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Transition to Organic Partnership Program
Mentorship Handbook
Table of Contents


Purpose and Mission


Program Contact Information


What is Mentoring


Benefits for Mentors


Benefits for Mentees


The Mentor’s Role


The Mentee’s Role


Group Mentoring and Multiple Mentees


Mentorship Timeline


Guidelines for Meetings


Mentorship Progression


Mentorship Code of Conduct


Grievance Policy and Procedure




This mentorship handbook has been created for the Transition to Organic Partnership Program
(TOPP) mentorship program. Intent of the handbook is for use by both mentors and mentees.
The handbook contains guidelines, policies, and resources that will help develop a sound
relationship and partnership between mentor and mentee. It provides support and guidance for
both mentor and mentee professional development and resources to aid in the growth of
teaching and learning.

Purpose and Mission
The Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP) is investing up to $100 million over five
years in cooperative agreements with non-profit organizations who will partner with others to
provide technical assistance and wrap-around support for transitioning and existing organic
producers. AMS is building partnership networks in six regions across the United States with
trusted organizations serving direct farmer training, education, and outreach activities.
TOPP will:

​Connect transitioning producers with mentors
Build paid mentoring networks to share practical insights and advice
Provide community building opportunities to include:
○ Train-the-mentor support
○ Technical assistance
○ Workshops and field days covering topics including organic production practices,
certification, conservation planning, business development (including navigating
the supply chain), regulations, and marketing
Help producers overcome technical, cultural, and financial shifts during and following
Engage educational and training institutions (including crop advisors and extension
agents) on organic workforce training and education and future human capital planning

TOPP is a collaborative effort involving many partners working together towards a common
goal. The TOPP partnership network covers six regions: the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast, Southeast,
Midwest, Plains, Northwest, and West/Southwest.
Mission of the Mentorship Program
The TOPP mentorship program builds connections between experienced organic producers and
producers transitioning to organic, supports the transition process, and creates a stronger
network of organic producers across the country.
Through mentoring relationships, experienced producers pass on their knowledge, resources,
and experience, cultivate curiosity and enthusiasm for organic production, and share their
passion for organic agriculture with a greater audience. Transitioning producers receive a wealth
of support, guidance, and development through mentorship, and together with their mentors
form a strong network of organic producers across the region.

In the TOPP mentorship program, certified organic producers serve as mentors for producers
transitioning to organic, providing guidance through one-on-one support virtually and/or in
person, on the farm and off, and will offer resources and further support through networks.
Mentors support their mentee, the transitioning producer, through the transition to organic
process and during the mentee’s first year of certification.

Program Contact Information
Access the TOPP website at www.organictransition.org to find the contact information for your
region of TOPP. The website also has additional mentorship resources, toolkits, guides, and a
calendar of events.

What is Mentoring
Mentoring is a relationship that offers opportunities for mentors and mentees to learn from each
other. It is more of an exchange than a one-way giving of advice. At the heart of mentoring is a
relationship based on trust and mutual regard, where one individual uses their expertise and
knowledge to support the development of another individual.
A mentoring relationship helps learners gain skills faster than they might otherwise learn on their
own. Mentoring tends to be very relational between the mentor and mentee and often involves a
more holistic approach by focusing on the learner’s future and broader skills for personal and
professional development.
Mentoring provides:
● A safe space to explore options and plan future action
● A place to be supported and challenged
● A sounding board
● A source of advice and guidance
● New perspectives
● An ongoing relationship that can last for years
The TOPP mentorship program is largely focused on relational learning between mentor and
mentee, learning from experience and working through challenges together. Mentors will share
their experiences, advice, challenges, successes, and resources from years of organic
production, while mentees, the transitioning producers, develop goals for the mentorship and
work through challenges and celebrate successes of the transition experience. In particular, the
mentorship program will focus on transitioning to organic production topics, such as agronomy,
market availability, transportation, recordkeeping, and operation management. Particular and
specific certification guidance will come from outside of mentorship, from additional technical
assistance providers. This additional service will be provided free of charge to mentees and
encouraged to be used in conjunction with the mentoring.


