NRCS Assistance for Organic Farmers

Certified Organic:
one of the fastest growing segments in agriculture

CERTIFIED ORGANIC FARMING IS A LABELING TERM used for food and other agricultural products. Products that are certified organic have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations. Managed by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the NOP develops, implements and administers national organic production, handling, and labeling standards. Organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Only products that have been certified as meeting the USDA’s requirements for organic production and handling may carry the USDA Organic seal. To be certified organic, producers must follow regulations outlined by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Managed by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the NOP develops, implements and administers national organic production, handling, and labeling standards.

Many USDA organic regulations can be achieved using practices offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “The NRCS programs available to organic farmers are incredibly valuable to any operation,” farmer Elizabeth Miller notes. “Some of the practices we were already doing, such as cover cropping, but it incentivized us to go deeper with more habitat management, encouraged us to plant hedgerows, and the single greatest benefit for us has been developing irrigation infrastructure.”

The United States is a net-importer of certified organic food. To help shift the conversation and find new ways to explain the economic, environmental, and social benefits of organic food, the NRCS embarked on a journey with The Lexicon to tell the story of organic agriculture in this country. The Lexicon spent two years crossing 30+ states to conduct hundreds of interviews with inspiring organic and transitioning farmers, NRCS soil scientists, and district conservationists, then translated these insights into a series of short films, information artworks, books and traveling exhibits to accelerate a transition to organic agriculture.

Farmers who transition to organic agriculture

TO BE CONSIDERED ORGANIC and have the right to use the USDA Organic seal, farms with more than $5,000 in organic sales must be certified. While a number of independent, third party USDA-accredited organizations perform this certification service, a conventional farmer’s transition to certified organic farming is nonetheless  challenging. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” observes Clif Slade, an organic farmer in Surrey, VA. “But now I get three, four, even five times the price for my transplants. And double the price for my organic sweet potatoes.”

A third generation farmer, Clif Slade of Surrey, Virginia, grew up on farms that had used conventional practices since 1965. NRCS helped him transition from using chemical-intensive practices to a certified-organic, conservation-focused operation that develops healthy soils using a variety of conservation practices. These include crop rotations that increase biodiversity, minimum tillage to reduce soil disturbance, and year-round cover crops to keep the soil covered and reduce erosion. He also uses composts, manures, and crop residue to recycle nutrients and build soil organic matter.

Certified organic producers must maintain records from “seed to sale” concerning the production, harvest, and handling of all agricultural products sold, labeled, or represented as “organic.” Having third-party certification agencies verify these records gives consumers greater confidence in the product they’re buying. Aside from periodic onsite inspections, third party certifiers also ask farmers to verify they are adhering to NOP requirements from “seed to sale;” doing so requires producers to share crop rotation records (including the use of cover crops), harvest records, pack out slips, and to provide detailed written production and sales records for all farm inputs, including verification that no GMOs, synthetic fertilizers or herbicides have been used.

For many farmers, keeping records can be yet another chore added to an already busy day, but for Brian Keough of Sauvie Island Organics in Portland, OR, it just makes good business sense. “As a farm manager, I make hundreds of decisions a day,” he notes. “If they weren’t captured, I wouldn’t be able to remember what I learned and observed. We keep accurate records to be good stewards of the land, to learn from our mistakes and make better choices in the future. You can’t grab a gardening book that makes better decisions than what you learn from your records.”

How organic farmers build healthy soils

EARLY LEADERS IN THE ORGANIC movement emphasized that successful farming depended on the health of all natural resources on the farm and in its surroundings. Their legacy lives on; organic producers today strive to develop farming systems that mimic nature and utilize natural processes to build soil organic matter.

Instead of relying on chemicals, organic farmers can employ cover crops to build healthy soils. Farmers using cover crops with a mix of grasses, legumes, and forbs increase soil fertility through the addition of organic matter, break pest and disease cycles, allow the ground to rest, increase soil moisture, suppress weeds, and minimize erosion.

By rotating crops across their fields from season to season, organic farmers add biodiversity and increase resilience in their operations. Organic no-till systems, such as the roller-crimper, have also helped organic producers reduce soil disturbance intensity in annual crop rotations. These practices feed the soil, reduce erosion, improve soil structure, enhance nutrient cycling and water retention, sequester carbon, and improve wildlife and pollinator habitat —often with better yields.

