Conservation meets organic agriculture

An interview with Minnesota NRCS head Bill Hunt about how the NRCS in Minnesota might serve as a model for other states in supporting organic production.

by James A. Riddle, Organic Independents, Winona, MN

   

Editor's NOTE

Although the Memorandum of Understanding between the OTA and the NRCS went out to all state offices of the NRCS, the provisions of the MOU have not been embraced equally by all states. In your own state, you may very well encounter ignorance or resistance. That's why the Minnesota example is so important: It serves as a model to point to when lobbying for more active leadership by your own state NRCS. For those who have not seen the MOU, or would like to have it available when talking with a state or national NRCS rep, here's a copy to print out.

For more information on NRCS programs, and for a very good list of state and national contacts, you can visit the NRCS web site at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

Finally, if you've had an experience in your state, good or bad, regarding NRCS support for organic production, we'd like to hear about it.

 
   

NRCS programs of special interest to organic growers

Conservation Technical Assistance
Take advantage of USDA cost-share and conservation incentive programs for implementing solutions to reduce erosion, improve soil health, improve water quantity and quality, improve pasture and range health, reduce upstream flooding, improve woodlands, and address other natural resource issues.

Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program
Offers the possibility of a cost-share agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a wildlife habitat development plan.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program
This is a voluntary conservation program for farmers and ranchers that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals. EQIP offers financial and technical help to assist eligible participants in installing or implementing structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land.

Resource Conservation and Development Program
Technical and financial assistance funds for improvement of quality of life through natural resources conservation and community development which leads to sustainable communities.

Other programs and initiatives
The NRCS also has funds for nutrient management, conservation planning, soil and water conservation, soil surveys, grazing assistance, watershed protection, riparian buffers and forestry incentives. To learn more about these opportunities, visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/
programs

 

 

In September, 2001, Pearlie Reed, who at the time was Chief of the USDA’s 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 Agriculture’s 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 Minnesota’s 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. Here’s 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, I’ve been reading more about organic agriculture — publications from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the USDA’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 each other."

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. I’m 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 MDA’s 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 production.

We all rise together. There is plenty of money to be made for all producers. If we don’t 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 Minnesota’s 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 for growth.

Once the MN success stories get out — others will get on board. Success begets success."