Training organic trainers

Clif Bar and Pipeline Foods are stepping up to spearhead a much-needed program to train agricultural professionals working with organic or transitioning farmers. The project, supported by the Organic Trade Association’s industry-invested organic research, promotion and education GRO programming, is called the Organic Agronomy Training Series (OATS), will launch this spring in the Midwest.

Clif Bar has provided a cornerstone donation of $50,000 for the project, while Pipeline Foods has spearheaded a broad coalition to implement the project.

“One challenge transitioning growers have is rotational thinking, and the need to diversify crops if they’ve been on the soy-corn treadmill. Agronomists with knowledge in organic can help producers think through the ecological and economic benefits--and challenges--of rotational crops and help growers diversify,” says Matthew Dillon, Director of Agricultural Policy and Programs at Clif Bar.

Anders Gurda, Senior Manager-Agronomy Solutions for Pipeline Foods, explains, “The formation and organization of OATS has been spearheaded by Pipeline Foods so far, but the real magic and work is done by the two dozen or so members of the OATS collaborative who are university researchers and extension specialists, private agronomists, non-profit staff, and industry representatives. The group represents a cross section of those working, researching, educating, and advocating around organic grain production in the Midwest.”

Gurda says three OATS regions have been established: OATS East (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois), OATS Central (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa), and OATS West (Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota). During spring and summer 2019, each region will deliver a training suited to their growers, their environment, and their crop calendar. All trainings will work off the same curriculum, developed by the OATS collaborative, and will be a mix of traditional presentations, farmer panels, and on-farm experiences. The program is intentionally narrowing the focus on target regions and one production system to make sure that it is successful in year one and prove a concept that can be expanded across a variety of organic crop production systems throughout the country.

“We all want more acres farmed organically, but the network of agronomists and technical service providers just isn’t there to support growers through transition and beyond,” says Gurda. “The goal of OATS is to create a knowledgeable support network for organic farmers and those transitioning to organic, lowering many of the barriers to organic transition and promoting organic as an opportunity worth exploring. When everyone from your seed dealer to your county extension agent can speak knowledgably about organic farming, we’ll have the groundswell of skilled voices needed to grow the number of acres and farmers going organic.”

“OATS will help an entire region’s agronomic support network to become conversant, and eventually fluent, in organic production systems. This will increase the health and resilience of organic and transitioning farms. Organic farming isn’t easy, but if we can ease the path through transition and support success once organic through training those on the ground working with farmers, we’ll have more acres, healthier farms, and a more resilient industry.” //