Organic Broadcaster

NRCS program supports farmers transitioning to organic

By Matt Leavitt, MOSES

Organic agriculture as a production system emphasizes protecting and building the natural resources of agricultural land in production. A farm’s Organic System Plan (OSP) includes detailed sections on how the farmer will build soil health, mitigate erosion, preserve biological diversity, protect water quality, and manage nutrients and manure. Addressing these areas can seem daunting to farmers who are new to organic production. What many non-organic farmers don’t realize is that there are established government programs that can help them put practices in place to meet the objectives of an OSP.

One such program is the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Plan Supporting Organic Transition, or CAP138—CAP stands for “Conservation Activity Plan.” This program focuses on the natural resource concerns of an operation to assist producers who want to transition to certified organic production.

The NRCS views resource concerns as quantitative measures of the natural resources of the farm in question. These include soil erosion, soil quality degradation, water quality degradation, insufficient water, excess water, degraded plant condition, inadequate habitat for fish and wildlife, and livestock production limitations.

CAP138 was developed by NRCS and the National Organic Program (NOP) to provide a detailed inventory of resource concerns and practices that also satisfies the requirements of the Organic regulations. The OSP is the primary document that a transitioning producer would submit to an organic certifier for review and serves as a verifiable whole-farm management plan for the farm to stay in compliance with the NOP.

CAP138 requirements have evolved since the implementation of the program and are in the process of being reviewed and renewed for 2019 and beyond. In an ideal world, the OSP and CAP138 would be interchangeable, but a producer needs to provide additional documentation to satisfy the requirements of both the NOP and NRCS. This documentation, along with the time involved from the producer and other support staff have led to underutilization of the CAP138 program.

The money available through CAP138 is specifically allocated to repay the services of a Technical Service Provider (TSP) who helps write the plan, submits the paperwork to the right people, and offers additional guidance as appropriate. In essence, the TSP serves as a farm transition consultant.

“I am devoted to helping grow the organic industry, one farm at a time,” said Ruth Hilfiger, a TSP in New Richmond, Wis., and farm consultant with EcoGrow Consulting. “It takes many hours to become certified [as a TSP] and to develop Organic Transition plans.”

Hilfilger explained that a TSP’s payment for a plan varies with the type of operation and the distance to the farm. She offers services beyond the scope of the TSP requirements, helping producers think through the basics of organic crop production, the issues they will likely face in transition and beyond, best management practices, crop rotations, soil analysis, and more.

The process of becoming a TSP isn’t an easy path. TSPs have to be recertified every three years, submit an example Organic Transition Plan, and take online and in-person training required by NRCS. TSPs must have some agricultural education background as well as experience working with producers.

“Beginning farmers seem to benefit the most from organic transition planning by technical service providers like myself, but existing farmers who are interested in a more scientific approach to farming are also a key audience for CAP138 cost-sharing,” Hilfiger added. She advises farmers who are interested in the organic transition planning program to visit an NRCS office 1-3 years before they want to be certified.

It took about a year to complete the CAP138 plan for Don Sherman, a landowner from Ortonville, Minn., who had help from TSP Glen Borgerding with Ag Resource Consulting.

“Getting my act together and putting the necessary tools in place is what the program is all about,” Sherman said. “Having a written plan was the first step for me.” He is in his first year of transition and expects to have a portion of his farm certified in 2021. “I would absolutely go through the program again, and I would tell anyone I know about it,” he added.
TSPs are in short supply in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. TSPs often have to travel long distances; wait times for services can be extensive.

“We had a hard time finding a TSP because the other [TSPs] we contacted were backlogged over a year out,” said Becky Leupi of Vibrant Gardens, a diversified vegetable operation on the outskirts of Milwaukee. She said she was happy to find her TSP, because “now we have even more knowledge to bring our farming operation to the next level.”

Both Leupi and Sherman found CAP138 was a lot of information to wade through, but their experienced TSPs made all the difference in their positive experiences.

“Having the resource and time for producers to take full advantage of programs is an issue,” Sherman explained. “I don’t expect to hold on to my farm, but I want the best chance to have it preserved, share practices, and have it in balance with nature.”

Another client of Borgerding’s, Jason Lehman, said he was drawn to CAP138 for the financial help. Lehman, a new organic grain producer from Madelia, Minn., is in his first year of certified organic harvest. “I’ve looked at other programs, but the lack of flexibility and adaptability to organic production has prevented me from using them,” he said.

CAP138’s OSP Templates cover all aspects of a farm’s organic system plan and can be submitted to a certification agency after completion of the program. However, successful completion of the CAP138 process does not mean a farm is certified organic. A producer must still submit a completed OSP to an organic certifier for review and inspection prior to being certified organic. The producer is responsible for completing all of the OSP requirements not addressed by the CAP138 resource concern inventory, erosion control inventory, and summary record of planned NRCS conservation practices.

The CAP138 program is entirely voluntary and there is no obligation to become certified organic once the plan is completed. There is additionally no requirement to submit the NRCS-specific sections (resource inventory, erosion control inventory, etc.) to the organic certification agency for review.

It is also incumbent on the producer or landowner to sign up with NRCS first before enlisting the services of a TSP. Any services rendered before a contract is signed with the NRCS won’t be reimbursed.

Matt Leavitt is an organic specialist with MOSES.



From the November | December 2018 Issue

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