In-Depth Organic Training for Agricultural Professionals
This training provided an ongoing, in-depth learning experience to Northeast agricultural professionals (e.g. extension, consultants, NRCS) to strengthen the human, as well as technical, capacity to better serve organic farmers. As a result, agencies will be better able to support new initiatives, such as the National Organic Program (NOP) or the NRCS Practice Standard for Transition to Organic, and the growing numbers of organic producers. Twenty-two agriculture service professionals completed the course. Our key measure of success will be that participants become active trainers and advisors on organic systems, creating an expanded cadre of organic service providers throughout institutions in the Northeast.
The format was an 8-month intensive training, with three face-to-face meetings (12 days) that combined lectures with on-farm studies, and continuous inquiry and networking via electronic discussion and conference calls. Training session content focused primarily on organic vegetable crop production. Prior to each meeting, resource materials were provided to review the objectives, format and expectations. Resource materials broadened the trainee’s understanding of organic agriculture philosophy and principles, and resulted in each person having the start of an organic reference library. The key learning moments occurred as topics were synthesized, analyzed and debated. These discussions deepened understanding of how current science-based information interfaces or conflicts with practical experience or challenges in production or marketing. All participants were required to attend each training, to facilitate peer teaching, to enhance camaraderie, and ultimately, to build a cadre of organic service providers.
Performance targets from our revised proposal:
Of the 40 agricultural professionals who applied for additional training in organic agriculture, 20 will complete the course. These individuals will become actively engaged in training and advising on organic systems, and their skills will be widely utilized by both peers and clients.
1) At least 1000 agricultural service providers throughout the Northeast read about the training about the training and the curriculum through E-mail, web site and newsletter announcements, by September 2004.
2) Specific organic training needs are identified through personal interviews by October 2004.
3) Curriculum team finalizes a set of core competencies needed by trainees, by November 2004.
4) At least 40 agriculture professionals (consultants, extension educators, NRCS and other agency personnel) receive institutional approval and apply to participate, by November 2004.
5) Curriculum team recruits writers and presenters for all modules by November 2004.
6) Newly developed educational materials and existing resource materials are collated by January 2005.
7) Twenty professionals are selected for training and accept, by January 2005.
8) Classroom and field trainings take place from February 2005 to September 2005.
9) All participants pass a test of core competencies, in October 2005.
10) Follow-up interviews of the 20 participants show them all to be engaged in organic research, peer education, farm planning or other activities appropriate to their professional responsibilities by September 2006.
Session (module) dates were set and a draft overall program prepared by October 2004 so they could be sent out to prospective participants. An executive committee included project leaders and the hosts for each session: Anu Rangarajan, Vern Grubinger, Brian Caldwell, Mary Barbercheck, and Eric Sideman. This group consulted on logistical issues, overall direction, program evaluations, etc. Planning teams assembled for each training session were:
• Session 1– Brian Caldwell, Anusuya Rangarajan, Eric Sideman, Vernon Grubinger, Karen Anderson, and Sarah Johnston
• Session 2–Ruth Hazzard, Brian Caldwell, Kimberly Stoner, Vern Grubinger, Anusuya Rangarajan, Abby Seaman, Mary E. Barbercheck, and Margaret McGrath
• Session 3—Eric Sideman, Marianne Sarrantonio, Vern Grubinger, Brian Caldwell, Mary Barbercheck, Anusuya Rangarajan
Presenters were chosen and recruited by the planning teams for each session, and programs refined, over several conference calls and many email and personal phone conversations. These took place in the months prior to each session. In the cases of Sessions 2 and 3, programs were revised based on evaluations of previous sessions, to provide more time for discussion and networking and minimal evening sessions. A strong mix of academic and farmer speakers was chosen for each session. Please see Appendix A for the final agendas for all three sessions.
The resource lists were not compiled before the sessions started due to time constraints. They are now completed and posted on the NEON training website at www.neon.cornell.edu/training.
We accepted 22 participants on 12/14/04. We assumed that one or two would drop out over the course of the training. In fact, two did but were replaced by others from their organizations. One clear aspect that emerged over the course of the training was that the presenters and organizers, while separate from the participants, also increased their knowledge in areas outside of their main expertise. So in a sense, they were trained as well. An overview of the feedback from trainers and trainees—including a self-assessment of knowledge levels in various areas—can be found in Appendix B.