The mentoring relationship can be a very powerful and positive experience. It enables and
develops a greater sense of confidence, enhancing the professional and personal skills of both
individuals. For a mentoring relationship to be successful, it needs to be built upon strong
foundational principles.
The following principles make for strong mentoring relationships and
learning experiences:
● Listen actively
● Repeat back what you hear and ask questions
● Get to know each other personally, as appropriate
● Follow communication plan and respect modes of communication
● Speak up if the mentoring relationship is not working for you and suggest changes to
make it a positive and useful experience
● Communicate with Mentorship Coordinator about any concerns, questions, or
● Exhibit enthusiasm for organic production
● Regularly provide positive feedback
● Be open and appreciative
● Use positive language and encouraging support, free of judgment
● Navigating relationships is a journey and takes courage, give yourself grace as you learn
about each other
● Be present in the moment: it is easy to multitask, so be honest and set time limits on
conversations if needed and state such as the start of the conversation
● Recognize you won’t know everything, utilize and share outside resources when helpful
● Fulfill meeting and program requirements
● Come prepared for meetings
● Communicate changes to schedules in a timely manner
● Avoid making promises
● Build trust and rapport with each other
● Discuss and respect personal boundaries
● Maintain confidentiality: conversations should be kept between the two of you unless
specifically given permission to share
● Understand and respect roles and responsibilities of both parties


Find resources and toolkits for many of these principles in the TOPP resource library. We
recommend spending time exploring these skills and principles, and assessing yourself for
where you may need support and growth with these skills. The training and onboarding process
of this mentorship program will include activities and resources to help you identify and build up
these skills.

Benefits for Mentors
Mentoring has a clear and positive impact on the mentee; however, it also benefits the mentor
personally and professionally as a producer. Becoming a mentor builds lasting relationships with
others, enhances the mentor’s own job satisfaction, and provides opportunities to reflect on
motivations and values towards agriculture. By participating in mentorship, mentors will:

Develop skills and new perspectives, including interpersonal skills, questioning, self
reflection, and creative thinking
Share the knowledge and experience gained from years of working in the field
Contribute to a broader organic production network and growth in sustainable agriculture
Gain understanding of the realities and challenges of today’s transitioning producers

Benefits for Mentees
Mentees largely benefit from a mentoring relationship, one in which they can discuss
challenges, brainstorm solutions, and learn from the real-life experiences of their mentor.
Mentees will gain the knowledge needed for successful transition to organic, and will become
involved with networks of organic producers, as well as learn from additional resources. By
participating in mentorship, mentees will:

Receive advice and guidance from an experienced organic producer mentor
Increase self-awareness, motivation, and confidence both personally and professionally
as an organic producer
Gain greater clarity of purpose and productivity
Increased organizational knowledge and know-how
Improve skills, including with interpersonal, operation management, and broader
organic production
Focus and prepare for the future of organic production

The Mentor’s Role
A mentor is a person who provides guidance, advice, or direction to someone who is willing and
desiring growth and development. In the TOPP mentorship program, the mentor is an
experienced organic producer providing guidance to a producer transitioning to organic. In
addition to the specific qualities required for TOPP mentoring, there are some specific qualities
that make for an effective mentor across mentorship programs.


Qualities of a Mentor:
Lays the Groundwork
Works to develop mentoring relationships based on mutual trust and respect, with clearly
defined boundaries. Mentors help to establish the ground rules for the mentoring relationship.
Communicates Effectively
Uses active listening, questioning, summarizes mentee’s ideas, and responds. Mentors give and
receive constructive feedback. They encourage their mentees and celebrate successes.
Provides Guidance
Challenges ideas, poses questions, and offers fresh perspectives. Mentors share their own
questions, mistakes, and learnings. They research solutions for mentees and refer mentees to
additional resources. They help to structure conversations based around mentee’s goals.
Builds Connection
Cares about their mentee as a person, not just as a producer. Mentors build rapport with their
mentee, getting to know them personally and professionally. They monitor the mentoring
relationship and ensure it is meeting the needs of both parties.
Spokesperson for Organic Production
Encourages respect for stewardship, conservation, and ecological agricultural practices.
Mentors convey the realities (both satisfactions and frustrations) with organic production and
encourage respect for what it takes to make organic production a career.
Mentor Qualifications and Expectations
In the NW TOPP mentorship program, mentors have other qualifications and expectations they
must meet to remain in the program. For NW TOPP, qualified mentors have prior knowledge,
skills and experience including:

Currently certified organic producer with at least 3 years of organic production
experience or retired producer with at least 3 years of experience with organic
Fluency in the primary language of their mentee
Preferred experience in a teaching or mentor role

Qualified mentors have the capacity to meet mentorship expectations including:

