Connecting the dots
By Sarah Brown
Working with both Oregon Tilth and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience. While technically I am an Oregon Tilth employee with the title of Joint Organic Conservation Specialist, I work out of NRCS’s technical headquarters for the western region: The West National Tech Support Center. Here, I coordinate with a team of specialists, ranging from Fluvial Geomorphologists, who train engineers in the physical attributes of streams, to Agronomists working on the national Nutrient Management standards for NRCS. Our office is comprised of folks whose purpose is to serve NRCS state offices and field staff. I am here to work with NRCS staff all over the country as a specialist dedicated to organic agriculture - the only position of its kind within the agency. This is made possible through a USDA NRCS contribution agreement with Oregon Tilth, as part of Oregon Tilth’s efforts to establish strategic partnerships in support of organic agriculture.
I began this post uncertain of how a young professional from the organic community would be received by a government agency that is historically tuned to the practices of conventional agriculture. I was happily surprised. Without any formal technical assistance on organic agriculture, staff ranging from National Headquarters to the field office level were very interested in meeting and hearing about how we could collaborate. My first essential task was to complete an agency-wide survey to gauge the need and experience related to organic production systems. These initial findings informed my direct work with staff to design and coordinate trainings. For example, 12 states reported no training on organic production - and this from an agency with a program specifically targeting organic producers. Since 2009, the NRCS has annually allocated $50 million nationwide through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative to support growers implementing organic management practices. How were these conservation planners expected to provide assistance to organic producers without the appropriate context and professional development?
Time and time again, I am affirmed with positive feedback and appreciation for my presence as a resource on organic production practices. I’ve realized that while the Organic Initiative is a very big step for the agency and all of us in the organic community; it is a relatively small program for NRCS, and has been difficult to effectively coalesce and implement across the country. There are many highly qualified, well-meaning individuals working in our government that happen to be just as overburdened as the rest of us. Regardless of the Organic Initiative’s relatively small size, NRCS staff have repeatedly expressed that they find it inspiring and invigorating to be learning about these ‘new’ production concepts. They are happy to return to the basics of soil quality as a foundation for sustainable agriculture.
Only eight months into the job, and I have traveled to Wisconsin, Virginia, West Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky, Idaho and Alaska to facilitate 1-2 day trainings for state and field office staff. I have provided everything from 1-hour presentations on Organic Nutrient Management for Oregon’s Animal Waste Management Workshop to fully organizing and implementing a 2-day session on organic production in Alaska. Field office staff are eager to learn this information and over 97% of respondents report that the knowledge gained from these trainings will help them to improve job performance. On a daily basis, I regularly respond to questions on organic standards and production from both state and field office staff over the phone and email.
For the remainder of 2011, I am working on getting trainings scheduled in Missouri, Oregon, Hawaii, Arizona, Illinois and Maine. States have been particularly interested in combining a couple of days of training with intensive time spent in the state office reviewing payment schedules - the documents that serve as guidelines for financial assistance payments. If the payment for a given practice doesn’t account for the additional expense associated with some organic management techniques and inputs, then organic producers will likely not be as interested in signing up for financial assistance to implement resource conservation plans. Payment schedules are consistently the number one topic for which I receive questions.
Additionally, I’ve scheduled a series of Organic Production Webinars to provide NRCS staff with brief overviews from national experts on different organic technical topics. As we all know, the government has been struggling with how to balance its budget, and as a consequence deep cuts have been made to many state travel budgets. Webinars and video conferencing, while not ideal, provide the opportunity to connect with a great number of interested individuals for a fraction of the cost.
Though there are justifiable concerns from the organic community about the appropriateness and applicability of current NRCS programs and materials for organic systems, I sincerely believe that NRCS staff are striving to improve and update these resources, often with minimal technical support. It is very rewarding to know that we are filling an important need on a national level. This innovative partnership between Oregon Tilth and NRCS honors the collective goal of preserving natural resources, building healthy soils, and practicing agriculture in a way that sustains our environment, and our people.