Weeds
(are not a farmer's best friend)

ONE OF THE GREATEST CHALLENGES organic farmers face is weed management. Weeds compete with market crops for light, nutrients, and water, and can even reduce crop yields. In fact, a single weed can produce more than 10 million seeds, so if they’re not dealt with in time, they can present farmers with challenges for years to come. Rather than using chemical herbicides, organic farmers implement a variety of innovative practices that suppress weeds while continuing to build soil health. 

Preventing weeds can take many forms, but some common methods include: intercropping, reduced row spacing, adjustments to seeding rates and dates, fertilizer schedules that help crops outcompete weeds, plastic mulches, and cultivation tools for specific soil conditions.

Cover crops are one of the most effective tools for suppressing weeds, and they work in three ways. When alive, they outcompete weeds for water, nutrients, and sunlight. As mulch, they minimize weed growth by physically preventing the germination of weed seeds, cutting off access to light and warmer temperatures. And finally, when certain legumes, cereals, or brassica decompose, they produce natural herbicides that can suppress weed seed growth and also sequester carbon. 

Choosing the right planting dates and rotating crops can also decrease weed germination windows. Farmers may increase seeding density to suppress late-germinating weeds. To further reduce weed pressure, farmers often use natural materials, paper, or plastic as mulch. These are installed at the beginning of the growing season and trap soil moisture while preventing sunlight and weed growth.

Organic farmers can use a variety of other mechanical tools, including tractor-mounted cultivators, to handle weeds. Although machines are convenient, extensive tillage can reduce soil organic matter and even lead to erosion. As a result, some farmers use organic no-till practices to create effective mulches. Using tools like the roller crimper, they roll cover crops in one direction, pressing them like a carpet against the ground so they can act as mulch to prevent annual weeds from growing through. “Weeds are brilliant opportunists and have incredible ways to proliferate,” a farmhand at Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, Minnesota points out. “We can all learn perseverance from weeds!”

Enhancing biodiversity and providing habitat

ORGANIC FARMERS FORGO THE USE of synthetic herbicides and pesticides that can be harmful to soil health. Those who believe in organic recognize that soil is a living organism with multiple beneficial functions. To mimic nature and enhance biodiversity, they build field borders, hedgerows, and riparian buffers to conserve vital habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, and wildlife. These barriers can also intercept pesticide and GMO pollen drift from neighboring non-organic farms.

To maintain the delicate balance between wildlife and farm activities, organic farmers often build wildlife corridors and animal-friendly fences to keep wide-ranging fauna, such as deer and predators, away from their crops. They also install structures like owl and bat boxes to create habitat for beneficial wildlife that reduce pests.

“We’re most proud of the progress we’ve made with this property in restoring the native habitat on the conservation easement area, the hedgerows, the riparian corridor, and the increased diversity in the plants and wildlife in the area,” observes Jeanne Bryne, a certified organic farmer at High Ground Organics in Watsonville, California. “And we’re also proud that we were able to make a living from being organic and farming in a way we think has a positive effect on the land.”

Keeping livestock on the move

ORGANIC LIVESTOCK PRODUCERS PROVIDE LIVING AREAS that encourage their animals to engage in healthy natural behavior. They use only certified organic feed and provide year-round access to the pasture for ruminants. Organic livestock will never be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Pastures, regardless of organic status, can become overgrazed, which can harm animal health and damage natural resources. USDA organic standards require that producers maintain pasture in a healthy state through management strategies that promote good forage quality and quantity, weed control, infiltration of precipitation, and erosion control.

One key practice is rotational grazing. This approach separates open fields into a series of closed paddocks that regularly direct animals to fresh pasture. The size of these paddocks is determined by the number of animals, time of year, grazing duration, and quality of available forage. Proper fencing and adequate water supplies are features of intensively managed rotational grazing systems. Fences control erosion and impede animal access to sensitive areas like ponds, streams, wellheads, or protected habitat. Further, gated paddocks can be opened and closed to provide cattle access to fresh pasture.

Healthy soils conserve water

MANY ORGANIC PRACTICES RELY ON THE SLOW-RELEASE of nutrients to help crops grow and build soil organic matter. This reduces the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching, which would otherwise adversely impact water quality in neighboring streams and rivers. To further reduce nutrient runoff, organic producers utilize a number of practices to reduce their water use.

