North Central Sustainable Agriculture Training Program

1994 Annual Report for ENC94-001

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1994: $311,070.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Charles Francis
Grain Place Foundation

North Central Sustainable Agriculture Training Program


What is it about a natural ecosystem that lets it function year after year using only solar energy without degrading the resource base, while agroecosystems on farms and ranches require high fossil energy inputs and suffer from soil erosion and water contamination? This question was explored at three workshops co-sponsored by the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Training Program (NCSATP). Linking People, Purpose, and Place: An Ecological Approach to Agriculture was held in Wooster, Ohio: Manhattan, Kan,; and Morris, Minn., in June and July.

The purpose was to demonstrate how an understanding of ecological principles can help us design farms and ranches that provide commodities while retaining some of the beneficial processes of natural systems, such as clean air and water and biodiversity. Because agroecosystems include people, another goal wa to explore characteristics of local communities that promote sustainability. The first step toward identifying useful ecological principles is to describe the structure and function of presettlement ecosystems within a particular region. The chief of Ohio Natural Areas and Preserves, an environmental historian in Kansas, and a prairie biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gave overviews of the natural ecosystems and of the agroecosystems that have taken their place.

Agroecology was another central topic. Presenters described how understanding the ecology of a place can lead to practices that are more profitable, more energy and nutrient efficient, and less environmentally disruptive. To effectively manage the biology of agricultural systems, we must understand: relationships among ecosystem structure and key processes, such as nutrient cycling, water use and soil biology; which processes can be directly managed and which cannot, such as carbon turnover versus photosynthesis; and the importance of spatial and temporal diversity, such as changing fertilization rates to correspond to variations in the soil.

Evaluating soil quality was a popular activity. Volunteer team leaders, who were trained on site, led discussions in the field on the differences between soils in natural ecosystems and those in nearby agroecosystems. Using a mini version of the USDA-ARS soil test kit, participants measured infiltration rates, nitrate-nitrogen, organic matter and depth of compact strata. They also discovered the logistics of sampling. Indoor sessions on topics such as innovations in weed management and ecological principles of grazing complemented farm visits. Farmers and ranchers described how they matched their production systems with weather patterns, soil, vegetation and markets. For example, in Kansas Alan and Sharon Hubbard switched from a crop-livestock operation to a cattle enterprise seven years ago. According to Alan, "I got tired of trying to grow crops where they didn’t belong." The Hubbards run almost 2,000 head of steers and cow-calf pairs on 6,000 acres. Learning from the tallgrass prairie, they use rotational grazing and fire as management tools.

One of the guiding principles of NCSATP is that training must be inclusive, both in terms of trainers and learners. This year our audience background expanded to include instructors from private colleges, college students, a scientist with a large agrochemical company and representatives from the National Agroforestry Center. In total, 178 people attended the workshops: 53 percent Extension and university, 8 percent nonprofits, 17 percent state and federal agencies, 13 percent producers, 7 percent students and 2 percent private sector. According to evaluations, participants indicated they would use ecological principles in helping clients design farming systems and consider the social implications. An Indiana Extension educator stated, "I always felt a connection to natural resources, but my path seemed to put me in ag and crops. Now, I see that it is feasible to combine them without losing respect and profitability. It will be a goal to try and bring this information to my county."

When participants were asked what practical information they gained from the workshop, some of the answers were: Reinforcement of the importance of collaboration and networking; Resources and who to ask for more information; More knowledge for understanding others’ points of views; Interrelationships among ecology-agriculture-social-political; Producer’s experience in management; and New learning techniques, e.g. the gallery walk.

Interest in the minigrant project was greater in 1997 than the two previous years. The goal of this part of the program is to enhance learning by providing on-farm experience with various systems and by increasing the exchange of ideas among agricultural professionals. A minigrant for speaker(s) is funded up to $1,000, and the maximum for a special topic training tour is $1,500. Educators with different affiliations are encouraged to work together, and the activity must support the state plan. Principle investigators submit a report that includes an evaluation and suggestions for other trainers. Speakers and tours were funded in all 12 North Central region states. Content of the minigrants covered specific practices, learning methods, whole-farm planning and societal issues. The following list is a sample: Low-investment, low-cost techniques for swine production; Integrated management of apples; Development and use of decision cases; Curriculum for agroecology; Holistic management; Application of Ontario’s Environmental Farm Plan; Influence of biotechnologies on agriculture, the environment, and consumers; and Role of local and regional food systems.

Besides workshops and minigrants, NCSATP personnel produce educational materials, such as the 560-page resource notebook used at the workshops, foster networking among trainers in sustainable agriculture, and give presentations on the program within and outside of the region. The goals remain the same: 1) develop and implement a comprehensive education program for use throughout the region; and 2) prepare a cadre of teachers to conduct innovative training in their own states.

North Central Region SARE 1997 Annual Report.

See also ENC96-001.