Ability to fulfill the time commitment of mentorship including communication, site visits
(virtual or in person), and researching solutions
Access to appropriate technology for communication
Willingness to engage in problem solving, and a desire to give-back to the farming
and/or ranching community
Strong understanding of the rules, challenges, and benefits of organic production and
becoming certified organic


Additionally, mentors must meet the required expectations every year they participate. In a
mentorship year, mentors will:

Commit to 45 hours per yearly program cycle (optional additional hours with additional
○ Includes 2 operation visits per year (one at mentor operation and one at mentee
operation, virtual or in-person)
○ Includes at least 3 meetings during growing season with mentee
○ Includes mentor training and end-of-year meetings
○ Recommended attendance with mentee at an agricultural event (conference or
other educational event)
○ Suggested to present at and/or host an educational event (virtual or in person)
Co-create agreement with mentee to support the structure of their experience during
onboarding, including:
○ Communication plan
○ Learning objectives
○ Meetings plan
Communicate timely and consistently with mentees and program staff
Participate in mid-year and year-end mentorship evaluations
Receive compensation for their mentorship
Note: Mentors are not expected to ‘work’ on mentee operations

The Mentee’s Role
Mentees are producers transitioning to organic and intending to certify their operation, or an
operation they manage, as organic. Mentees play an important role in the mentoring relationship
by providing the topics and goals on which the mentorship is built, taking responsibility for their
learning, and having an active desire to learn and grow alongside their mentor. Some specific
qualities and actions are needed by the mentee for a mentorship to be successful and fruitful.
Qualities of a Mentee:
Creates the Goals, Agendas, and Topics
Sets goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive to help frame
the mentorship. Mentees should create agendas for each meeting with their mentor and
develop the topics they wish to discuss. Goals will help to define the parameters of the
mentoring relationship.
Owns Their Learning
Makes decisions on their learning and guides the mentor in the direction of learning they wish to
take. If mentees appreciate the advice of the mentor, apply it, and come prepared to discuss the
outcome at meetings. Takes action on agreed-upon tasks within the negotiated timeframe and
identify areas in need of support.
Communicates Effectively


Clearly communicates needs and aspirations to the mentor, helping to focus discussions and
problem solving. Mentees actively listen to their mentor and show gratitude for their time and
Open to Feedback, Growth, and Changes
Accepting of new perspectives and insights, mentees must have a growth mindset where they
are ready and open to learn and change. Mentees accept and offer feedback to and from their
Respect the Mentoring Relationship
Uses any contacts and confidential information sensibly, seeking permission from the mentor
when using their name or details. Mentees build rapport with their mentor, getting to know them
personally and professionally as a producer.
Mentee Qualifications and Expectations
In the TOPP mentorship program, mentees have other qualifications and expectations they
must meet to remain in the program. For TOPP, mentees are defined as producers and
employees/managers who have at least two years of owning/operating and/or equivalent
experience, and are:

Planning to transition an existing operation to organic,
In the process of transitioning an operation to organic,
Adding new organic acreage,
Adding new scopes of organic certification,
And/or starting a new certified organic operation

Mentees have the capacity to meet mentorship expectations including:

Intend to become certified organic
Ability to fulfill the time commitment of mentorship including communication, meetings,
and site visit (virtual or in-person)
Reliable access to a means of attending site-visits
Access to appropriate technology for communication
Cultivate curiosity about organic production

Additionally, mentees must meet the required expectations every year they participate. In a
mentorship year, mentees will:

Commit to about 40 hours of mentorship per yearly program cycle
○ Includes 2 operation visits per year (one at mentor operation and one at mentee
operation, virtual or in-person)
○ Includes at least 3 meetings during growing season with mentor
○ Includes mentee onboarding and end-of-year meetings
○ Recommended attendance with mentor at an agricultural event (conference or
other educational event)


Create Mentor/Mentee agreement to support the structure of experience
○ Communication plan
○ Learning objectives
○ Meeting plan
○ Self-certify intent to develop Organic System Plan and apply for organic
Communicate timely and consistently with mentor and program staff
Participate in mid-year and year-end mentorship evaluations

