Inspection Services Blog

Research Update: Next Generation Nitrogen Management Training for Certified Crop Advisors Online Course Open for Enrollment

Note: This is part of a Research Update series that highlights projects funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) annual grant program.  

The online Nitrogen (N) Management Training for Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs) is open for enrollment between June 1, 2023, and May 31, 2024. The self-paced course covers N and irrigation management practices that reduce environmental impacts while maintaining crop productivity. Participants receive access to online videos covering a variety of N-related topics, including N cycling, sources, budgeting, and dynamics in California (CA) cropping systems; the environmental impacts of N loss; irrigation management; and barriers to adoption of environmental practices. The course offers 10 hours of CCA continuing education credits. While the course is designed for CCAs, anyone interested in learning more about N and irrigation management in California agriculture is welcome to participate.

The curriculum for the N Management Training for CCAs was developed through a FREP grant by University of California (UC) Davis researchers and UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors. The course was created to provide CCAs with the specialized N and irrigation management education and training necessary to obtain the California Nitrogen Management Specialty certification (CA-NSp). CCAs who have passed the CA-NSp exam are qualified to provide N and water management planning services to farmers. The CA-NSp is also required for CCAs to certify Irrigation and Nitrogen Management Plan (INMP) worksheets for growers in the Central Valley. You can find the link to register for the UC Davis N Management Training for CCAs course here:

Below is a description of the current FREP grant that supports the N Management Course for CCAs:

Project Title: Next Generation N Management Training for Certified Crop Advisors

Project Leaders: Erik Porse, CA Institute for Water Resources, Sat Darshan Khalsa, UC Davis, Amanda Crump, UC Davis

Project Status: Year 3

Overview: The project developed an online N and irrigation management curriculum and created an online video training to prepare CCAs for the standardized exam to obtain the CA-NSp certification. The overall goal of the program is to highlight best N and irrigation management practices and prepare new CCAs to make informed recommendations to growers that improve crop productivity while reducing environmental impacts.

Background: The International CCA program was initiated in 1992 in an effort to address increased concerns about agriculture’s contribution to a variety of environmental problems, including non-point source pollution. By 1994, the Western Region CCA (WRCCA) program was established with support from CDFA, the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) and the CA agricultural industry. The international program is intended to raise the awareness and professional standards of consultants who make recommendations to growers and farm managers on the use of agricultural fertilizers, pesticides and related products (although in California, pesticide consultants are required to be licensed by the state).

The N Management Training for CCAs has evolved considerably over the last decade in response to restrictions introduced to prevent nitrate contamination to groundwater in agricultural areas. In 2014, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board began requiring growers in the region to prepare Nitrogen Management Plans (now known as INMP worksheets) to track their N use. In addition, growers located in high-vulnerability groundwater areas were required to have their plans certified by a professional trained in irrigation and nutrient management practices. CCAs could qualify to certify these plans by attending a CDFA-organized N Management Plan certification training.

In response to these requirements, between 2014 and 2020, FREP partnered with UC Davis, the WRCCA Program, the CA Association of Pest Control Advisors (CAPCA), and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards to develop and organize the voluntary N management training for CCAs. More than 1,000 CCAs successfully completed one of the 13 trainings held during this period. The CA-NSp, which was introduced in 2020, established a standardized certification pathway for CCAs interested in gaining the specialized knowledge to develop and certify INMP worksheets for growers.

Approach: The main objectives of the grant were to 1) deliver one CCA workshop, 2) organize key information sources that CCAs use for making recommendations to growers into a course curriculum, 3) curate study materials in the form of a video series, 4) develop exam questions for the CA-NSp exam in collaboration with project supporters, and 5) analyze exam responses and update test materials based on feedback to create a final exam for the CA-NSp certification.

Photo: CCAs attending the in-person training workshop offered in early 2020 in Fresno, CA. Photo by Sat Darshan Khalsa.

Results: In March 2020, the project organizers hosted a N Management Training workshop in Fresno, CA, that was attended by 65 CCAs. Later in 2020, they developed a study curriculum including seven competency areas that had specific performance objectives. After finalizing the exam questions, the project leaders and cooperators designed the course to support student learning and recorded videos of each presentation. The final presentations were edited and closed captioning was added to maintain accessibility standards.

The online video series, which opened for enrollment in October 2020, included a total of 17 videos. The curriculum was expanded to include a ‘Barriers to Adoption’ module of three additional videos in 2021. The online course recruited 57 students in 2020, 74 students in 2021, and 35 students in 2022.

The exam for the CA-NSp certification was developed with over 60 questions by a team of content experts. An Angoff analysis was developed to determine the cut score for a pass and fail rate. The initial internet-based version of the test was deployed on the ASA website in February 2021. An exam committee reviewed and reworked 24 questions to improve the quality of the exam.  In February 2022, the revised exam was deployed. To date, 83 students have taken the exam with an average pass rate of 86%. The pass rate for the first exam version was 96% and declined to 71% for the second version.

The principal investigators conducted a knowledge assessment using a Likert scale to measure the educational impact of the course. A Likert scale is commonly used to measure attitudes, knowledge, perceptions, values, and behavioral changes. Overall, students reported a gain in knowledge between 20% and 30% for the seven competency areas compared to their understanding of the topics before taking the course (Figure 1). This evidence suggests the online course is delivering valuable knowledge gains for the targeted population.

Figure 1. Results from a Likert scale assessment show the difference between how students rate their knowledge of N management topics before and after completing the course modules.

Reaching CCAs:

The project organizers have provided several outreach events to increase awareness of the online N Management Training for CCAs. In addition to the initial training given to CCAs in 2020, workshops and seminars on N and irrigation management and presentations describing the progress in creating the online course were given at the WRCCA Board, the 2021 and 2022 Annual FREP and ASA Conferences, and through a WRCCA educational webinar series.

For additional information about CDFA’s FREP-funded projects on research and education regarding the agronomically safe and environmentally sound use of fertilizer in California, please click here.

For details about current and completed FREP-funded projects, as well as a searchable database that aims to make the research available, understandable, and convenient for growers to implement, please click here.

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