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Organic program to recruit, train, mentor farmers

Transition to Organic Partnership Program is designed to assist producers who want to transition to organic production.

Paul Schattenberg

July 13, 2023

6 Min Read
Bob Whitney corn field
Bob Whitney, organic specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, will spearhead Texas Transition to Organic Partnership Program efforts. Sam Craft

The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, through its organics program, will lead the Texas Transition to Organic Partnership Program, or Texas TOPP, designed to recruit, train, mentor and advise farmers who want to transition to organic production.

Texas TOPP is a five-year partnership program that will include Texas’ higher education institutions, U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies, nonprofit organizations and farm associations.

The goal of the program will be to build successful organic farmer-to-farmer mentorships that are part of a larger organic community building program. Participants will learn organic practices, business development, marketing and more.

“Participants in this partnership will interact with conventional farmers, transitional organic farmers, organic farmers and many allied industry supporters of organic agriculture in the state,” said Bob Whitney, Regents Fellow and AgriLife Extension organic specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Stephenville. “Texas TOPP will emphasize and solidify a commitment to organic agriculture. It will also help ensure the future of organics within Texas agriculture for generations to come.”

Within this community, there will be organic resources available to transition and certify growers, mentors, allied industry and agencies that provide the needed help and support to a growing Texas organic movement, Whitney said.

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 “And outside of this effort, and yet integral to its long-term success, will be a workforce training and development initiative that focusses on how best to train future organic industry professionals,” he said.

Partnership efforts

Texas TOPP support for those involved or interested in organic agriculture includes:

  • Connecting transitioning farmers with mentors

  • Building mentoring networks to share practical insights and advice

  • Providing community building opportunities through train-the-mentor support, technical assistance and educational workshops and field days.

  • Helping producers overcome technical, cultural and financial shifts during and following certification for organic production.

  • Engaging educational and training institutions on organic workforce training and education. 

  • Educational outreach on topics such as organic production practices, certification, conservation planning, business development, organic agriculture regulations and marketing.

Organic farming in Texas

Estimates show Texas is in sixth place in the U.S. for organic agriculture acres and first place for production of organic cotton. More than 300,000 organic acres produce agricultural commodities on organic farms across the state.

Related:Texas leads in organic peanut production

There are currently 383 organic certificates in farmers’ hands throughout the state. Of that number, 345 are field crop producers growing cotton, peanuts, corn, sorghum, rice and/or wheat. These field crop producers are primarily located in the High Plains, South Plains and Coastal Bend areas. They typically farm hundreds of acres using both conventional and organic methods.   

“The objective of Texas TOPP will be to talk to newer organic growers and determine what brought them into the program, as well as to find out what the roadblocks have been to entering the program,” Whitney said. “We formally know there are several farmers currently in organics who are helping new growers come in, but there are others who have not yet been identified.”

How Texas TOPP will help organic production

Whitney said an important aspect of Texas TOPP efforts will be to find out what is currently happening in terms of organic farmer support and how best to maintain and expand that existing support.

“The Texas organic program already makes use of organic farmers for organic field trials, organic product testing and as tour stops on field days,” he said. “These current activities will be a backdrop for intensive ‘transition farmer’ training field days, where time can be spent learning the organic production system and requirements.”

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Whitney said while Texas organic output and values have increased significantly, the number of certified organic farming operations has remained relatively static for the last 10 years. 

“Even though organic growers in rice, cotton, peanut, wheat, corn and forages report higher per-acre returns than conventional, there is still resistance by conventional producers to move into organic agriculture,” he said.

He said some of the challenges in making the transition to organic production include lack of land, complexity of the regulations, weed control, transition costs and general understanding of the organic production process.

Partnering to expand organic production

The nonprofit Farmshare Austin will be one of the Texas TOPP partners helping to expand organic production in the state.

“Our mission is to grow a healthy, and equitable local food system by increasing community food access and cultivating new farmers,” said Michelle Akindiya, education and operations director for Farmshare Austin.

Akindiya said Farmshare Austin will be participating in Texas TOPP through organic producer education and training, as well as helping to develop an open-source method for organic production recordkeeping,

“A major impediment for many potential organic producers is the amount or recordkeeping required for organic certification,” she said. “For certification, producers are required to provide a plan for maintaining their organic system, as well as keep a variety of records relating to production, soil fertility management, pest control and more.”

She said one of their goals is to help develop a way for organic producers to keep these records on their smartphone or another portable digital device in real-time as they care for their farming operation.

Akindiya said another way the nonprofit hopes to assist potential organic farmers is to educate them on the pros and cons of taking the time and trouble to acquire organic certification.    

“The Texas TOPP initiative should do a lot for building an awareness of organic production and its market possibilities,” said Donald De Jong, co-owner and CEO of Natural Prairie Dairy Farms based in Dalhart. De Jong is also chairman of the Texas Department of Agriculture Organic Industry Advisory Board.    

De Jong said the initiative could be a driving force in helping producers understand the many opportunities for profit in the state’s organic market and network of organic production.

“There are different categories of organic crops and other types of organic agricultural products in Texas where there is considerable consumer demand,” he said. “However, at this time, there are not a sufficient number of organic producers to meet that demand.”

Whitney said while almost all the organic growers in the state he has spoken with said they plan to stay in organic agriculture and even increase their organic acreage, this positive attitude has not been incentive enough to bring in new growers.

He said based on commodity demand and prices, Texas could add another 30 farmers per year transitioning to organic production with no notable disruption to the overall market. 

“Organic handlers are asking for those of us involved in organic education to bring in new growers, so the timing for TOPP, including Texas TOPP, could not be better,” he said.

About the Transition to Organic Partnership Program

The Transition to Organic Partnership Program is a USDA initiative that will be investing up to $100 million over five years in cooperative agreements with organizations that will partner to provide technical assistance and wrap-around support for transitioning and existing organic farmers. USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service is building partnership networks in regions across the U.S. to help direct farmer training, education and outreach activities.

The TOPP partnership network currently covers six regions: the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Plains, Northwest and West/Southwest. Organizations in these regions are actively forming partnerships to serve both transitioning and existing organic farmers. Texas TOPP is in the West/Southwest region.

Source: Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, AgriLife Today

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