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Organic industry expands technical service

Organic Agronomy Training Service Project offers additional support to growers looking to transition to organic.

The hard reality for organic farmers – and farmers who want to go organic – is that the network of agronomists and technical service providers is often just not there to support growers through the transition to organic production and beyond.

To address this critical challenge, the Organic Trade Assn. (OTA) announced significant actions to expand and strengthen its support for a new train-the-trainer program – the Organic Agronomy Training Service (OATS) Project -- for agricultural professionals working with organic or transitioning farmers. The OATS Project is supported by GRO Organic, OTA's industry-invested organic research, promotion and education program.

Named as national program director of OATS was organic agricultural expert, educator and farmer Mallory Krieger. Krieger was most recently Farmer Training Program manager for The Land Connection based in Champaign, Ill., whose mission is to train farmers in resilient, restorative farming techniques and to work to protect and enhance farmland. At The Land Connection, Krieger developed educational events, networking opportunities and risk management resources for central Illinois farmers. She founded the group's Organic Grain Conference in 2017 and grew the program to serve more than 200 farmers, researchers and industry professionals. Krieger grows transitional organic hay and small grains on an 80-acre farm she owns in Illinois.

In another significant step forward for the program, OTA will become the fiscal sponsor of OATS and will be responsible for receiving and distributing contributions and funds for the project.

"We need to help American farmers meet the growing demand for organic, and our GRO-supported OATS Project is directly addressing this need," said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of OTA. "The vision of OATS is that every transitional and certified organic farmer has robust access to technical service expertise to provide unbiased, science-based agronomic support for their farming operation."

"There is a serious need for technical support for organic farmers and for the professionals working with organic farmers, especially those working with organic grain farmers," Krieger said. "Farmers need to know how to integrate organic into their complex operations, and they need the one-on-one guidance that OATS is working to develop."

Building on year 1 success

With the support of GRO Organic, the OATS Project will have hosted, by the end of August, three successful pilot trainings across the Midwest focused on organic row crop production. More than a hundred participants, ranging from farmers to agronomists and crop advisors to academics, have taken part. 

OATS is a national consortium of independent regional nonprofits, universities, businesses and farmer networks that each work to promote and support domestic certified organic crop production. The consortium was formed to address the need for more technical assistance for organic farmers. For Phase 2 of the program, a steering committee has been formally established to serve as the national decision-making body of the consortium. This committee will work with the national program director to develop the OATS national strategic plan and set objectives/goals/aims of the OATS Project.

The current emphasis of OATS is to fill the void in technical assistance for organic grain growers in the Midwest. In future years, the intention is to expand to different production systems and geographic regions.

Three OATS regions in nine states were established in the pilot phase: OATS East (Indiana, Ohio and Illinois), OATS Central (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa) and OATS West (Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota). Training sessions were held in each region during the spring and summer of 2019. All training sessions worked off of the same curriculum developed by the OATS collaborative and were a mix of traditional presentations, farmer panels and on-farm experiences.

Pipeline Foods spearheaded the coalition in the pilot year of the program and -- led by Anders Gurda, director of the Farm Profit Program for Pipeline Foods -- helped standardize the training. Gurda will now chair the program's steering committee.

"It's been an honor to work with so many skilled and committed educators, researchers and agronomists to get OATS to where it is today," Gurda said. "Pipeline Foods has been happy to spearhead and steward the OATS consortium so far, and we're excited to continue on in a support role as Mallory takes the program into the future."

Krieger said for Phase 2 of the program, training sessions will be held in the three original regions, with an expansion of two additional training sessions in new yet-be-determined regions. Another big component of Phase 2, according to Krieger, is to develop an accurate way to measure the success of the training and to create a system to get the information to farmers.

Also underway through GRO is a special assessment of the organic technical assistance field. This will enable GRO to design an informed investment strategy for its technical assistance projects and to identify programs that can be scaled up to include different regions and crops.

For more information on OATS and GRO's technical assistance projects, a workshop will be held at Natural Products Expo East (All Things Organic) in September that will highlight outcomes of the GRO technical assistance projects, details on the OATS accomplishments in 2019 and plans for 2020 programming.

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