity in this regard in Minnesota in which 13 reservations were made for the farm tour immediately following the webinar training. However, ultimately
• CFRA will conduct follow-up evaluation with training participants in Year 2 to determine subsequent application of organic practices to EQIP and CSP contracts
• CFRA will interview State Conservationists in states where NRCS participation in field days was low to better understand how participation might be improved in the future in Year 2.
3. Technical Service Provider Recruitment. A guide and flyer focused on developing the capacity for Technical Service Providers with expertise in organic agriculture was developed and used as recruitment tools (see attached). TSP recruiting announcements were placed on the Center for Rural Affairs’ website and we have advised NRCS in Nebraska on their materials for TSPs. 18 professionals with expertise in organic agriculture were approached and encouraged to apply to become a TSP. One of these individuals is now on the NRCS register and five additional are studying to gain this certification. CFRA will evaluate Technical Service Provider applicants’ assessment of advisory materials and personal assistance.
• The TSP application process is time consuming and bulky. Finding people with expertise in organic agriculture that had the time and the type of computer connections necessary to download NRCS TSP application documents has proven to be difficult. During year 2 CFRA will conduct follow-up evaluation of the 18 people who showed an interest in becoming a TSP to learn their status in that process. CFRA has also been invited to participate in a meeting with USDA NRCS in Nebraska to discuss how to fill this need of developing organic TSPs. CFRA will continue to work with MOSES, LSP, FARRMS and NPSAS on this issue.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
This project set out to train NRCS and Extension so farmers/ranchers would receive qualified assistance from NRCS staff, Extension & Technical Service Providers. This in turn would result in more farmers/ranchers participating in USDA conservation programs related to organic practices, resulting in increased protection of air, water, soil and biodiversity resources. Short term expectations were for NRCS staff to fully understand new conservation program rules relative to certified organic crops and livestock and have a good grasp on organic practices; for Extension staff to understand organic rules and procedures and be able to know who organic experts were; and to cultivate organic advisors/producers to take steps toward becoming Technical Service Providers.
What we have learned through this first year’s activities indicates that web-based training has been successful in terms of learning taking place. NRCS staff who participated in the training did not become experts in their knowledge level but overall did improve their knowledge considerably as demonstrated by pretest and posttest scores. North Dakota showed the least dramatic learning improvement by a posttest score for all participants of 80%, up from a 71% with pretest. This no doubt reflects mandatory participation in field day and farm tours that occurred prior to this web-based training. (Note, the web-based training was to precede farm tours and field days, but due to a new State Conservationist being named, the Assistant State Conservationist serving in an Acting position in Minnesota, and increased workload from national headquarters directed reporting, it worked out where the web-based training came after the tours.)
The three remaining states are probably more reflective of what web-based training can do since all three had pretest scores below 60%, or what would be considered a “passing” grade. Average pretest scores of these three states was 56.5% with average posttest scores of 79.8%. That is a significant learning improvement. The question is, will that information be applied and retained? This will be measured in Year 2.
While NRCS staff did not become experts through being involved in this web-based training, it did allow for learning but perhaps as important, it allowed for an understanding that resulted in increased interest in learning more. One NRCS program expert mentioned after the web-based training that they appreciated the training and realized they will need more of it. That was encouraging and suggests there is more openness to further learning.
We have outlined what Year 2 next steps are above, but the expectation with this outcome is that we will learn if NRCS staff is using organic practices with program participants and writing effective transition plans with farmers and ranchers.
We learned that NRCS is comfortable and receptive to web-based training. We also learned that the technology could be improved for maximum learning. In evaluating the training, it would have been helpful to have a more interactive system that allowed people to post questions and answer questions throughout the training. Posting questions to trainees periodically throughout the process would allow trainers to evaluate if learning was occurring and be able to back track information to ensure there was understanding and comprehension.
A number of National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition member organizations applied for and received a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant that will present organic training to a number of NRCS staffs using web based technology. That project is underway. We will share the information learned and recommendations mentioned in the paragraph above with them.
The manner in which the training was organized, ensuring that partner organizations were present, visible and involved in the training helped establish a relationship with key NRCS staff. This in turn allows NRCS to have a known and proven resource/expert available for future training, farm tours, and to assist where necessary. Two of the four states had new State Conservationists that the partner organizations had not yet met.
We did not reach the goals set in Year 1 in regard to number of trained Extension educators or in cultivation of organic Technical Service Providers. We will analyze how we might reach extension educators in year 2, though we were able to mitigate some of that through farm tour participation. It was clear after the fact, that using the NRCS system was not conducive to non-NRCS participation and that had an impact on Extension participating, particularly when they had to spend a day traveling to participate in web-based training.
We were successful in locating 18 organic advisers/producers interested in becoming TSPs and there is activity toward becoming certified TSPs from five. However, we also learned that while it could be an opportunity, it is also difficult to achieve because the process takes time and is bulky. In addition, the forms and documents that are a part of the NRCS application system are not easily downloaded, taking extra time and creating additional frustration. NRCS in Nebraska, and likely other states, recognizes that there is a significant lack of organic TSPs and it is hindering progress. They have asked CFRA to participate in a conversation on how to increase the number of organic TSPs.
Land Stewardship Project
301 State Rd., Ste. 2
Montevideo, MN 56265
Office Phone: 3202692105