Agriculture accounts for over 70% of our country’s consumptive water use, which is a critical natural resource issue. One way for producers to conserve water is by building healthy soil. By only increasing a land’s soil organic matter by 1 percent, an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre can be banked and made available when plants need it most. That means, at 444 acres, the average US farm will conserve 8.8 million gallons of water per year.

Water is a precious natural resource, and conservation benefits all of us. To further reduce water use, many organic farmers use tools like drip irrigation, which provides water precisely where and when it’s needed most. The addition of flow meters and soil moisture sensors to these systems allow these farmers to achieve even greater precision. Technology helps take the guesswork out of irrigation by using science to measure the available water around a crop’s root zone.

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Eligibility, Submission Terms and Conditions

Sponsor

A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative is sponsored by The Lexicon, a US based 501(c)(3) public charity.

Opportunity

Storytellers will join A Greener Blue Storytelling Collective to create stories for the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture with the FAO and its partner organizations. Members of the Collective will take part in a private online “Total Storytelling Lab” led by The Lexicon’s Douglas Gayeton. Upon completion of this online certificate program, members of the Collective will join seafood experts from around the globe in creating A Greener Blue Storytelling initiative.

Terms

Who can enter and how selections are made.

A Greener Blue is a global call to action that is open to individuals and teams from all over the world. Below is a non-exhaustive list of subjects the initiative targets.

  • Creatives and storytellers with a passion for food and the willingness to support small-scale fisherpeople and experts worldwide. This category includes, but is not exhausted in photographers, videomakers, illustrators, podcasters, and writers.
  • Food Activists working to change open sea fishing and aquaculture; 
  • Members of fishing and indigenous communities that support their communities, share their stories and protect their way of life;
  • Local and International NGOs work every day with actors across the whole value chain to create more sustainable seafood models.

To apply, prospective participants will need to fill out the form on the website, by filling out each part of it. Applications left incomplete or containing information that is not complete enough will receive a low score and have less chance of being admitted to the storytelling lab.

Nonprofit organizations, communities of fishers and fish farmers and companies that are seeking a closer partnership or special support can also apply by contacting hello@thelexicon.org and interacting with the members of our team.

Special attention will be given to the section of the form regarding the stories that the applicants want to tell and the reasons for participating. All proposals for stories regarding small-scale or artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, communities of artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, and workers in different steps of the seafood value chain will be considered.

Stories should show the important role that these figures play in building a more sustainable seafood system. To help with this narrative, the initiative has identified 10 principles that define a more sustainable seafood system. These can be viewed on the initiative’s website and they state:
Seafood is sustainable when:

  • it helps address climate change
  • it supports global ecosystems
  • it optimizes impact on resources and nutrient cycles.
  • it promotes a safe growing environment for safe food sources.
  • it advances animal welfare.
  • it enhances flavor and nutrition.
  • it builds resilience and self-sufficiency in local communities.
  • it prioritizes inclusion, equality, and fair treatment of workers.
  • it preserves legality and the quality and the story of the product throughout the value chain.
  • it creates opportunities along the whole value chain.

Proposed stories should show one or more of these principles in practice.

Applications are open from the 28th of June to the 15th of August 2022. There will be 50 selected applicants who will be granted access to The Lexicon’s Total Storytelling Lab. These 50 applicants will be asked to accept and sign a learning agreement and acceptance of participation document with which they agree to respect The Lexicon’s code of conduct.

The first part of the lab will take place online between August the 22nd and August the 26th and focus on training participants on the foundation of storytelling, supporting them to create a production plan, and aligning all of them around a shared vision.

Based on their motivation, quality of the story, geography, and participation in the online Lab, a selected group of participants will be gifted a GoPro camera offered to the program by GoPro For A Change. Participants who are selected to receive the GoPro camera will need to sign an acceptance and usage agreement.

The second part of the Storytelling Lab will consist of a production period in which each participant will be supported in the production of their own story. This period goes from August 26th to October 13th. Each participant will have the opportunity to access special mentorship from an international network of storytellers and seafood experts who will help them build their story. The Lexicon also provides editors, animators, and graphic designers to support participants with more technical skills.

The final deadline to submit the stories is the 14th of October. Participants will be able to both submit complete edited stories, or footage accompanied by a storyboard to be assembled by The Lexicon’s team.

