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Stories from the Field: Show Me the Numbers – The Importance of Data

December 13, 2012


Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place.  In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding.  This post is the final post in our 10-week blog series that has featured both program facts and stories from the field of those farmers and communities impacted by expired farm bill programs.  To read this week’s earlier post on organic data initiatives, click here


Training participants discuss pasture conditions at Double J Jerseys, an organic dairy in Monmouth, OR. The training was a collaborative effort between Oregon Tilth, WSDA, OSU, and NRCS. Credit: Oregon Tilth

By Chris Schreiner, Executive Director, Oregon Tilth

About a decade ago, I was in Portland to see Wes Jackson from The Land Institute speak as part of a Community Food Matters event.  Jackson, a pioneering voice and advocate for sustainable agriculture, told the audience, “What the sustainable agriculture movement really needs most is a new generation of accountants.”  Many in the audience, including myself, were puzzled by this declaration.

Accountants?  Why not another generation of farmers, soil scientists, or direct-market entrepreneurs?  Jackson went on to explain that decision-makers at federal agencies, land-grant universities, and local government place a high value on good data.  In other words, making a strong case in support of sustainable agriculture requires solid numbers.

Oregon Tilth – a non-profit research and education organization that provides organic certification for producers – has successfully cultivated strategic partnerships with public institutions like the extension service and government agencies to increase support for organic agriculture.  Having good data from reliable sources has been a key to creating these partnerships.

A small but significant initiative, the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI) received $5 million over the life of the last farm bill to fund basic USDA data collection on the organic sector.  USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) all collaborate on this data collection initiative.

In February 2010, NASS released the results of the Organic Production Survey.  The survey was USDA’s first-ever, wide-scale survey of organic producers.  It provided state- and national-level data on organic farm numbers and acreage, sales, production, marketing practices, and more.  The data proved invaluable – highlighting organic agriculture as a vibrant and growing sector in U.S. agriculture.

This data on organic agriculture informs much of the work that Oregon Tilth engages in with growers and other stakeholders.

For example, I recently used data from the survey when presenting to the Oregon Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Leadership Team.  According to the survey results, Oregon had the fifth highest number of organic farms in the U.S. and was the fourth highest state for organic sales.  I also highlighted the variety of conservation practices reported, such as use of buffer strips, water management practices, and no-till or minimum-till.  I’d often claimed that Oregon was a leader in organic agriculture, but now I finally had numbers from a credible source to back up those claims.  This striking data clearly made an impact on NRCS leadership, which translated to results in the field.

Since 2009, less than half of the annual $50 million made available nationally by NRCS for implementation of conservation practices on organic and transitioning operations has been utilized.  But in Oregon, the NRCS has successfully used all of the funds allocated to the state as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative (EQIP OI).

Sarahlee Lawrence, a 28-year old farmer in the high desert of Central Oregon, received technical advice and cost-share funding under the EQIP OI.  “I have to say that I couldn’t do what I do without NRCS,” says Sarahlee.  “I approached NRCS a couple of years ago and started the process of making my farm organic.”  Working with NRCS staff, Sarahlee has planned and implemented a nutrient management program and addressed the irrigation needs on her two-acre vegetable plot as well as the 25-acre field she is transitioning to organic.  “I could not have afforded nor done that by myself,” says Sarahlee.

A key strategy to getting government agencies and public universities to dedicate limited resources in support of organic agriculture is to demonstrate the potential return on that investment.  This requires reliable numbers from a trusted source.

Using compelling figures made available by the ODI, Oregon Tilth brought together a number of agencies and organizations to pledge their support for organic agriculture on paper.  With the signing of the Oregon Organic Agriculture Letter of Intent on Cooperation, the signatories acknowledge the state’s history with organics, the sector’s spectacular growth, and the need to work together to ensure its future.  Among the signers were the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) Director, the Oregon State University Dean of Agriculture, and the top positions at the USDA NASS and NRCS state offices.  The letter sets up an annual strategy meeting among partner organizations, encourages additional research and outreach, and promotes information sharing on best practices.

“In the early days, organic agriculture was a fairly limited and narrow program, and the distribution of products was not wide scale,” said Dalton Hobbs, assistant director of the ODA when the letter was signed.  “Now, organic agriculture is a fully arrived segment and a very important part of the retail setting.”

With a collaborative spirit and solid numbers to support our efforts, Oregon Tilth has helped pave the way for greater cooperation in support of organic agriculture.  I can’t over-emphasize the importance of data on organic production trends, economic performance, and market positioning made possible by the ODI.

Congress’ failure to pass a farm bill means funding for the next Organic Production Survey, economic reports, and price reporting for organic commodities will cease.  While ODI has provided some much-needed data, it’s only a few dots on a much longer trend line.  Our understanding of organic agriculture will deepen the more data we collect and the longer we collect that data.  Initiatives like ODI give organic advocates the tools they need to share success stories, lessons learned, and the opportunities and challenges ahead.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill, Organic Farming


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