Seems like every time we put out a feeler about Extension
and organic, we get a reaction. We recently ran a piece
by Elizabeth Lamb, a State Specialist in Extension at
the University of Florida, listing four ways organic
growers could help Extension be more effective. (See
ways organic & sustainable producers can help extension
serve them better.)
We got two long responses, one from Cornell Extension,
and one from a worried organic grower. We decided to
share both of them with you, and keep the Extension
discussion cooking. In this piece, Jim Ochterski of
Cornell Extension in New York reports on the results
of a meeting held earlier this year where organic growers
and state Extension shared ideas. When Jim sent it to
me by email, he said, “Seeing the online articles
about the hot / cold relationship between organic farms
and Extension, I would like to add an article I wrote
for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of NY
magazine, published Spring 2003.” It would be
interesting to see how other Extension programs stack
up to Cornell in terms of the services they provide.
For an opposing perspective on Extension and organic,
see John C. Simmons’ piece. Simmons is an organic
grower from North Branch, Michigan.
Chris Hill, Executive Editor NewFarm.Org
As cold winds blew
outside the Candor Fire Hall in late February 2003, sixteen farm
operators (mostly organic), four regional Cornell Cooperative Extension
Educators, and representatives from Northeast Organic Network (NEON)
and NOFA-NY gathered to exchange ideas about programs and services
that Cornell Cooperative Extension can offer in South Central New
York. Knowing that many organic farmers have distanced themselves
from the Extension system, we sought out those suggestions that
could be of greatest practical benefit. Our conversation was lively
and wide-ranging, and included the voices of all present.
One thread of understanding running through this meeting was that,
at times, Extension has not been recognized for providing useful
information to organic farmers. By fine-tuning the questions asked
of Extension, and the answers provided by Extension, a new level
of cooperation could be at hand. Here is an example:
Old question: Can
you give me recommendations for controlling X beetles organically?
Old answer: Probably not, but we
can give you an IPM approach.
New question: Can you help me identify
and understand the life cycle of the X beetle, so I can devise a
way to reduce crop damage?
New answer: Yes . . . let's figure
out the bug, go over the life cycle, and consider possible approaches.
Honestly, the answers you can get from Cornell Cooperative Extension
will vary from region to region, based on staffing levels, staff
experience with organic production, and the priorities of the local
offices. Nonetheless, organic farmers and Extension can build up
to higher levels of communication, idea exchange, and consumer education.
Below are some of the points addressed in the South Central New
York organic farm / Extension regional meeting. They are intended
to expand your understanding of what organic farms can expect from
the Cooperative Extension system.
What Extension is already
providing to organic farmers:
- One-on-one assistance with pest identification, understanding
pest life cycles, and soil health concerns.
- Extension newsletter articles about cultural practices that
apply to organic farming. Occasional pieces about other organic
- Cornell web site visits for articles and information.
- Soil testing and recommendations for soil amendments that do
not specify source of nutrients.
- Occasional farm visits, though not enough to be a significant
Extension activity so far.
- Organic Dairy Farm Business Summary.
- Arranged farm tours and non-production farm workshops (business
planning, marketing, grants).
- Recommended varieties for fruit and vegetable plantings.
- Irrigation and pond management recommendations.
- Documentation of "what works on farms" (Sustainable
Agriculture Research and Education model of technology transfer).
Topics listed as priority
by organic producers at this meeting:
Consumer education & marketing
- Providing buyers with a clearer explanation of organic farming
and reasons to purchase locally grown food.
- Nutrition comparison between organic and non-organic food.
- Display-exhibit about encouraging consumption of local food.
- Dealing with plant diseases and insects - especially during
outbreak years when pressure is high
- Lack of good organic options for some of the major pests especially
when pressure is high (flea beetle, Colorado potato beetle, and
potato leaf hopper)
- Herd health; fly control around livestock, worming organically,
- Apple thinners
- Fact sheets for organic pest management
- Irrigation and water management practices
- Frost protection ideas
- Dealing with weather, hoop house use, and crop planning for
- Cover crop choices, benefits of cover crops, timing of tilling,
- Seed production and breeding
What Cornell Cooperative
Extension can do for organic farmers (coupled with assistance noted
- Identify troublesome pests and provide understanding of pest
- Soil sampling and testing for optimum soil health.
- Improve communication about what Extension is offering to farms.
- Focus on existing strengths of Extension system to assist organic
- Avoid positioning Extension as authority on organic production.
- Educate public about the decisions they make as consumers.
- Avoid being "wishy-washy" when asked direct questions
about conventional versus organic and sustainable production methods.
Suggestions for a more
successful relationship between Cornell Cooperative Extension and
- Extension staff should visit organic farms.
- Have additional regional meetings to gather and prioritize ideas
- Host meetings for specific commodity needs vegetable, dairy,
livestock, fruit, and integrated systems.
- Include organic information in newsletters.
- Educate consumers by promoting organic home gardening; educate
children about food choices and eating local and fresh.
- Circulate lists of information sources for organic producers.
These ideas are forming the basis of improved
Extension outreach to organic farms in South Central New York. If
you have additional items to add, please keep us all informed.
Comments about this article can be directed to Jim Ochterski,
Cornell Cooperative Extension - South Central New York Agriculture
Team, (607) 535-7161, firstname.lastname@example.org