November 2, 2016
Conservation is in the best interest of all farmers, however, best practices for conservation can vary significantly depending on the region, type of crops or animals raised, and nature of the farming operations. Organic and transitioning-to-organic farmers have particularly unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to on-farm conservation practices. Given the unique-nature of the organic sector, as well as its unprecedented growth over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has at times struggled to support organic producers in simultaneously planning, implementing, and complying with conservation and organic standards.
For years, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), along with many farmers and other advocates, have urged NRCS to better align their programs and guidelines to the burgeoning organic sector. Not only do NRCS conservation programs need to be accessible and appropriate for organic and transitioning producers, but also NRCS field staff should be equipped with the right on-the-ground tools, resources, and knowledge to properly serve organic and transitioning participants.
In response to the popularity of organic goods and pressure from advocates, NRCS have been making important improvements over the last few years. Last year, NRCS published a field guide to working with organic producers – developed in cooperation with NSAC and with the support of our member organizations – that explains how NRCS conservation activities align with NOP standards, and how NRCS staff can help producers meet conservation and regulatory objectives simultaneously.
This week, on November 1, 2016, NRCS sent a bulletin to all state offices informing them of the opportunity to appoint an “Organic Champion”, a position designed to help improve field capacity in assisting organic and transitioning-to-organic producers. NSAC applauds NRCS for taking this important step forward. Field-level knowledge, resources, and tools are a central component of organic conservation support.
In the bulletin, NRCS cites the increased demand for organic products as one impetus for improved on-the-ground conservation support for organic farmers:
“A growing number of farmers and ranchers are becoming certified organic producers or considering changing part of the operation to an organic system due to growing demands for organic products. Organic production is the fastest-growing segment of agriculture, growing by double digits every year. Demand for organic production vastly outstrips capacity. This growing sector of agriculture that NRCS has not traditionally targeted has unique needs in utilizing NRCS programs and technical assistance and presents an opportunity for NRCS to broaden our reach and customer base.”
While the appointment of an NRCS Organic Champion is voluntary, we hope that all states will opt-in to this exciting opportunity. Only with participation from all states can we create a cohort of organic champions who can collectively serve as a knowledge and resource network for NRCS staff.
Each participating state’s Organic Champion will receive training on the scope of USDA organic resources. One important resource in this training process will be the organic handbook that NSAC and our members helped develop. The handbook is designed to support NRCS staff and other agricultural professions as they work with organic producers, and identifies key resources to guide conservation planning and implementation; it also illustrates the clear overlap between NOP standards and NRCS conservation opportunities.
Once trained and in place, the Organic Champions will be a much-needed resource, able to address local questions on conservation planning, applications, and programs for organic and transitioning-to-organic producers. Organic Champions’ specific responsibilities may vary slightly from state to state. Suggested core activities of the Organic Champion, as outlined in the bulletin, include:
Examples of additional responsibilities of the Organic Champion to meet specific state needs may also include:
States have until November 11 to submit the name and contact information of their selected Organic Champion to NRCS.
With the addition of these field-level champions we hope that NRCS can expand and significantly improve their outreach and services to organic producers across the country.