A Professional Development Conference on Organic Agriculture
A team of ten people from eight states planned a professional development conference called “Working with Organic Farmers: Enhancing Agency Involvement,” that was held on September 26 and 27, 2002. The conference featured 40 individual presentations, including 15 by experienced, successful organic farmers, on a broad range of production and social issues. The conference had 159 participants from across the Northeast. A 125-page conference proceedings was published.
Organic farming is a promising segment of modern agriculture, yet it is widely acknowledged that Cooperative Extension and other agricultural agencies could do a better job serving the organic farming community if they were more familiar with organic farming principles, practices, and standards. Due to the emerging market opportunities and the growing number of constituents with an interest in the subject, agency personnel are increasingly seeking to learn about organic farming.
A team of ten people representing extension, USDA-ARS, an experiment station, organic farmer associations, a non-profit organization, and a state department of agriculture worked for a year to plan a professional development conference called “Working with Organic Farmers: Enhancing Agency Involvement,” that was held in Kerhonkson, New York, on September 26 and 27, 2002. There were 159 conference participants from twelve states and one Canadian province.
The program included 20 in-depth workshops in which agency personnel as well as more than a dozen experienced, successful organic farmers presented. The topics included exemplary farm systems, ecological principles, animal health and nutrition, soil health, small fruit, vegetables, green industry, seeds, making the transition, marketing, federal organic standards, building relationships, and getting funding.
Seventy-five percent of the 150 extension and USDA personnel who attend the conference will improve their knowledge of organic production and marketing systems, and 90% will learn of new contacts and information resources in the organic network that can help them plan and implement educational programs on organic farming. Within eighteen months of the conference, 35% of participants will initiate such a program.
1) The planning committee reached consensus on the conference program during a meeting held in Sturbridge, Massachusetts on December 18, 2001. The conference structure, workshop titles, potential presenters, and keynoters were identified. Team members were assigned to follow up on recruitment of speakers and participants in their states. Several subsequent teleconferences completed the planning process. The project coordinator, a consultant, and the office manager met many times in early 2002 to manage all logistical arrangements.
2) Instead of using mailings to promote the conference, the team decided to use electronic technology to promote the conference and recruit participants. The project coordinator developed a web site and this site was promoted through e-mail networks.
3) One hundred and fifty-nine people attended the conference.
A planning team of twelve people from ten northeastern states, representing extension, USDA-ARS, a state experiment station, a state agriculture department, one non-profit organization, and three organic farmer organizations met in person, via teleconference, and through e-mail beginning in October 2000 to plan the conference content and structure, recruit participants, determine their educational needs, and secure presenters. A consultant was hired to facilitate the planning process and assist with logistical arrangements.
All outreach, conference information, and registration materials were provided electronically and distributed through the communication networks of the team members. A conference pre-announcement was distributed to state Northeast SARE Professional Development coordinators six months in advance of the event. Four months prior to the conference, a complete program and registration materials were posted on the conference web site. A pre-conference survey was included along with registration materials to help the committee understand participants’ experience, expectations, skills, and clientele with regard to organic agriculture.
Presenters sent in summaries of their talks one month prior to the event, and these were compiled into 125-page conference proceedings that was given to all participants and is now available for purchase by others ($12 postpaid from the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture). Organizations were recruited to bring display materials for the resource trade show at the conference, which resulted in Northeast SARE, the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Maryland Cooperative Extension, ATTRA, NOFA-NY and others taking advantage of the opportunity.
The contract with the conference facility included a requirement to serve local and organic food to the extent possible, and this was done quite well given the available budget. The names of all farms supplying food were listed on table cards at each meal.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The conference was highly successful in taking the conversation about organic farming up a notch. The goal of the team was to go beyond the basics by providing detailed, relatively advanced information about organic agriculture, and to allow sufficient time for participants to process the information through interaction. This was accomplished in almost all the sessions, and there was an exceptionally positive energy at the conference, demonstrated by the widespread desire of participants to learn from each other rather than to debate the issues.
The comments on evaluations indicate the positive impact of the conference on many of the participants. “I think it may well be seen as a watershed event,” wrote one farmer. “My allergy to ‘agencies’ is curable,” wrote another. “I learned more here than at any other conference attended,” wrote an extension person. “Vastly increased my knowledge concerning what is happening in organic farming,” wrote another. “I had been out of touch with the impending USDA certification – I’ve significantly raised my awareness level,” wrote an NRCS employee. “I will be using more summer cover crops to reduce tillage on research station” wrote another. “This conference has been most useful and stimulating. The combination of farmer and professional and the breadth of the topics has been very helpful,” wrote a researcher.
Evaluations asking about the impact of the conference were completed by 118 of the participants. Most were agency personnel; fifteen came from farmers. Ninety-three percent said that it had increased their understanding of organic agriculture; 97% said it increased their awareness of people or programs working with organic farmers; 94% were helped to access information and resources on organic on organic agriculture; 88% were helped to do a better job meeting the needs of organic farmers; and 79% said they will develop programs, products or services for organic farmers in the next eighteen months. These will be documented in a final report.