Sustainable Organic No-Till Systems: A Training Program for CES and NRCS Field Professionals
In 2006, forty CES and NRCS field professionals in Virginia and North Carolina were given extensive training on best management practices for implementing sustainable organic no-till production systems. Trainees were then organized geographically into eight regional working groups. In 2007, trainees held eight on-farm seminar/field-day activities that provided hands-on training for approximately 485 farmers and agricultural professionals. The major emphasis of these activities was instruction and demonstration of production, management and appropriate uses of grass-legume cover crops to suppress weed growth and facilitate establishment and productivity of organic cash crops, mainly vegetables.
This proposal seeks to inform and train Cooperative Extension Service (CES) and National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field agents in 1) cover crop-based organic no-till production systems, and 2) beneficial habitat plantings (farmscapes) for biological insect pest management, for vegetables and agronomic crops. The proposed training will utilize and compliment the project director’s on-going research and outreach program in organic no-till vegetable production and farmscaping. SARE-PDP funds will be used to develop a broad-scale demonstration and teaching plot at Virginia Tech and similar satellite plots at North Carolina A&T State University and two working farms. Training-the-trainers sessions for CES and NRCS professionals will take place at each site during 2006 (phase I), and trainees will train farmers in these techniques in 2007 (phase II), with support and guidance from project staff. Training manuals on cover crop-based organic no-till systems and farmscaping will be drafted, utilized in the 2006 sessions, updated based on user feedback, and published in final farm at the conclusion of the project.
Trainees in the eight working groups held a total of eight activities, consisting of classroom instruction and/or hands-on field demonstrations. Approximately 485 farmers and agricultural professionals attended these activities. Best management practices taught and demonstrated were: 1) establishment and production of overwintering and summar cover crops; 2) timing and management techniques (rolling and flail mowing) to mechanical kill cover crops; 3) establishment of cash crops (mainly vegetables) in killed cover crop mulch; and 4) selection, establishment and maintenance of farmscape plantings to attract beneficial insects.
Overall, classroom and field-day activities conducted by the trainees were successful in introducing and defining organic reduced-till systems to many (approximately 485) farmers and agricultural professionals. Several scheduled field-day activities were canceled in 2007 because extreme spring-summer-fall drought reduced plant stand and growth of cover crops in most regions in Virginia and North Carolina.
This PDP project has been extended to enable continuance of organic reduced-till activities in the eight working-group regions through 3/31/2009. Most current and potential organic growers in Virginia and North Carolina are small in size, farming less than ten acres and many less than two acres. Unavailability of and inexperience with low-cost effective small-scale equipment is the major factor limiting adoption of cover crop-based reduced-till systems by organic growers. Over the past five years, the project director has developed and tested low-cost prototype small-scale equipment (called no-till planting aids, NTPAs) needed to establish and manage cover crops and establish organic cash crops in high-biomass cover crop residues. Funds will be sought in May-July of 2008 to manufacture and test these NTPAs, using the established trainee working groups as facilitators to maximize exposure to interested organic and sustainable growers.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
In spite of droughty conditions throughout much of the PDP area (VA and NC) in 2007, attendance and interest were high in the eight field-day activities conducted by the CES/NRCS trainees and invited speakers. Two highly visible impacts (realities) were evident in these activities. First, many current and potential organic growers would like to explore and implement various aspects of cover crop-based reduced-till systems. Second, unavailability of low-cost small-scale equipment has minimized the capacity of most small-scale farmers to adopt cover crop-based reduced-till systems. Over time, as availability and familiarity with low-cost small-scale equipment increase, many organic growers will adopt legume-based reduced-till systems to enhance production efficiency (reduce N and water costs) and profitability.