The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the release of a new handbook aimed at helping Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) field staff work with organic and transitioning-to-organic producers.

In the past, NRCS has faced challenges when working with organic and transitioning-to-organic farmers and ranchers, who must comply with strict standards set by the National Organic Program (NOP).  The handbook explains how NRCS conservation activities align with NOP standards, and how NRCS staff can help producers meet conservation and regulatory objectives simultaneously.

Ten member organizations from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) worked with 16 NRCS staff members to develop the handbook as part of a multi-year Conservation Innovation Grant project to modify NRCS conservation programs and operations to better serve sustainable and organic agriculture. 

“The organic farming and conservation communities share common ground and have great potential to work together,” said Dr. Mark Schonbeck of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, one of the contributors to the handbook.  “However, the two communities speak different dialects.  This handbook details how organic and conservation principles, USDA organic regulations, and NRCS practices align with each other, thus helping NRCS field personnel work effectively with organic producers to achieve the highest levels of resource stewardship in US agriculture.”

According to Harriet Behar of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and another contributor, “the National Organic Farming Handbook will aid NRCS personnel to understand the NOP organic regulation as well as the what motivates farmers to implement organic systems.  It also offers agricultural professionals important guidance for implementing NRCS strategies on organic operations.”

Some conservation practices may not be well suited for organic and transitioning-to-organic operations.  For example, where a conventional producer might work with NRCS to adopt a no-till system or to mitigate the harmful impacts of chemical pesticides, an organic producer may instead seek guidance on building soil organic matter or preventing pest pressures in the first place.

“This handbook will be particularly useful for field staff who are more familiar working with conventional producers,” said Greg Fogel, Senior Policy Specialist with NSAC.  “It will improve the conservation planning process for organic producers and those interested in transitioning to organic production.”