Demystifying USDA Tools for Organic Agriculture

Posted by Joseph Heller, Natural Resources Conservation Service in Conservation

February 21, 2017

NRCS Resource Curator Joe Heller in a residue-covered vegetable field in New York City. Leaving plant residues in place reduces soil erosion, increases soil organic matter and overall soil health.

Bringing people together to talk can lead to good ideas.

In June, the USDA hosted 100 farmers, breeders, retailers and producers in Chester, New York, in the Hudson Valley to discuss the opportunities and challenges of organic production and to share information about programs and USDA services available to organic producers and processors.

The wholesalers and retailers present at the meeting all had a common challenge: to meet the growing market demand for organic food. Retail sales of organic products continue to grow at double digit rates each year. In 2014, the market reached $39 billion in the United States alone. This level of demand means plenty of opportunity for organic growers, as well as those in the process of switching to organic production.

Cathy and Bradley Stroll of Fresh Meadow Farm, certified to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and USDA Organic Standards, discussed their success in growing organic produce and selling at a national outlet. The Strolls have received financial and technical assistance from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Value-Added Producer Grant Program for the rural development (RD).

The USDA also heard directly from producers about common challenges facing farmers and processors, such as the need to invest in helping small businesses and beginning farmers. Beginning farmers have expressed the need for technical assistance which can be supported by the NRCS organic EQIP initiative. Experienced farmers looking to expand their organic businesses have discussed the USDA Agricultural Services Agency (FSA) Micro Loan Program or On-Farm Storage Facilities Loan Program.

Since the June event, NRCS and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) have created new tools and outreach efforts. In October, AMS began rolling out its Sound and Sensible initiative which offers a range of helpful tools and resources including templates, decision-making tools, training, guides, tip sheets and videos – created through partnerships with 14 agencies. These tools help USDA field staff, organic certifiers, and growers make certification of organic production more accessible, accessible, and affordable. Additionally, the USDA recently launched its New Farmers website with a new discovery tool to make finding resources easier.

At NRCS, we are also launching a new series of outreach efforts for organic growers. One of them is my four-month special assignment with the USDA Organic Agriculture Task Force. My goal is to provide my fellow field staff with the information they need to better serve organic and transitioning to organic growers. Early next year, I will be running a number of train-the-trainer workshops in the field so that others can pass on this important information.

The more I get to know organic producers and learn how closely their practices align with NRCS’s conservation mission, the more excited I become to help other farmers and ranchers make the transition. I’m excited to share this knowledge and find ways to connect more organic growers to USDA resources.

Ultimately, I hope NRCS field staff will have a better understanding of how NRCS conservation practices can help farmers and ranchers who are already organic producers or are considering a transition to organic, and inform these growers of opportunities and resources available through other USDA agencies.

To learn more about USDA support for organic growers, visit, or NRCS conservation resources that support organic growers, visit


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