Breaking Down the Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP)
Published: Oct 2023
By: Tay Fatke, Marbleseed's Local Food Purchasing Specialist
Marbleseed is honored and excited to be serving the Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP) as a regional partner in the Midwest region. Through the USDA, TOPP is investing up to $100 million over five years in cooperative agreements with non-profit organizations who are partnering with others to provide technical assistance and wrap-around support for transitioning and existing organic farmers. This of course has been a foundation of Marbleseed’s work for years.
During the last week of October, prior to the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Providence, I was able to attend meetings with TOPP regional partners across the country. It was incredible to see all the work being done across the regions to build relationships with farmers interested in transitioning to organic. These partners are developing mentorship programs, offering educational events and providing technical assistance to producers to ensure their transition has multiple levels of support. Marbleseed is delighted to match existing certified organic farmers as mentors to mentee farmers interested in organic certification. With years of experience in coordinating mentorship between farmers, Marbleseed is excited to continue to offer these opportunities as we focus specifically on assisting farmers in transitioning to organic.
Providing education to farmers has been the goal of Marbleseed from the very beginning to the present as we prepare to hold our 35th annual Organic Farming Conference in February 2024 and roll out the 17th season of our mentorship program. TOPP funding will allow us to continue this important work and ensure farmers have the peer support they need to feel comfortable in their pursuits. We are an organization that is farmer-led and rooted in organic, and we believe that farmers learn best from other farmers.
How is mentorship different than working on a farm or studying agriculture? When I think about why mentorship specifically is important, I think about what I needed when I started a farm with my semi-retired parents in 2020. Personally, I have worked on eight different farms and received a degree in Sustainable Food & Agriculture Systems, gaining tons of experience and knowledge on everything from grazing systems to growing tomatoes to milking goats. While these experiences were critical for my success, they didn’t prepare me to be the one creating the field plan, sourcing inputs or managing labor. My jobs on farms were often reactive and now that I was the critical decision maker, I needed to be proactive and get ahead of things before they became an issue. That’s where I see mentorship as so important. A farmer having the ability to call their mentor and explain the things that keep them up at night and be offered advice that is practical and timely is so important for the mentee.
Caleb Trainor of Winterspring Farm gave this advice to new and beginning farmers, “get yourself a mentor who can hold your hand through the harder parts of farming.” Caleb, along with his partner Rox and their tight knit crew grow vegetables for CSA and farmers markets in West Bend, WI. Caleb was a mentee and paired with mentor Peter Seely of Springdale Farm in Plymouth, WI. “Mentorship from Peter has been invaluable” Caleb begins. “Having access to a mentor and their wealth of knowledge, trade tricks and resources has been foundational to our farms budding success. Navigating the complexities of production, marketing, sourcing and distribution is a colossal task, especially as a young and beginning first gen farmer. We need all the support we can get, I believe that need is disproportionately frontloaded.”
One important question that has come up time and time again is will markets exist for these producers that transition to organic? It’s great that opportunities exist to provide farmers with the resources and skills to move to growing certified organic products, but just as important is that these producers have a market and are paid a premium for their switch to organic. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has been selected as a national partner for the USDA Transition to Organic Partnership Program. The trade association will manage and oversee activities throughout the country that support market development for organic products, facilitate the matching of organic producers and suppliers and educate handlers in effective ways of dealing with organic products. OTA will provide technical assistance on the various aspects of developing markets for organic products, strategies to connect organic producers with buyers, and comprehensive training materials and educational resources to support handlers in effectively managing organic products. I am hopeful that the emphasis on market development will show producers on the fence about transitioning to make the switch.
We are so excited to be working with mentors, mentees and our regional partners to do this important work of increasing the number of organic farmers and acres across the Midwest, and it’s going to be incredible to look around the country and see other regions doing the same. TOPP is addressing the difficult decision farmers face when they want to take better care of their land, provide healthier foods to their communities and receive a premium for their products but feel overwhelmed of making the switch. We are looking forward to simplifying the process for farmers and making connections that will last a lifetime.