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Organic Evolution: Expert Leads Way in Iowa

Seven years ago, in Iowa, the heart of corn and soybean country, Kathleen Delate became America's first organic agriculture extension specialist. Since then, she's been working closely with local farmers to increase and improve organic production and marketing. From that time organic acreage has increased six-fold in the state, from 20,000 acres in 1996 to 120,000 acres in 2004.This is the story of her approach, the changes that she has witnessed, and the lessons we can learn from them.
Organic Evolution: Expert Leads Way in Iowa


Seven years ago, in Iowa, the heart of corn and soybean country, Kathleen Delate became America's first organic agriculture extension specialist. Since then, she's been working closely with local farmers to increase and improve organic production and marketing. From that time organic acreage has increased six-fold in the state, from 20,000 acres in 1996 to 120,000 acres in 2004.This is the story of her approach, the changes that she has witnessed, and the lessons we can learn from them.

Popular demand
The fact that Kathleen Delate's job even exists is a direct consequence of public demand. In 1996, a group of Iowa farmers approached Iowa State University (ISU) administrators and said they needed better technical support for organic farming. The university responded swiftly, authorizing the new specialist's post and even inviting the farmers to participate in the selection process. Delate was hired the following year.

Grassroots input
From the moment she arrived, Delate has continued to solicit, and to act on, input from farmers across the state. Shortly after she was hired, a day-long Sustainable Agriculture Summit was held to review research and educational priorities for Iowa's organic farmers; the following spring, in 1998, a series of focus groups brought organic and conventional farmers, extension personnel, and other ag sector representatives together in six state regions. Delate made these priorities the foundation of her work agenda and continues to meet with a farmer-based organic advisory committee on a regular basis.

Grassroots input (day-to-day contact with hands-on farmers) is of paramount importance to Delate, and the impact of that commitment is clearly evident. In her first three years on the job, she delivered 140 public presentations on organic farming to an invited audience, or nearly one a week. She's produced publications on organic agriculture fundamentals, on soil quality and weed management in organic systems, and on growing organic soybeans on former Conservation Reserve Program ground. Thanks in part to her leadership, Iowa became one of the top five states for organic research by 2001.

Natural growth
Meanwhile, Iowa's organic acreage has increased from 20,000 acres in 1996 to 120,000 acres in 2004. A recent survey found that well over a third of Iowa organic farmers plan to expand their organic acreage. Interest among conventional farmers, too, is stronger than ever. Delate's office fields an average of 10 calls a week from individual Iowa farmers who want to know more about organics.

"I think the greatest impact of Kathleen's work has been in fulfilling a distinct role of response and service to the public," says Jerry DeWitt, who serves as ISU's extension coordinator for sustainable agriculture and works closely with Delate. "Her position has given a great boost of validity and legitimacy to organic agriculture in Iowa. Ten years ago, when I went to a meeting and mentioned organic, people rolled their eyes. Now they don't roll their eyes, they raise their hands. Organics has arrived."

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