2001, Pearlie Reed, who at the time was Chief of the USDAs
Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and Katherine
DiMatteo, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association
(OTA), signed a Memorandum of Understanding. In the MOU, the
NRCS agreed to provide technical assistance to organic producers,
and to specifically assist them in the implementation of soil
and water conservation practices. In addition, the OTA and
NRCS agreed to share information and cooperate fully to advance
conservation and organic production.
The MOU was sent out to all state NRCS offices in November,
2001. By early December, Bill Hunt, State Conservationist
in Minnesota, had directed his entire staff to begin servicing
the needs of organic and transitional producers.
Since that time, the MN NRCS has instituted a transition
incentives payment program, using Environmental Quality Incentives
Program funds, to assist farmers who choose to convert new
acreage to organic production. Under the program, farmers
can be paid $50/acre for crop land and/or $25/acre for pasture
land, up to 250 acres/year for 3 years, to convert land from
conventional to organic agriculture. To qualify, farmers must
apply at their local NRCS offices, file organic system plans,
and be inspected by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.
In addition, the MN NRCS State Leadership Team has been briefed
on organic production and certification requirements by organic
producers, members of the Minnesota Department of Agricultures
Organic Advisory Task Force (OATF) and MDA staff. Numerous
MN NRCS employees were funded to attend the Upper Midwest
Organic Farming Conference (UMOFC) in March, 2002.
The MN NRCS worked with the University of Minnesotas
Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, MN, (where
the U of M has 120 acres in certified organic production),
to deliver a 2 day Field Course in Organic Management, attended
by over 65 NRCS employees. The NRCS has helped organize and
publicize organic farm field days, supported grant proposals
for organic research and outreach projects, and is in the
process of revising technical requirements to make sure that
they fit the needs of organic producers.
Why is the MN NRCS taking the lead in support of organic
agriculture? To answer this question, I interviewed Bill Hunt,
MN NRCS State Conservationist. Heres what Bill Hunt
had to say:
What sparked your interest in organic agriculture?
Bill Hunt: "When I worked for the Pennsylvania
NRCS from 1980-95, I attended some field days at the Rodale
Institute. You must remember that organic was seen as on
the fringe at the time. I went on several fields trips
to organic farms, and I could see some important environmental
benefits. I saw production systems that reminded me of how
my granddaddy farmed. You know, I keep getting older, and
am more concerned about health, what I eat, and the kind of
world that we are leaving to our grandchildren. As they say,
You are what you eat.
Lately, Ive been reading more about organic agriculture
publications from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture,
the USDAs Agricultural Research Service, and more. Organics
just makes common sense.
I believe in freedom of choice in this country. Organic presents
another choice for producers and consumers. It also has real
potential for increased income for MN producers. It can work
well for small acreages, help keep families on the farms,
and build rural communities, all while providing a good income
with environmental benefits.
In all honesty, the NRCS had not been providing benefits
to organic producers that we could have. We simply didnt
know enough about it. With organic agriculture, we get a chance
to go back to basics, only with the support of new science
and better tools.
It is a bit of a challenge for the NRCS staff to learn organic
production methods and certification requirements, but we
are digging right in. We are working with organic producers
to understand their systems, so that we can provide information
to new producers on soil building crop rotations, nutrient
management, and other production systems that are profitable
and ecologically sound. We are learning about the new tools
and techniques that really work for organic producers.
When I heard organic farmers talk about how they are sustaining
their families and making money with organic practices, it
caught my ear. I thought to myself, Am I asking my people
to sell non-cost effective conservation practices? I
dont want to do that. Conservation practices need to
be cost effective organic production does that."
What programs has the MN NRCS implemented specifically
to encourage organic production in Minnesota?
BH: "The EQIP organic transition incentive
payment was a big step. We were able to do that by re-writing
some of our technical standards for the EQIP program. We want
to make sure that the transition payments go to producers
who are serious about converting land to organic production,
not just those who apply to receive the payments. Every program
available through NRCS should be available to organic farmers.
It will take some re-structuring to make them work.
We will need the continued help of the OTA, MDA, OATF, Sustainable
Farming Association, and others to make the NRCS programs
more "organic-friendly". We are going to service
all producers including organic. Grazing assistance
is a good example. We have technical and financial support
for producers who choose to implement management intensive,
rotational grazing systems. These programs are open to organic
and conventional producers.
Organic producers need to receive premium prices for their
products. It does no good for farmers to raise their crops
and livestock organically, and then sell their products for
conventional prices. It appears that organic producers need
assistance with marketing, and that is another area where
the NRCS can help."
What plans does the agency have for future measures
to encourage farmers to transition to organic production?
