By Mallory Krieger, OATS National Program Director
Navigating organic transition and managing certified organic production of grain crops is a complex undertaking full of challenges and potential pitfalls. Farmers who are considering organic production seek information wherever they can find it: field days, workshops, conferences, online forums, YouTube videos – the list goes on and on. But, many farmers who actively engage with these ways of learning leave with one tough question – How do I put all of this information together on my own farm? Organic farming looks different on each and every farm. This is because organic is not a formula or a problem-prescription way of farming – it is a dynamic system that responds to the unique conditions present in each field, local market opportunities, and farmer management style.
In conventional production, farmers regularly turn to agricultural professionals such as consultants, chemical dealers, and seed dealers to help them make decisions about their practices and strategies, and these professionals rank as the most influential in their decision-making about farming practices, second only to their family members and higher than other farmers!
The same system of technical support does not yet exist for organic farmers. There is an extreme shortage of agricultural professionals who understand organic production and are set up to work with farmers who are seeking support. This shortage is fast becoming the focus of the industry. In their 2019 report “U.S. Organic Grain: How to Keep it Growing”, the U.S. Grains Collaboration identified this lack of professional support as a major barrier to growing the organic grain sector. In 2020, Guidelight Strategies released a comprehensive report “Barriers for Farmers and Ranchers to Adopt Regenerative Ag Practices in the US” that specifically calls for more trusted technical assistance to help farmers adopt regenerative ag practices. And also in 2020, the Organic Trade Association included technical assistance as an important policy objective for “Advancing Organic to Mitigate Climate Change.”
The Organic Agronomy Training Service (a.k.a. OATS) was founded in 2018 specifically to meet this need. OATS is a consortium of universities, nonprofits, and industry partners who are building this much-needed technical support network by training agricultural professionals in the science-based practices and principles of organic crop production so that these advisors can provide one-on-one guidance to farmers. OATS is premised on the idea that robust access to personalized advice helps farmers overcome barriers to transition and successfully access the promise of the organic opportunity. This, in turn, brings increased profitability and positive environmental outcomes to farm businesses and their surrounding communities.
And it works. Over the four training events OATS held in 2019-2020, we trained 140 agricultural professionals who have directly impacted management decisions on almost a half million acres of organic and transitional farmland. We are able to achieve such wide-spread impact because training technical advisors brings compounding effects. For every advisor we train, they in-turn advise an average of 43 farmers. That is a 1:43 return on investment!
At OATS, we believe in reaching agricultural professionals when and where they are and so we are building out a suite of online tools and services that will enrich the network we are fostering. Like the rest of the country, COVID-19 brought changes to how we can deliver trainings in the immediate future. We have used this opportunity to develop an innovative hybrid online/in-person course on organic grain production. Registration opens June 1 and the course will begin in the fall of 2021. The course brings together the deep knowledge of successful organic grain farmers with the data and best practices established by university researchers, all delivered through engaging video-based lessons. The online lessons are accompanied by an outdoor, on-farm learning day where small groups of participants get the benefit of experiential learning. Once trained, these agricultural professionals are members of a network of knowledgeable consultants who serve farmers across the country.
In May, we will release “The Dirt on Organic Agriculture”, a six-episode podcast exploring common criticisms of organic farming. Our aim is to bring skeptical agronomists and crop consultants into the organic conversation by analyzing these criticisms and openly discussing the sometimes messy promise of the organic opportunity. The podcast format combines expert interviews with real world examples to get beyond us vs. them and towards a more informed understanding of organic agriculture. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to request a notification when the podcast drops.
The work we are doing to increase farmer access to technical advice is dependent on funding partners. Their support allows us to create these programs and expand our impact for farmers and the organic industry as a whole. To learn more about OATS and how you can become a part of the movement visit www.organicagronomy.org or email email@example.com.
The Organic Trade Association supports OATS as fiscal sponsor and with funding from its industry-invested GRO Organic research, promotion, and education program. Top donors include General Mills, Clif Bar & Company, Organic Valley, King Arthur Flour Co., Inc, and Stonyfield Farm, Inc.