GRO Organic investments explore technical assistance

The Organic Trade Association’s Member Day in D.C. in May. kicked off with a crucial discussion on the long-term challenge of providing technical assistance for organic production.  Members heard about two major initiatives, both focused on “training the trainers” to expand the supply of organically fluent educators.

Anders Gurda, currently with Pipeline Foods, spoke about the new Organic Agronomy Training Series (OATS), a new form of organic training for Midwestern commodity crop advisors. In addition, Lindsay Haines of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) summarized how NRCS integrated organic into its offerings and staff trainings during the past eight years. Both NRCS and OATS represent opportunities for the organic trade sector as investments for the young GRO (Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic) fund established by the Organic Trade Association.

Many who have contributed to the GRO fund have cited the need for good quality, effective technical assistance for organic and transitional producers as a high priority. This need reflects a disconnect between sustained growth in demand and low rates of U.S. producer and acreage conversion. In fact, the Organic Trade Association’s Grains Council last year specifically recommended a new focus on increasing the number of trusted advisors.

“It’s great that GRO is stepping up and meeting the needs identified by the Grains Council, and showing how various parts of our member communities can work together,” says Johanna Mirenda, Farm Policy Director for the Organic Trade Association.

The Member Day session was part of GRO’s strategic assessment of technical assistance available, to help guide future decisions about GRO allocations. A white paper on the topic will be completed this fall and discussed at the Organic Confluences meeting in Baltimore.

At the May workshop, Gurda described the new OATS crop-advisor training as a collaborative initiative from many people across the organic private and public spectrum.  Gurda noted that crop advisors are second only to family members as influences on farmers. That’s a challenge because crop advisors usually are in business selling conventional farming inputs and tend to be “allelopathic” to organic. Yet, there’s a lot of potential benefit in changing that dynamic, as he illustrated with survey data collected by the OATS team.

Key data points suggest the potential impact of better support for organic crop advisors/consultants: large acreages, grower interest, and knowledge gaps to be addressed.

Haines, meanwhile, spoke about the status of organic technical assistance within NRCS’ programs since the 2008 Farm Bill provided the first mandate regarding conservation support for organic production. As this effort has grown, training NRCS staff to understand organic systems has emerged as a limiting factor. In 2018, NRCS issued its “National Organic Farming Handbook” as a technical manual for the agency’s staff.

NRCS staff trainings on organic are led by Ben Bowell, Organic Training Specialist funded through a matching agreement with Oregon Tilth. The main focus of GRO’s interest is specifically this type of matched funding model (“contribution agreements”) that could be expanded to grow NRCS’ organic support capacity.

Discussion at the May workshop focused on scaling up the efforts described by the panel.  Emerging questions include:

  • How to integrate various efforts, including private initiatives, so that they all mesh
  • How to ensure that growers’ initial transition is directed to the agroecological end of the spectrum (as opposed to input substitution)
  • Can NRCS achieve more consistency between states? How will OATS adapt to non-grain systems?

These and more will help form the next chapter of GRO’s development.

“It’s an exciting time for the Organic Trade Association’s future as we explore these very practical questions and see important breakthroughs happening in the field,” said Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association.

For more information about GRO and support for organic technical assistance, contact //

This article was written by Mark Lipson from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz.