Facilitating Change: Reducing the Risks of Transitioning to Organic through a Comprehensive Farmer-and Extension-Based Training Program

2011 Annual Report for LNC08-291

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $144,543.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Kathleen Delate
Iowa State University

Facilitating Change: Reducing the Risks of Transitioning to Organic through a Comprehensive Farmer-and Extension-Based Training Program


Making the transition from conventional to organic farming requires a skill set that is often not taught at land-grant universities. This project was established to support farmers and agricultural professionals in obtaining hands-on instruction for learning organic certification rules and practices to aid the transition. Several courses and trainings in organic agriculture for Extension, NRCS, and students were supported in 2011 by this USDA-SARE-NCR grant project. Two trainings for NRCS staff and an intensive Field Day/workshop emphasizing the need for integrating livestock in sustainable/organic operations were held for 181 participants. Knowledge gained through these sessions was rated as very good to excellent by 83% of attendees. Updating and preparing for the 16-week course on Organic Agriculture from January to May 2012 also occurred in 2011. An evaluation of the course will include a compilation of barriers to organic transition and progress made towards overcoming those barriers through these trainings.

Objectives/Performance Targets

(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 2011 by this USDA-SARE-NCR grant project. Each is discussed separately in chronological order in the next section. In addition, work supported by this grant involved analyzing greenhouse gas emissions from USDA-NASS survey results of organic and conventional soybean production across the U.S. Results indicated that, with the development of a carbon market and payments for soil carbon sequestration through Clean Energy legislation, greater profit could be accrued by organic producers in addition to organic premium prices. Based on our analysis, organic production could sequester 28% more tons CO2 equivalents/acre/yr than conventional no-tillage production (Singerman, Delate et al., 2011). Thus, the environmental benefits from greenhouse gas reduction could incentivize increased conversion from conventional to organic production across the U.S.

“Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” Training for USDA-NRCS (Missouri and Kansas)
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 “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” class was developed and presented to 48 Kansas NRCS staff on September 14, 2011, in conjunction with the Kansas Rural Center in Sabetha, Kansas; and on September 19 to 70 NRCS and University of Missouri Extension staff in Columbia, Missouri. Evaluations showed extensive knowledge gain and increase in interest in organic production practices for USDA-NRCS professionals across the state of Kansas and Missouri.

These trainings included preparation and presentation of a PowerPoint slide show and hand-outs covering the following topics:
-Principles of organic agriculture
-Organic certification
-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)

“Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” 16-Week Iowa State University Course Development
A sixteen-week course on “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” was developed in 2011 to be offered from January 10 to May 5, 2012, at Iowa State University. 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. Evaluations from the 2010 course were used in designing the update for the course and address any shortcomings from earlier classes as perceived by course participants. Participants who completed evaluations included 20 ISU Students; 5 Conventional farmers; 2 Organic farmers; and 3 Extension Educators. Descriptions of farming operations of farmer-participants included the following: 50 acres of organic hay; 60 acres of conventional grain with a small cow-calf herd; 1,100 acres of organic row crops; and 1,500 acres of conventional row crops and 6,000 hogs, showing a range of operations and backgrounds. Analysis of the course evaluations revealed that at the start of the class only 4% of responding participants felt they had a solid grasp of organic agricultural production, but by the end of the course, 100% rated their understanding as good to excellent, with 83% signifying very good to excellent understanding of organic practices. The highest level of knowledge was obtained in the following: Organic certification rules (83% rating their knowledge level after the course as very good/excellent); current issues on organic agriculture (92%); and organic crop/animal production (68%). Ninety-six percent of participants rated presentations by organic farmers as an important component of the course. Several participants expressed interest in organic farming as a career, either as a producer (58%) or with an NGO or governmental agency (62%).