BH: "We are not encouraging or discouraging
one type of production over another. We are simply providing
producer flexibility giving them another option. We
need to help connect producers with consumers. We need to
help farmers produce products that consumers are demanding.
At NRCS, we need to be the leaders. And we would like to see
Minnesota take the lead in exporting high quality organic
products to other countries. Producers who choose to go organic
should get world class technical assistance from the NRCS,
U of M, MDA, the Extension Service, etc."
What existing NRCS programs are compatible with organic
production, and how can organic producers find out information
about these programs?
BH: "My staff had an eye-opening experience
at Lamberton. They learned a lot! Interested producers can
now go to NRCS ag service centers throughout the state and
they will find responsive support. We recognize that we need
to go beyond NRCS programs and be knowledgeable about other
resources available for organic producers, such as those from
the Sustainable Farming Association, the Midwest Organic and
Sustainable Education Services (MOSES), the Appropriate Technology
Transfer to Rural Areas (ATTRA), the Rodale Institute, and
more. We know we dont have all the answers.
We will have further workshops to train employees. We need
to work together. After all, soil erosion, wildlife habitat,
water quality protection, and soil quality are being addressed
by more than just organic producers. We need to learn from
Are there other steps that the MN NRCS has taken
or plans to take, such as staff training, field days, etc.
focused on organic agriculture?
BH: "You better believe it! A division
of the NRCS, Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D),
is planning another organic field training yet this summer.
All District Conservationists will be funded to attend another
organic training at Lamberton next year. We will send people
back to UMOFC. Im worried that we will have trouble
holding people back."
How does the MN NRCS plan to work with organic certification
agencies and other organizations involved in organic production,
such as the Sustainable Farming Association?
BH: "We need to keep up with techniques,
and receive continued information and reinforcement, especially
from organic farmers. There is nothing better than working
with the people who really know the material. We plan to modify
the Field Office Technical Guide to make sure that the quality
standards and technical standards work for organic systems."
What programs are available through the Resource
Conservation and Development districts which can encourage
organic production, processing, and market development?
BH: "As I said before, production is
only one part of it. You have to be able to market the products.
Market demand exists for organic products. Look at the grocery
store people are seeking wholesome, safe, healthy foods.
The RC&Ds are promoters, not technicians! The RC&Ds
help get the right people connected through grant proposals,
with a goal of keeping income on the farm. Project ideas are
initiated by producers. RC&Ds can help set up infrastructures
to segregate, package, and market organic products. There
is also the option of web based marketing. For example, one
RC&D helped set up a web business to market Native crafts.
They could help set one up for organic products.
There are 8 RC&D councils in state. To initiate a project,
a farmer can start with the local District Conservationist,
a County Commissioner, or a Soil and Water Conservation District
Supervisor. They are all involved in the RC&D structure.
Once an idea is introduced and supported at the county level,
it is presented to the region council. If adopted, the council
directs an RC&D coordinator to assist the project. Assistance
could include market research, writing business plans, arranging
finances, providing access to federal resources, etc. The
coordinator then helps implement the plan. With RC&D support,
the project can get access to NRCS staff throughout the state
and nation, including economists, agronomists, hydrologists,
geologists, grazing specialists, etc."
Please describe the memorandum
of understanding being developed between the MN NRCS,
Minnesota Department of Agriculture, University of Minnesota,
University Extension, and the Farm Service Agency.
BH: "I am very excited about the prospect
of a state MOU, based on MOU between the national NRCS and
OTA. Our goal is to provide the maximum number of options
to producers and consumers, protect natural resources, and
maintain rural communities. We want to get all of the agencies
that have a role to play in assisting organic producers to
describe their roles and the services they provide. We want
to catapult Minnesota forward as a leader.
The MDAs Organic Advisory Task Force identified obstacles
for the adoption of organic practices in the state, and suggested
numerous opportunities for growth. We are using the OATF recommendations
to improve assistance to organic producers. It is the basis
for finding solutions to some of the obstacles to organic
We all rise together. There is plenty of money to be made
for all producers. If we dont meet the demand for organic
products, someone else will. Why not improve our health? Why
not do a better job of protecting the environment? Why not
promote wholesome attitudes towards the earth and ourselves?"
How can producers, consumers, and policy specialists
in other states follow Minnesotas lead? What "tips"
can you offer?
BH: "First, we need to get the things
I have mentioned really working here, before we can help others.
But to begin with, people should find good examples of organic
farming systems that really work. Support each other and share
information to improve organic production techniques. Continue
to solicit feedback to better serve clients both producers
and consumers. Implement producer mentorship programs to help
bring new producers into organics. There is plenty of room
Once the MN success stories get out others will get
on board. Success begets success."