Facilitating Change: Reducing the Risks of Transitioning to Organic through a Comprehensive Farmer-and Extension-Based Training Program
Information and demonstrations of organic agriculture practices and certification were listed as key educational needs by transitioning farmers, NRCS and Extension staff in previous surveys. Several courses and trainings in organic agriculture in Iowa for Extension, NRCS, and students were supported in 2010 by this USDA-SARE-NCR grant project. These included a “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” Training for USDA-NRCS (Iowa), a “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” 16-Week Iowa State University Course, a Five-City “Organic Outlook” Trainings (Iowa State University) and a University of Missouri/NRCS Organic Training, which led to intensive training for 168 producers, Extension and NRCS staff, and students in Iowa and 52 in Missouri. In addition, work that involved providing organic yield data led to a new USDA-RMA crop insurance policy for organic producers that provides a fairer assessment than previous policies.
(1) Determine perceived organic production adoption barriers; (2) Develop a responsive web-based (Adobe Connect™) and face-to-face Extension-led training program; (3) Train and support interested producers, private and public agriculture professionals and organic farmer-mentors in the Iowa Organic Association, in maintaining good organic farming practices and prudent production, marketing, financial and risk mitigation strategies; and (4) Evaluate the training through surveys and personal interviews with participating audiences.
Several courses and trainings in organic agriculture in Iowa for Extension, NRCS, and students were supported in 2010 by this USDA-SARE-NCR grant project. Each is discussed separately in chronological order in the next section. In addition, work that involved providing organic yield data led to a new USDA-RMA crop insurance policy for organic producers that provides a fairer assessment than previous policies.
“Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” Training for USDA-NRCS (Iowa)
In recent years, the USDA-NRCS has been charged with managing several direct payment and cost-share programs that support organic agricultural activities, including payments for transitioning land to organic production. These programs include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Lack of familiarity with organic production and organic certification was cited by NRCS staff as a barrier to providing quality assistance to clientele of these programs. In response to this need, a short course on “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” was developed and held on January 12, 2010, in conjunction with the Iowa State University Small Farms Program (Andy Larson–Director) for 67 USDA-NRCS professionals across the state of Iowa. This Adobe Connect™ program included preparation and presentation of a PowerPoint slide show covering the following topics:
-Principles of organic agriculture
-Nutrient management for organic crop production
-Pest management (weeds, insects and diseases) in organic systems
-Case studies of organic crop production: seed to postharvest storage (corn, soybean, sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, apples
-Economics of organic production (grain crops and vegetables)
-Markets for organic products (wholesale to retail)
Following presentations from an Organic Specialist (K. Delate), an NRCS specialist (D. Brummel), and an organic farmer (M. Kleinschmidt), attendees sent questions via the internet, which were then archived into the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) posted on the Iowa State University Organic Agriculture website (http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/organic ag/). Attendees rated the course as excellent preparation for dealing with the diverse questions from organic producers.
“Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” 16-Week Iowa State University Course
A sixteen-week course on “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” was developed and offered from January to May 2010 at Iowa State University. The course was open to Extension staff, producers and students. Anyone wanting to take the class for credit could sign up for HORT/AGRON/SUSTAG 484/584, “Organic Agriculture: Theory & Practice” (3 credits), and take the class as a Pass-No Pass or fully graded course. There were 33 people in attendance: 25 who took the class on campus, and 8 who took it as a Distance Education class, including four producers. The course was co-taught by K. Delate, C. Chase (Farm Management Specialist) and J. DeWitt (Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture). The course was shown as an Adobe Connect™ session, broadcast each week on the internet, and archived for later viewing (class session list in Table 1). Thus, attendees could view from home computers or attend class on campus to interact with others in the class. Guest lecturers included organic farmers who presented personal experiences related to production and marketing, including price structures. Details on NRCS cost-share programs pertinent to organic producers were presented by NRCS staff. Participants taking the course for credit were given five homework assignments, which addressed current topics in organic agriculture, such as the impact of high corn prices for ethanol on numbers of transitioning farmers. A term paper, midterm- and final-exam were also required for participants signed up for University credits. Participants were asked to submit questions at the end of every class period, which were then answered outside of class and uploaded as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the ISU Organic Ag webpage.
Table 1. “Organic Agriculture” class sessions, January 12-May 4, 2010.
