Connecting Organic Farmers in OGRAIN w/ Dr. Erin Silva, PhD

Interview with Erin Silva, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

Show Notes

How can organic farmers integrate cover crops and no-till into their system? Dr. Erin Silva of the University of Wisconsin–Madison shares her experience combining cover crops and no-till farming within organic agriculture. Erin also discusses the resources available through OGRAIN, the university’s organic farming network.

Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com 

Learn more about Erin Silva at the University of Wisconsin–Madison: www.plantpath.wisc.edu 

Connect with our guest on LinkedIn

#agriculture #farming #madisonwisconsin #organicagriculture #organicfarming

Podcast Transcription

INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower, where we hear from top experts in the commercial organic industry. With a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field, you will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. Here’s our host, Tom Buman.

TOM: Today’s guest is Dr. Erin Silva, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Welcome to the show, Erin.

ERIN: Thank you.

Integrating Cover Crops & No-Till Farming

TOM: Erin, so you have a long background in working with no-till. Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you got to the University of Wisconsin working on the organic program for them?

ERIN: I actually first started working in organics in 2004 when I went to New Mexico State University as an assistant professor working in vegetable crops. So it was there, back, gosh, almost 20 years ago, that I started to integrate cover crops into no-till practices using different methods of winter-killed cover crops and chemically-killed cover crops, as well as mechanically-killed cover crops, to create that soil armor and protect the soil during extreme weather events. And working in vegetable crops, I took inspiration from Ron Morse, from Virginia Tech University, who did some of the initial work with cover crop-based no-till. So my first foray into cover crop-based no-till was in the semi-arid region in New Mexico. But I had the opportunity in 2006 to return to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where I had done some studies in the past to start the first solely organic position within the College of Ag and Life Sciences. So I had the chance to really develop an organic-focused program from scratch. And as I dive deeper into organic and saw the challenges, certainly the reliance on tillage and cultivation for weed management was something that organic farmers wanted to find alternative solutions for. So, coming to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I was able to bring some of that work in cover crop-based no-till and set it more into an agronomic focus and had the opportunity early on to partner with the Rodale Institute who pioneered some of the first work with roller crimping and cover crop-based no-till. So it was kind of the coming together of those two opportunities, being able to take some of the work I was doing previously at New Mexico, as well as being able to partner with Jeff Moyer in the Rodale Institute to implement that on a larger scale on corn and soybean fields in Wisconsin.

OGRAIN at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

TOM: So, Erin, let’s talk about the OGRAIN program. I know, at the University of Wisconsin, it’s an important program. And certainly, in other states, we hear about OGRAIN. Tell us a little bit about that.

ERIN: OGRAIN is an acronym that stands for the Organic Grain Resource and Information Network, and OGRAIN was conceptualized in about 2016, I believe. And at my position at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, not only do I have responsibilities with research — so I do a lot of applied research related to agronomic production in organic cropping systems — but, also, I’m an extension specialist. I work with farmers across Wisconsin doing education and outreach and looking at how to bring the research that we’re conducting here at UW to the farm field and have it be useful and applied to farmers. So OGRAIN is really a part of my extension program, but OGRAIN was really built to facilitate learning and knowledge exchange between farmers. So, certainly, a big part of OGRAIN is bringing our research to the folks that can use that research and benefit from that research. But, also, a large part is creating spaces for organic farmers to learn from each other. There are amazingly skilled organic farmers out there that have been successfully farming using certified organic practices for 30 – 40 years and just have a wealth of knowledge. And bringing those folks together with people that are just starting into organic really helps with that learning curve and being able to launch people successfully into the organic world.

Connecting Farmers at the OGRAIN Conference

TOM: What kind of activities throughout the year does OGRAIN have to help connect farmers and then also pass on research that the university has done?

ERIN: We have a suite of different events and resources that are ongoing throughout the year. Probably the highlight of our year is our OGRAIN conference, which happens at the end of January in Madison, Wisconsin. And that is a three-day event. The first day, which typically falls on a Thursday, we really focus on looking at organic no-till practices. And that’s very much, again, discussion-based, facilitating learning between farmers. So spend an afternoon and an evening hearing stories, successes, failures, challenges, experimentation from farmers, as well as presenting our latest research that we’ve been doing at UW – Madison. Then the next two days are focused more on workshops and farmer panels related to organic grain production, everything from weed management to fertility management to markets to financial tools. So really looking at all the different sorts of information that farmers need to be successful within organic production and look at expanding into new areas. In addition to the conference, we have field days. We’re just about to announce our field day schedule, where we have a whole lineup of farms that we’ll be touring and highlighting different aspects of their production systems, the innovations going on, new crops that they’re trialing, new practices that they’re implementing on their fields. We also have a very active listserv that farmers can join, where they can ask questions and share information. We post not only our events but other events happening within the organic community that organic farmers can benefit from. And we also have a website that has many different resources, fact sheets, a whole host of online videos from past conferences and events, as well as our OGRAIN Compass financial tool, where farmers can project their revenue over the next several years and look at how changing practices and adding new crops might change their bottom line.

How to Learn More about OGRAIN

TOM: So you’ve got field days coming up. And you have the listserv, and you have the website. If I want to learn more about what field days are coming up, how do I get that information? Is there a place I can sign up that gets emailed? What’s the website where I can go to find out more information, Erin?

ERIN: If you Google OGRAIN UW – Madison,’ you’ll be able to find our website. And on the website, there is a link to be able to join the listserv. So that’s probably the easiest way to find the sign-up for the listserv. It’s to Google OGRAIN UW – Madison’ and then navigate on the website to get to the sign-up for the listserv.

TOM: And OGRAIN is O‑G-R-A-I‑N. 

ERIN: Yes. 

TOM: Okay, great. Thank you, Erin.

OUTRO: Thank you for listening to Organics Unpacked. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and giving this show a five-star rating and review, so we can continue to help organic growers improve their operations.