Normally I am fidgety if I have to sit around in a conference room listening to researchers. But today in the fine citadel of Washington DC I am thoroughly engaged. You never know when the last time that you visit a place may be. So I sit amongst my peers and colleagues as if this experience is my last with them.
I have traveled in early to attend The Organic Confluences Summit during Organic Week in DC, and I am present in every moment.
This Confluence, hosted by The Organic Center, is a unique forum for farmers, researchers and university extension agents to come together and attest to the common needs of the organic farming community.
There are also NGO’s, certifiers and a host of concerned businesses in attendance. Nothing rings my chimes more than being in a room with organic stakeholders working to grow organic agriculture.
What are our common goals? We all want to convert more acres and farmers to Organic production. What are the tools organic farmers need to survive and prosper? Do we do it for a competitive advantage or the health of our planet and future generations, or all of the above?
First, we must understand what makes farmers convert to organic? Is it for profit or pesticides?
I learn that the USDA Extension Service is the flagship model in the world, the best there is! Yet the organic services available for organic production are uneven state by state.
The Berkeley Food Institute published “Growing Organic, State by State: A Review of State-Level Support for Organic Agriculture,” a study that is telling in its findings. I am proud that the UNFI Foundation funded this research, and more of it is needed to assist producers all over the country.
The barriers are geographical; if your neighbors aren’t farming organically, you are less likely to give it a go. Some states don’t have an organic extension specialist in sight, so organic assistance on the ground is super place-based.
There are organic hotspots across the country, and it isn’t a surprise that they are where these confluences of organic businesses thrive. The average household income is higher, the poverty rate is lower and there are more organic extension agents roaming about. They are teaching best practices, communicating research findings and assisting farmers to transition to organic.
Yet, in some regions of the country, agriculture extension agents are still against organic production and conversion.
Why? Perhaps it’s the way we present it.
Do we need to change the conversation? Instead of all the things we are against like chemicals, GMO’s, herbicides and pesticides, we need to ask what tools farmers need to be financially successful.
This is a financial discussion as much as it is a movement!
Oregon Tilth (another UNFI Foundation grant recipient) has developed resources to help farmers make that decision and follow through to a successful future.
Crop Time is an online tool that helps organic farmers develop optimum planting dates and strategies for better weed control. Their Sound Farm Businesses application helps farm viability by managing accounting and costs of production
Matt Dillon, Senior Director of Clif Bar & Company, is one of my heroes. He spoke about the Cliff Bar Oat initiative that initially aimed to boost the company’s organic oat supplies. It wasn’t an easy road – even internally. They came to realize that “the success of organic food companies depends on the success of our collective rural farmers and communities. We must make sure they are growing in success the same way organic companies are.”
On its quest for more oats, Clif made investments in technical assistance and innovations to scale up input. But the team soon realized they needed to reach out to other companies to provide broader support for full-farm viability. Farmers don’t just grow oats, and they often have many customers.
Matthew believes that: in order to make our farmers successful, we must increase yields through fertility management and post-harvest handling innovations. This can happen through USDA research and extension services.
Extension brings science and research to help farmers think through problems and find solutions adapted to their farms. The simple truth is that funding for these programs rarely comes from federal dollars.
In the end, I leave you with the fact that most of the conventional extension research and education services are funded by check-off programs and money that comes from conventional ag and chemical companies.
With the early demise of the organic check-off, we are at a distinct disadvantage. In lieu of organic check-off dollars, we all need to show up with private contributions to leverage federal and state funding for these programs.
We must also show up politically to help shape federal state and university funding priorities for organic research.
That’s exactly what we are going to do later this week when we make Hill visits. This confluence of organic voices will ultimately surge through the halls of Congress. Stay tuned…