The Organic Conservation Specialist
By Chris Schreiner
Oregon Tilth has been developing strategic partnerships to identify and develop more support services to the organic sector. One such partner is the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS mission of “helping people help the land” aligns with many of the principles underlying organic agriculture. As a partner, NRCS offers well-established assessment tools, technical support and funding streams that could be used to assist well-managed organic farming systems realize their full resource conservation potential.
Federal funding in support of organic agriculture has never been greater. Conservation programs and cost-share funding administered by the NRCS are giving increased prioritization to working with organic producers and growers interested in transitioning to organic management. In 2009 and 2010 combined, the NRCS allocated $100 million nationwide through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative to support growers implementing organic management practices, but the challenge in successfully implementing these new NRCS initiatives is a lack of agency infrastructure (technical understanding and expertise) for organic production systems.
In 2009, with grant funding support from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Oregon Tilth partnered with NRCS to deliver training sessions to help conservation planners and organic certification professionals correlate the requirements of organic certification with those of traditional conservation practices and Farm Bill programs. The Organic Conservation Cross-Training brought organic professionals and natural resource specialists together to:
• Learn how traditional conservation practices can benefit organic systems.
• Advance solutions that shape conservation practices to organic operations.
• Increase the scope of conservation assistance available to organic producers.
Four sessions were held, two in Oregon and two in Washington. Each session focused on a different type of organic cropping system – dairy, grain, tree fruit and annual vegetable. Topics covered soil quality, nutrient management, wildlife habitat as well as insect, weed and disease management.
Over 80 percent of participants indicated they would definitely apply the new information and resources they learned at the training, and the remaining participants said they were likely to do so. The training series helped break down some barriers to cooperating and bridge the knowledge gap between organic and conservation professionals. The instructional materials and educational resources for the cross training series are now available on Oregon Tilth’s website. www/tilth.org/education-research/nrcs.
Based on the success of the cross-training series, Oregon Tilth approached the NRCS about establishing a shared national position to develop new technical information and training that will allow NRCS conservation planners to assist owners and managers of private working lands to make management decisions, and use the best technology to enhance resource conservation on organic agricultural production systems. National support and funding for the position was formalized through a Contribution Agreement signed by NRCS and Oregon Tilth in the summer of 2010.
The Organic Conservation Specialist position is the first of its kind. The purpose of the position is to 1) increase knowledge of USDA conservationists regarding organic agriculture production systems, 2) develop technical information for use by agency staff, 3) increase knowledge of organic certifiers regarding resource conservation, and 4) enable more strategically focused and effective outreach efforts in order to increase conservation assistance to organic producers.
The position is an Oregon Tilth employee and based at the NRCS West National Technology Support Center (NTSC) in Portland, OR for a two-year term. Following an extensive candidate search, Sarah Brown was hired and started work in mid-September, 2010.
Brown discovered her passion for food and agriculture as a student at UC Davis. While completing her B.S. in International Agricultural Development she had the opportunity to work on the student-run organic farm, visit agricultural systems from California to Chile, and develop a deeper understanding of sustainable agriculture - from hands-on practice to socio-political perspectives.
After graduating, she moved with her husband, Conner Voss, to SW Washington to build and manage a small, diversified, organic farm. Since moving to Portland three years ago, Brown has worked with a number of agriculture education programs including Zenger Farm’s Emerging Farmer Training Program, Oregon Tilth’s Organic Education Center, and OSU Extension. Now on their two-acre urban farm, they grow vegetables for a CSA and local restaurants, harvest fruit, and raise a diversity of livestock.
The Organic Conservation Specialist position will help deliver locally adapted training and develop technical resources to align efforts of conservation and organic professionals working with private landowners. With this strategic partnership, Oregon Tilth can strategically leverage its unique perspective to help shape future farm outreach and technical support by the USDA NRCS. This will ultimately benefit local producers who are trying to navigate the maze of organic regulations and conservation cost-share programs to develop sustainable agricultural systems.
Chris Schreiner is the Executive Director of Oregon Tilth.