The first training session was held from Feb. 28 to March 3 in the Hudson Valley of NY. Participants heard from outstanding farmers and agricultural professionals about the history of organics, the organic certification process, and the process for creating farm plans. One on-farm visit that was cancelled due to snow was a mock organic inspection. The inspector, however, reviewed the process and hosted a discussion for participants on roles and responsibilities for organic certification.
June 27-30, we held the second session, on Pest and Disease Management, at Penn State University. The more cooperative weather facilitated a better balance of classroom and farm visit time. Multiple trainers presented overviews of the systems-level approach to organic pest, disease, and weed management. This introduction was followed by visits to four organic farms interspersed with discussions and presentations about cultural, biological, and natural techniques for dealing with specific pests and diseases.
Our third session, on Soil Quality, was held in Auburn, ME from September 19-22. We hosted speakers on compost and cover crops, visited 4 very different diversified vegetable operations, and learned about hands-on soil quality assessment methods in the field. Trainers from our planning team presented information on soil biology, cover crop selection, nutrient budgets, and hoophouse fertility. One evening, we held a well-attended discussion on organic no-till systems.
This final session culminated with an exercise that helped trainees tie together all the new knowledge they had gained over the past year. They were given brief case studies and questions from real-life farm situations, and asked to draw from their experience in this course to determine appropriate responses. Lively discussions ensued, and many participants related to us later that this was an especially valuable activity that helped cement their learning.
Nearly half of the group remained in Maine after the end of the third session to attend the Common Ground Fair. This annual festival, hosted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), provided another opportunity for program participants to be exposed to organic agricultural techniques through demonstration gardens, presentations, and farm-related booths.
The participants were not willing to end the training in Maine, hence we are planning a fourth and final meeting in Ithaca next summer from July12-14, 2006. This will give participants an opportunity to reconnect and share their progress over the past year, as well as to see some highlights of local organic farms. It will also be an opportunity to verify how this training experience has enhanced participants skills, knowledge and activities in organic agriculture. The agenda for this meeting will be set at the beginning of 2006 and will cover the topics desired by the trainees.
In the meantime, to strengthen participants’ ability to access resources and communicate with each other, we established a closed listserv through Cornell, NEON-L (Northeast Organic Network). We also fully updated the NEON website (www.neon.cornell.edu/training/) to include downloadable versions of all of the presentations given during the course, as well as photos of participants & trainers, and an organized resource list of websites, books, and articles.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
1. Letters of support from supervisors and Memoranda of Agreement for participants: Supervisors were required to demonstrate their approval and support by signing trainee applications. The application clearly stated the commitment of time, money, and energy that would be required for participation in the full course.
2. Conference calls and individual follow-up: The project coordinator, Brian Caldwell, kept participants engaged between sessions by sending out homework assignments, readings, and website resources to examine.
3. Baseline survey of participants: Through the application process, applicants were asked to identify their strengths and weaknesses. This information was used to fine-tune the curriculum for our particular audience.
4. Engage experienced farmers as teachers: We identified and engaged over 14 experienced farmers as teachers. Many of them were referred to as the “stars” of their state organic certifying agency, and the participants were able to see why when we toured their farms. The farms were diverse and well-managed, and their owners gave very clear, practical, engaging presentations about their operations and specific practices.
5. Evaluations of each session and of entire training: We solicited feedback from participants after each training session, and in September for the entire course. Feedback from the first two sessions was used to modify the program for the following session; for example, to increase small group time and farm visit time so that participants were not just sitting and listening all day. In the final evaluation, all of the 17 respondents reported that their understanding of nearly all of the core competencies was either somewhat or much improved, with one-half to two-thirds of the respondents reporting that their understanding was “much improved” on 10 out of 13 topics.
6. While we will not be doing the official follow-up to document the effectiveness of the training until 2006, initial reports from participants indicate multiple benefits from the course, including:
New organic research project ideas
Professional networking – knowing that they can utilize their new listserv to gain technical support from each other
Collaborations with other participants on research and extension projects
Immediate improvement in ability to support farmers who approach them for help
These successes will be fully documented in the final report for this grant in 2006.
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assn.
Office Phone: 2079464402
University of Massachusetts Extension
Plant Science Building
Ithaca, NY 14853
Office Phone: 6072559911
Vegetable IPM Specialist
NYS IPM Program
Geneva, NY 14556
Office Phone: 3157872422
Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station
Pennsylvania State University
State College, PA
University of Maine