NRCS, farmers gather to look into organics

Staffers want to become more familiar with alternative

By Carol Stender

LAMBERTON, Minn. -- It was a different mix than normally seen at an organic production conference.

Of about 85 people who attended a two-day organic management field course at Southwest Research and Outreach Center, more than 20 were farmers considering a transition to organics. The remaining 62 were Natural Resources and Conservation Service employees.


The NRCS will implement the farm bill's Environmental Quality Incentives Program provisions for those transitioning to organic production.

Mike Appel, NRCS southwest Minnesota assistant conservationist for field operations, saw a need for more employee training and worked with the SWROC on the conference.

"We haven't worked much with organic production in the past and we were unfamiliar with it," he said of the agency. "We need to be trained so we can provide assistance to farmers ... If a farmer from Nobles County comes in, he can have someone who has been here and can give him contacts to talk to before jumping into this."

Conference participants learned the production pitfalls and benefits of organics from researchers and area producers who have studied and farmed with organic production.

It was a hands-on course with part of the training taking place in the Elwell Agroecological farm fields where SWROC's organic research is conducted.

"I think this is a very unique experience in terms of coming out here and seeing the management system at work," said Helen Atthowe, a Missoula (Mont.) County Extension horticulturist. "What's unique here is we can talk shop around the real things."

Elwell offers a good outdoor classroom setting where teaching organic systems principles is made easier through a hands-on approach.

"This is the only other place outside the University of California-Davis where you can do this and show the principles," she said.


Solutions sought

Atthowe was one of several presenters at the two-day workshop. Producers, NRCS staff and researchers talked about solutions for some of organic's challenges.

The conference provided basic organic production information.

"We had to make the assumption that these people didn't understand the systems and concepts," said Elizabeth Dyck, a researcher at the center. "We got a mix of people who were professionals working with the organic community, extension and organic farmers involved. We talked about this as an exchange of ideas. We did some repetition but we thought some might find all this information a bit overwhelming. We asked ourselves if this course could be offered for a week. Yes. But would people have the time to take that week for study? Probably not. Everyone is so busy."

More training sessions are planned.

Grant for training

The SWROC has received a $425,000 USDA grant for training, workshops and to help fund an Elwell research position.

The event was one of Dyck's last as a SWROC researcher. Her employment with the center ended July 31 and she'll be moving to the East Coast.


She plans to take the next three months, however, to focus on writing an organic production manual for southern Minnesota.

"There's wonderful synergy here," she said.

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