The Organic University: A Valuable MOSES Tradition
The Organic University, an education institution established in response to the growing demand of Midwest farmers for practical and credible organic farming information, has exceeded all enrollment expectations during its first five years of operation. Total enrollment grew from 119 for six courses in 2000 to 397 for nine courses five years later.
This Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES) initiative grew out of a series of afternoon seminars presented the day before the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in 1999 and 2000. All seven seminars received high ratings and many of the participants suggested expanding them into full-day courses and providing more written materials.
"They liked the fact that these offerings were shaped by farmer volunteers, that many of the presenters were farmers, and that farmer participants willingly shared information with each other at these events," a MOSES board report describing the seminars noted. "All of this has convinced us that farmers want more and would embrace the Organic University idea."
The Organic University began in 2001 with six courses dealing with transitioning to organic, organic transplant production, soil management, organic market gardening, organic livestock production, and an introduction to organic farming. A total of 19 courses have been offered over the five year history of the OU, with some topics offered once or twice, others more frequently. Ten courses, up from eight in 2004 and nine in 2005, will be offered in 2006.
Other course topics have included marketing, compost, soil health, dairy and beef and poultry production, livestock health, greenhouses, organic seed, soil management, apple production, and wind energy. New courses planned for 2006 are advanced weed management, medicinal herb production, pastured poultry, soil biology, and holistic farm management.
Coordinator Jody Padgham reports that more than 500 farmers, agricultural professionals, nonprofit organization staff members, and others have taken one or more courses. A special effort is being taken, she noted, to reach beyond Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois in recruiting participants. A continuing challenge is scheduling both introductory level courses, designed mainly for agricultural professionals working with farmers and farmers transitioning to organic, and advanced or specialized courses for farmers with certified operations.
A grant from the Cavaliere Foundation in 2000 provided the initial support needed to launch the Organic University. USDA's Risk Management Agency has since provided funding assistance, including help in underwriting several scholarships. Overall, the Organic University is viewed as a sustainable initiative that can pay its own way while keeping registration fees modest.
Since the Organic University is an evolving institution, special attention is paid to participant evaluations. Almost without exception, the courses have scored over four points out of a possible five and a number of participants have urged MOSES to expand the courses to cover two days. The evaluations also provide information that helps fine tune courses and identify topics for new ones.
In addition to using 20 successful organic farmers as teachers over the last five years, the Organic University teaching staff has included 12 land grant university staff members who provide organic farming research and extension leadership in their states and beyond. They are from the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Nebraska.
Two of them, Elizabeth Dyck of the University of Minnesota and John Biernbaum of Michigan State University, have taught courses all five years. Dyck, formerly on the staff of an experiment station in southwest Minnesota, has since started her own certified organic farm in New York State. Jerry DeWitt, Iowa State entomology professor and past interim director of USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, has been a member of the "Introduction to Organic" team for four years.
The experienced farmer teachers include Carmen Fernholz, a Minnesota organic grain and hog far mer and the MOSES 2005 Organic Farmer of the year, who has been a member of the "Transitioning to Organic" team for four years. Other organic farmer teachers are Tom Frantzen, Iowa organic pork producer; Ron Rosmann, Iowa crop and livestock farmer and former president of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, and Juli Brussell, who operates a Southern Illinois organic farm with her husband, Kevin.
What these numbers do not show is the team partnerships that often involve a university faculty member and an organic farmer in teaching a course together. Others serving on teaching teams include veterinarians, nonprofit organization researchers, organic farming consultants, organic certification agency staff members, and other professionals.
One of the Organic University's success stories is the number of students from the Extension Service and USDA agencies that have taken the introductory course. In 2002 alone, 12 of the 37 students in the Organic Farming 101 course were from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), two were from USDA's Risk Management Agency (RMA), and three were Cooperative Extension Service staff members.
The Organic University is a place where extension agents and government agency staff members working directly with organic farmers can take an introductory course and return home with a wealth of resource information as well.
One of the most valuable features of the Organic University courses is the resource notebook prepared specifically for each course. These notebooks include materials prepared by course instructors, directories and other sources of information, and organic publications provided by ATTRA, the national sustainable agriculture information center.
Although 40 or so students may be ideal to provide ample opportunity to ask questions and participate in course discussions, enrollment in some courses has gone much higher and has had to be capped because of heavy demand. Organic University participants also have lunch and breaks together, providing additional time for exchange of information.
Having the courses the day before the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference makes it easy for Organic University participants to stay over and obtain more information from conference exhibitors and the plenary sessions and 50 or more workshops offered annually. Many of the Organic University teachers also are conference workshop presenters. Organic University participants who stay over for the conference also have the opportunity to purchase organic farming books and speaker tapes.
MOSES is proud to continue to offer high caliber, in-depth, farmer oriented full day classes to hundreds of participants at the annual Organic University. We invite you to return as an "OU Alumni" to explore a new course offering, or attend the OU for the first time in 2006. Join the hundreds of past Organic University participants who have a useful OU notebook on their bookshelves!