1/12/10 Introduction into Organic Agriculture: Historical origins, ecology, people, economics
1/19/10 National Standards for Certified Organic Operations
1/26/10 Organic Grain Production
2/2/10 Organic Vegetable Production
2/9/10 Policies and Processes affecting the Economics of Transitioning
2/16/10 Soil Health in Organic Systems
2/23/10 Understanding Nitrogen Cycling in Organic Systems
3/2/10 Biological Control, IPM and Organic Pest Management
3/9/10 Organic Forage and Oilseed Crops
3/16/10 Spring Break
3/23/10 Organic Fruit Crops
3/30/10 Integrated Crop and Livestock Systems: Organic Dairy and Poultry Production
4/6/10 Integrated Crop and Livestock Systems: Organic Beef and Swine Production
4/13/10 Integrated Crop and Livestock Systems: Nutrient Management
4/20/10 Graduate Student Presentations
4/27/10 Graduate Student Presentations/Participatory Course Evaluation with Producers
5/3/10 Final Exam Study Session
5/4/10 Final Exam
Because the course included participants with diverse experiences, the initial questions determined baseline characteristics of each attendee. These questions were structured to provide an understanding of the range and nature of organic agricultural knowledge at the initiation of the course. The balance of the evaluation was to determine gains in organic knowledge resulting from participating in the course and methods that could be altered to improve the course. Analysis of the course evaluations revealed that at the start of the class only 5% of responding participants felt they had a solid grasp of organic agricultural production. By the end of the course, 88% of the participants felt they had an excellent understanding of organic crop and animal production. Suggestions for dividing the course into Beginning– and Advanced–Organic Agriculture were supported by the majority of the participants. Participants rated presentations by organic farmers as an important component of the course. Several participants expressed interest in organic farming as a career. The course will be held again in January 2012, and preparations are underway.
Five-City “Organic Outlook” Trainings (Iowa State University)
In conjunction with the ISU Value-Added Program and the Iowa Organic Association, five “Organic Outlook” trainings were held between December 10, 2010, and January 22, 2011, in five cities across Iowa: Nevada, Tripoli, Atlantic, Storm Lake, and Fairfield. Sixty-eight producers, Extension staff and educators participated in these sessions. Efforts for these programs included preparation and presentation of a PowerPoint slide show covering the following topics:
-Update on organic markets
-Economics of organic production (grain crops)
-Markets for organic products (wholesale to retail)
-Organic research update from ISU
An evaluation of the Fairfield meeting demonstrated that all attendees increased their knowledge of organic markets and organic research results from ISU. Following the session, participants were asked to list their top ten organic research and Extension needs. The research needs and the amount of information available on these research topics is presented in Table 2.
Table 2. Organic research needs, as identified by participants at “Organic Outlook” sessions.
Organic fertility: Systems and trials
Organic Tillage: Cultivation and crop rotation
Water Quality: Contaminants, trace minerals
Small Grains: Profitability
Weed and insect management
Crops other than row and hay crops: Berries
Herb production: Iowa and Midwest varieties
Markets: Location and access
Access to funding (grants) Livestock
Beef/livestock: Production, Marketing, Wormers, Herd health Low
Organic feed: Relative feed value of ration composition Low
University of Missouri/NRCS Organic Training
On September 15, 2010, Drs. Chase and Delate traveled to Columbia, Missouri, to participate in a joint training with the University of Missouri and Missouri NRCS to train 52 NRCS and Extension staff in “Organic Agriculture: Practices and Economics.” This training was the first part of a two-part series of organic agriculture trainings in Missouri.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Outcomes of this NCR-SARE project in 2010 included the following:
-Intensive hands-on training in “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” for 168 producers, Extension and NRCS staff, and students in Iowa and 52 in Missouri
-Increase in ‘knowledge gained on organic practices’ by an average of 94% of surveyed participants in evaluated sessions
-Use of mobile nitrogen sources and toxic pesticides reduced by those making the transition to organic agriculture (will quantify in 2011)
-Income increase from organic premium prices with those making the transition to organic agriculture (will quantify in 2011)
-Information on organic yields from ISU research fields used in determining a new, fairer price for crop insurance for organic corn and soybean crops by RMA
Farm Management Specialist
Iowa State University
312 Westbrook Lane
Ames, IA 50014
Office Phone: 3192382997