All applicants who will exhibit conduct and behavior that is contrary to The Lexicon’s code of conduct will be automatically disqualified. This includes applicants proposing stories that openly discriminate against a social or ethnic group, advocate for a political group, incite violence against any group, or incite to commit crimes of any kind.

All submissions must be the entrant’s original work. Submissions must not infringe upon the trademark, copyright, moral rights, intellectual rights, or rights of privacy of any entity or person.

Participants will retain the copyrights to their work while also granting access to The Lexicon and the other partners of the initiative to share their contributions as part of A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative.

If a potential selected applicant cannot be reached by the team of the Initiative within three (3) working days, using the contact information provided at the time of entry, or if the communication is returned as undeliverable, that potential participant shall forfeit.

Offering

Selected applicants will be granted access to an advanced Storytelling Lab taught and facilitated by Douglas Gayeton, award-winning storyteller and information architect, co-founder of The Lexicon. In this course, participants will learn new techniques that will improve their storytelling skills and be able to better communicate their work with a global audience. This skill includes (but is not limited to) how to build a production plan for a documentary, how to find and interact with subjects, and how to shoot a short documentary.

Twenty of the participants will receive a GoPro Hero 11 Digital Video and Audio Cameras by September 15, 2022. Additional participants may receive GoPro Digital Video and Audio Cameras to be announced at a later date. The recipients will be selected by advisors to the program and will be based on selection criteria (see below) on proposals by Storytelling Lab participants. The selections will keep in accordance with Lab criteria concerning geography, active participation in the Storytelling Lab and commitment to the creation of a story for the Initiative, a GoPro Camera to use to complete the storytelling lab and document their story. These recipients will be asked to sign an acceptance letter with terms of use and condition to receive the camera. 

The Lexicon provides video editors, graphic designers, and animators to support the participants to complete their stories.

The submitted stories will be showcased during international and local events, starting from the closing event of the International Year of Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 in Rome, in January 2023. The authors of the stories will be credited and may be invited to join.

All selection criteria

Storytelling lab participation:

Applicants that will be granted access to the storytelling Lab will be evaluated based on the entries they provided in the online form, and in particular:

  • The completeness of their form
  • The relevance of their story (coherence with the main goal of the initiative and 10 principles)
  • Written motivation explained
  • Geography (the initiative aims at showcasing stories from all over the world so the mix of locations will be a factor that the selection committee will take into account)
 

Applications will be evaluated by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

When selecting applications, the call promoters may request additional documentation or interviews both for the purpose of verifying compliance with eligibility requirements and to facilitate proposal evaluation.

Camera recipients:

Participants to the Storytelling Lab who will be given a GoPro camera will be selected based on:

  • Quality of the story (coherence with the initiative and the 10 principles)
  • Motivation demonstrated during the interaction in the online class
  • Participation in the online class (participants that will attend less than 4 classes will be automatically excluded)
 

The evaluation will be carried out by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

Incidental expenses and all other costs and expenses which are not specifically listed in these Official Rules but which may be associated with the acceptance, receipt and use of the Storytelling Lab and the camera are solely the responsibility of the respective participants and are not covered by The Lexicon or any of the A Greener Blue partners.

All participants who receive a Camera are required to sign an agreement allowing GoPro for a Cause, The Lexicon and GSSI to utilize the films for A Greener Blue and their promotional purposes. All participants will be required to an agreement to upload their footage into the shared drive of The Lexicon and make the stories, films and images available for The Lexicon and the promoting partners of A Greener Blue.

Additional Limitations

Selection and distribution of the camera is non-transferable. No substitution or cash equivalent of the cameras is granted. The Lexicon and its respective partners and representatives are not responsible for any typographical or other errors in the offer or administration of the Initiative, including, but not limited to, errors in any printing or posting or the Official Rules, the selection and announcement of any selected participant, or the distribution of any equipment. Any attempt to damage the content or operation of this Initiative is unlawful and subject to possible legal action by The Lexicon. The Lexicon reserves the right to terminate, suspend or amend the Initiative, without notice, and for any reason, including, without limitation, if The Lexicon determines that the Lab cannot be conducted as planned or should a virus, bug, tampering or unauthorized intervention, technical failure or other cause beyond The Lexicon’s control corrupt the administration, security, fairness, integrity or proper play of the Contest. In the event any tampering or unauthorized intervention may have occurred, The Lexicon reserves the right to void suspect entries at issue.