May 21, 2024

Growing organics with OATS

Mallory Krieger

URBANA, Ill. — A program aimed at plugging the information holes for farmers moving from conventional to organics production continues to grow.

The Organic Agronomy Training Service is a collaboratively-managed training program for agricultural professionals working with organic and transitioning farmers in the United States.

The program’s goal is to grow domestic organic production by strengthening the educational support network of agronomists, certified crop advisers, Extension agents and technical service providers.

OATS began in 2018 when more than a dozen university researchers, Extension educators, non-profit educators and industry members recognized that farmers were reporting on evaluations and surveys that they were struggling to use the deep information they received at conferences and field days on their farms. Farmers needed more one-on-one guidance than those organizations were able to supply.

With some initial seed funding, OATS started with pilot trainings in Indiana, North Dakota and Wisconsin in 2019. The program pivoted to a virtual direction during the pandemic in 2020 and started to gain larger public interest in 2021 with the start of an organic field crop course.

Mallory Krieger, OATS national program director, gave an update on the program at the recent, Illinois Regenerative Ag Initiative public convening at the University of Illinois Energy Farm.

“It’s been growing pretty quickly. We have five or six cohorts going through the organic crop course right now. It takes about six months to go through the course. So, our first set of cohorts are just wrapping up,” Krieger said.

“We also have received quite a bit of funding through the USDA Transition to Organic Partnership Program to expand our work into the southwestern United States. We’re doing some work in California and Texas this year.

“We’ve been doing quite a few webinars. We’ve done some programming on organic crop insurance in a cooperative agreement with the Risk Management Agency.”

There are programs within the federal crop insurance program that are particular to organic farmers. An example is the contract pricing addendum.

“So, if a farmer does the work to secure a forward contract on the grain they’re growing, they can elect a contract price addendum and then their guaranteed price instead of it being the county average price that is just calculated based on the data that crop insurance uses, it’s actually calculated on their contract price,” Krieger said.

“So, instead of having to take what the conventional average corn price, they can take the $13, for example, that they got for their specialty blue corn that they’re selling to the blue chips company.”

Trained Support

The program’s end goal is that more farmers have access to trained technical support.

“There’s a total lack of trained organic technical support, especially when you compare it to what transitioning farmers are used to when they were conventional. With conventional they’ve got all their input dealers, they’ve got their seed representative, they’ve got their local co-op, they’ve got Extension that serves conventional agriculture,” Krieger noted.

“We work nationally, and we’re trying to help plug that hole for organic farmers because when they’re transitioning from conventional to organic all of a sudden that support network just shuts off and they have to replace it with farmer peers, which is beautiful. That’s one of my favorite things about organics, but if we want to see more acres transition to organic, we need a more formal support network.”

Training extends to input dealers who are starting to see a market for organics. On the business side of training, OATS works with seed companies, end-buyers like grain millers and companies that provide both conventional and organic products who need to serve their organic customer base.

“On the public side, we have an avalanche of funding coming through Natural Resources Conservation Service and a lot of NRCS staff don’t have any experience with organics, as well. So, we’re doing quite a bit of work to help train NRCS staff,” Krieger said.

“This week I’m giving an all-day workshop with Iowa NRCS regional leads. That’s the second in a four-year program that we have funded them with the Iowa Organic Association.

“We are also working with non-profits because on the organic side a lot of the early Extension work was taken up by non-profits like The Land Connection or Marbleseed, formerly known as MOSES, (the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service), the Iowa Organic Association, etcetera. So, we do a lot of work with nonprofit staff members, as well to train them in organics.”

Beyond Production

A big piece of is organics is having a demand marketing to sell the products, as well as the financial side of organic production.

“We cover profitability in our programs, more from the awareness perspective because a lot of the people that are advising farmers are not lenders. They’re not doing the financial advising side of things, but they need to understand if it pencils in,” Krieger explained.

“Take you’re local NRCS agent, they now have a (Conservation Practice Standards) 823, which is the organic planning practice standard. They’re going to be writing contracts with organic farmers. They’ve got to feel confident that they are going to be writing contracts that are going to succeed.

“So, they need to have an understanding of what does the marketing look like, what’s the profitability look like — input costs, seed costs, plus labor.

“There’s more time in the field. It’s more labor-intensive, but there is the premium, and so they need to see if it pencils out. Generally, it does. It’s not universal. There’s a lot of variability in how farmers approach their crop rotation, but in general the 10-year average is that organic is more profitable than conventional once you get past transition.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor