Today’s organic farmers, like all farmers, are consummate problem solvers and masters of many skills. However, reliable assistance and educational tools to successfully deal with the daily challenges of their operations are often lacking.
The 2018 Organic Confluences Summit: Evaluating and Advancing Knowledge Transfer, held in May in Washington, D.C, addressed the need for improved extension and education for organic farmers. Almost 200 participants including farmers, scientists, extension agents, industry members, non-profits and key policy influencers convened to take a deep look into how to improve current ways to transfer knowledge to organic farmers.
Participants engaged with and learned from a wide variety of panel discussions before breaking out into small group sessions to answer questions such as how to obtain critical technical assistance and educational support, and how our nation’s agricultural extension system can become more effective in working with organic farmers.
Conversations made it clear that the quality and quantity of information extension agents are willing and able to provide to organic growers in their region vary drastically from one place to another. In Salinas, CA, a hotbed for organic production, organic extension agents are highly qualified to work with organic producers, and the region even has its own dedicated organic extension agent. Meanwhile, extension agents in the Southeast overall still have very little knowledge of organic agriculture. Still, participants agreed that as a whole, the Cooperative Extension System’s ability to assist organic farmers has been improving.
The experience level of extension agents in organic agriculture still creates a significant barrier to knowledge transfer. Participants felt that “train the trainer” programs were necessary to increase agent knowledge of organic farming systems. In regions where numerous organizations are already dedicated to education and training in organic systems, extension should focus on becoming versed in local resources already available and refer farmers to the best sources of information.
- Regional Cooperative Extension agents should be aware of resources and organizations already providing information and education to organic producers.
- Increase investment in train-the-trainer programs to improve extension agent’s knowledge of organic farming.
Cultural barriers affect the success of organic extension and education in a number of ways. Extension agent bias against organic agriculture still exists in many regions, is driven by a general lack of knowledge about organic, and often reflects the feelings of the extension office’s farmer constituents – particularly in areas with few organic operations. Even in areas where extension and education professionals are receptive to organic practices, barriers may be present due to differences in language, communication and culture between farmers and educators.
- Implement basic Organic 101 training for all extension agents
- Ensure that the workforce entering the field of extension, education and agronomy is diverse and better able to understand and handle cultural differences among constituents.
There is a wealth of regional and national resources for organic farmers available in a wide variety of formats. One Confluences participant noted that the challenge is often not a general lack of resources but too many. This creates problems for farmers as they wade through a deluge of sometimes conflicting information. How does one find the most appropriate information? Is the information presented in an applicable way? Is it regionally relevant? Is it disseminated effectively, and does it meet the unique needs of organic producers?
- Build a clearinghouse website where information is aggregated and curated.
- Curate information based on regional usefulness
- Increase the depth of information available and cover more advanced topics for more advanced farmers
- When creating farmer-focused recommendations, make sure to prioritize those recommendations
- Develop more resources on marketing, infrastructure, certification and paper work.
Keep your eyes peeled!
Information from this year’s Confluences will provide the basis for a White Paper discussing the challenges and solutions to improving extension and information dissemination to organic and transitioning farmers. This is expected to be released in early 2019. //
Tracy Misiewicz is the Associate Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center (email@example.com).