The 2012 course was re-designed in 2011 by K. Delate and C. Chase (Farm Management Specialist/Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture) to comply with the latest version of Adobe Connect™ to broadcast the course each week on the internet, and archive it for later viewing. The 2012 course was advertised to Extension staff, producers and students. Participants can take the class for ISU credit as HORT/AGRON/SUSTAG 484/584, “Organic Agriculture: Theory & Practice” (3 credits), as a Pass-No Pass or fully graded course. Attendees will be viewing from home computers or attending class on campus to interact with others in the class. Guest lecturers secured in 2011 include organic farmers who will present personal experiences related to production and marketing, including price structures. Details on NRCS cost-share programs pertinent to organic producers will be presented by NRCS staff. Five homework assignments were developed which will address 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 developed for participants who will be taking the course for University credits. Questions submitted by participants were uploaded as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the ISU Organic Ag webpage. The FAQ database consists of 50 questions and answers related to organic certification, nutrient management in organic systems and organic livestock production, and will be enhanced by new questions from the 2012 course. An evaluation of the 2012 course will include a compilation of barriers to organic transition and progress made towards overcoming those barriers through these trainings.

Singerman, A., K. Delate, C. Chase, C. Greene, M. Livingston, S. Lence and C. Hart. 2011. Profitability of organic and conventional soybean production under ‘green payments’ in carbon offset programs. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems doi:10/1017/S1742170511000408.

Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems Organic Field Day and Workshop
Sixty-three producers, Extension staff and educators participated in an all-day Field Day and Workshop at the ISU Neely-Kinyon Farm in Greenfield, Iowa, on September 21, 2011. Efforts for these programs included preparation and presentation of research demonstration plots showing the transition from conventional to organic production in the Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) experiment. In the first 13 years of the LTAR, yields of organic corn, soybean and oats have been equivalent to or slightly greater than their conventional counterparts. The12-year average for alfalfa and 8-year average for winter wheat showed no significant difference between organic yields and the Adair County average. In addition to excellent yields, results from the LTAR experiment demonstrated that overall soil quality, and especially soil N mineralization potential, was highest in the 4-year organic crop rotation that includes two years of grass/legume hay. Soils in all organic plots receiving only local, manure-based amendments increased their supply of total nitrogen by 33%, along with higher concentrations of carbon, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium. The results suggest that organic farming can foster greater efficiency in nutrient use and higher potential for sequestrating carbon. When calculating the returns to management for the organic and conventional systems, on average, the organic systems returned roughly $200 per acre more than conventional crops over the first 13 years of the experiment. With the cost of synthetic N fertilizer and petroleum-based herbicides and insecticides increasing, the organic system will prove even more lucrative given comparable yields to conventional systems. The increased ecological services in the organic system, in terms of enhanced biodiversity within below-ground and above-ground organismal communities; reduced potential for N leaching through the soil profile through the use of slowly released N manure-based products; and improved carbon sequestration, will lead to further economic payments in the future.

In addition to the LTAR experiment, participants received instruction on nutrient management through cover crops and compost, and the importance of maintaining soil biological health. Extension livestock specialists shared information on pasture health, and the importance of livestock on sustainable/organic farms. Local farmers presented information on marketing local produce and the increasing interest in Local Foods.
An evaluation of the Neely-Kinyon Field Day/Workshop demonstrated that all attendees increased their knowledge of organic research results and the value of livestock integration.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Outcomes of this NCR-SARE project in 2011 included the following:
-Intensive hands-on training in “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” for 181 producers, Extension and NRCS staff, and students in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri
-Increase in ‘knowledge gained on organic practices’ by an average of 83% of surveyed participants in evaluated sessions
-Use of mobile nitrogen sources and toxic pesticides reduced by those making the transition to organic agriculture by utilizing cover crops and compost
-Income increase from organic premium prices with those making the transition to organic agriculture, averaging $200/acre for corn and soybean crops
– Survey analysis showing 28% more tons carbon dioxide equivalents/acre/yr sequestered when producers transition to organic production compared to conventional no-tillage production


Dr. Craig Chase

Farm Management Specialist
Iowa State University
312 Westbrook Lane
Ames, IA 50014
Office Phone: 3192382997