Professional Training in Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems
This project has three objectives:
1. To develop the capacity of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) personnel, and other agricultural professionals to understand and promote successful biologically integrated almond production principles and practices.
2. To develop training for agency personnel and agricultural professionals based on a participatory-learning model and evaluate its suitability for use in other regions.
3. To stimulate hands-on educational events for farmers and other members of the agricultural community to be organized and led by those trained in the mini-courses.
In this project, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) took the technical information used in its pesticide reduction program, Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems (BIOS), and developed curricula for use in two training workshops for agricultural professionals. Both the fall and spring workshops were offered in two locations in 1998. Each of the four workshops was attended by approximately 20 to 24 participants.
BIOS is a demonstration program for almond and walnut orchards that offers technical assistance to farmers who want to reduce their synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use. Its methods rely on natural predator/prey relationships for pest control and on natural fertilizers. We developed training in these methods for agency personnel, particularly for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), because there is no other professional training available in biologically integrated methods. By filling this void, the project helped ensure that farmers who seek information on reduced-chemical farming systems will be served by agricultural professionals who are informed about these methods and can offer them the support they need to adopt such practices.
The project sponsored by USDA SARE over the last eighteen months enabled CAFF to train agricultural professionals in the biologically integrated management approach promoted by BIOS. This project was prompted by the recognition that most agricultural and natural resource agency personnel have received no training in biologically integrated farm systems, those that rely primarily on natural predator-prey relationships for pest control and on compost and nitrogen-rich ‘cover crops’ for fertilizers. Without this training, these professionals are not able to advise farmers in non-chemical alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers.
While BIOS provides high-quality technical information that is not consistently available from any other source, it also offers this information in a unique forum, wherein farmers, researchers, pest control advisors, and agency personnel are each accepted as valuable contributors to discussions. This approach stands in contrast to the top-down mode of instruction by experts presented by traditional agricultural institutions. We have found that by creating a “level learning field” farmers are much more likely to learn from each other, pick up usable information, and pass important field realities on to researchers and agency staff. Given that the success of the BIOS program has been at least in part due to its participatory learning style, we modeled this style in our workshops and included it as part of what participants could learn at the workshop.
The spring workshops covered soil quality tests in a BIOS orchard, information resources for sustainable soil management, barn owls for rodent control, IPM monitoring in almonds, cover crop selection and management, and soil quality testing in the field. The fall sessions presented information on fall pest control decisions in almonds, cover crop seeding in orchards, biological pest management in grapes, soil biology for perennial crops, compost production and utilization, and new trends in winter almond orchard pest control practices.
Dissemination of findings was part of the project itself, not something accomplished separately as when a research study is published. Reaching the agricultural professional audience and persuading them to participate in the workshops was an integral piece of the project. Our outreach efforts for the recruitment of participants focused on NRCS, based on the advice of the workshop advisory team. CAFF staff members called and wrote letters to NRCS administrators at the state and area levels. Staff also gave presentations at area cluster meetings to District Conservationists who had little or no previous contact with the BIOS program. In addition, CAFF produced brochures for each set of workshops that were sent to about 500 people including all applicable NRCS field offices, University of California Extension offices, and pest control advisors in the BIOS database. Contacts were made in other institutions including the Almond Board of California and the California Environmental Protection Agency.
The curricula we developed for our workshops have been disseminated to approximately half a dozen agricultural professionals who were unable to participate but requested copies of the information binders we created for use at the workshops.
First, we are pleased with our ability to present the fundamentals of biologically integrated orchard management in written form and through hands-on demonstrations. As was discussed above, this information is not available through the usual channels of continuing education for agricultural professionals. We believe that this information was successfully transferred to participants and they will now be better equipped to promote sustainable alternatives to toxic pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers. The workshops gave those participants who do not interact directly with farmers (i.e., EPA personnel) an introduction to the viability of sustainable farming methods. As a result of this training they will be better prepared to serve as cooperators or funders of sustainable agricultural programs and projects.
Second, the workshops offered participants a rare opportunity to interact with farmers, farm advisors, and independent farm consultants who are experienced with biologically integrated practices. At the workshops participants were encouraged to ask questions of these presenters, who supplied not only technical information, but gave anecdotes of their personal experience with the methods. This was helpful in bringing the technical information to life and grounding it in the reality of farm production. The project created a pathway for sharing information learned in the field with agriculture-related agencies.
Finally, the workshops gave participants a chance to network with each other. The small-group sessions within the workshops allowed people from different organizations to interact and strengthen their relationships.
Impacts on Agricultural Professionals
At the conclusion of each workshop, participants were asked to complete an evaluation of the event. Their comments revealed that the workshops helped participants acquire new knowledge and skills, and in some cases changed their attitudes toward sustainable agricultural production practices.
For example, after the fall workshops a participant commented that the “quality of the speakers’ presentations was outstanding.” Another praised the diversity and practicality of the topics presented. In terms of using the information gained at the workshop, participants said they would be ‘better able to communicate with growers and agribusiness,” I would “inform growers about alternatives and direct them accordingly,” and that the workshop had “helped me understand the issue of dormant spray use and the alternatives available to growers.” One participant said that he was interested in starting a program similar to BIOS with peach and apricot growers in his county.
This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 1999 reporting cycle.
Community Alliance with Family Farmers/BIOS Training Proposal for SARE
P.O. Box 363
Davis, CA 95617
Office Phone: 5307568518