Group Mentoring and Multiple Mentees
Mentors have the option to match and mentor more than one mentee if they wish. There are two
different options for mentoring multiple mentees: Multiple Individual Mentorships and Group
Mentoring. Having multiple individual mentees means meeting the same mentorship
commitments for each mentee, whereas group mentoring is focused on providing mentorship in
a group setting.
Multiple Individual Mentorships
Mentors have the option to match with more than one mentee for individual mentorships if they
have the time and bandwidth available, as determined by the mentor and mentorship
coordinator. If a mentor does choose to have more than one mentee, it may be possible for
mentees to experience some parts of the mentorship together as a pair or small group. Differing
from group mentoring (see below), multiple individual mentorships remain primarily one-to-one
mentoring, with the option of occasional group learning sessions to enhance the peer learning
Time Commitment
With multiple individual mentorships, mentors will conduct mentorship through one-on-one
meetings and visits, and may plan occasional group learning experiences. Mentors will be
expected to provide the same 40 hours of mentorship time for each of their individual mentees,
and will complete 5 hours of annual mentor training no matter the number of mentees.
Mentors will receive double their stipend for an additional mentee. After 3 or more additional
mentees, the stipend will be slightly reduced to account for overlapping programmatic
requirements (evaluations, check-ins, and training). Contact your region’s mentorship program
for specifics on compensation.
Group Mentoring
Group mentoring is an option when two or more mentees that share similarities with their
operations are paired with the same mentor and meet together with their mentor as a group for
their mentoring sessions. Group mentoring can also be thought of as cohorts, wherein a cohort
of mentees come together for each of their mentoring sessions with the same mentor. In group
mentoring, mentorship is designed as a group activity for the majority of mentoring sessions.

Mentoring sessions include monthly meetings, operation visits, educational events, and
meetings with the mentorship coordinator (such as onboarding and end of year review session).
Group mentoring will be offered in cases when multiple mentees sharing a similarity between
operations all express interest in mentoring within a similar timeframe, and/or there is a lack of
qualified mentors that match with the mentees sharing this similarity. For example, if only one
qualified mentor is available for a certain crop, but multiple mentees that all produce this crop
are interested in mentorship, then mentees may be grouped together with that one mentor, and
the mentor would conduct mentorship through a group setting. Group mentoring will be utilized
at the discretion of the Mentorship Coordinator and mentor and will always be optional for the
mentor. The Mentorship Coordinator will discuss group mentoring as an option with the mentor
before initiating it.
Time Commitment
For group mentoring, mentors will be expected to commit a minimum of 65 hours per
mentorship year. The 65 hours include the same amount of group mentorship time as given in
individual mentoring (40 hours), 5 hours of annual mentor training, and 10 hours to spend
individually with each mentee.
In a mentorship year, group mentors will:
● Commit to a minimum of 65 hours per yearly program cycle (12 months)
○ Includes 5 hours of annual mentor training
○ Includes 40 hours of direct group mentorship
○ Includes 10 hours of one-on-one mentee time for each mentee (with minimum of
2 mentees)
● If three or more mentees join the group mentoring cohort:
○ Mentors will commit an additional 10 hours per each mentee that joins
Group mentors will receive a base stipend for a cohort of two mentees, and will receive
additional compensation for each additional mentee that joins the group mentoring cohort.
Contact your region’s mentorship program for specifics on compensation.

Mentorship Timeline
A mentoring relationship will begin when the mentee is transitioning to organic. The duration of
transitioning can vary greatly. It could be as short as one year, or it could last for many years. As
long as the mentoring relationship remains positive, beneficial, and constructive, it is
recommended for the mentorship to continue through the transition time, certification process,
and for one year after certification.
If at any time the mentor or mentee needs to end the mentorship or withdraw from the program,
the mentor or mentee may do so by contacting their region’s mentorship program and providing
30-days notice.


There is required training for both mentors and mentees. All training must be completed to begin
mentorship, and continuing education will need to be completed annually thereafter. Initial
training needs to be completed within the first month of acceptance into the program.
Once the Mentorship Coordinator has identified a match between mentor and mentee, the
mentor and mentee will have an initial phone call together to ensure the match feels like a good
fit. After, both the mentor and mentee will complete a short confidential evaluation on their
potential match, and the Mentorship Coordinator will make sure the match will work for both
parties. If both parties express their wish to move forward with the match, then the mentorship
will officially begin.
Mentors and mentees prepare for mentorship onboarding by completing goals and
communication plans, and together meet with the mentorship coordinator to develop
agreements for the mentorship year.
Meetings happen throughout the mentorship year. It is recommended for meetings to occur
monthly, however with the demands of the production season, we understand that may be
challenging. It is required to have at least three meetings during the production season, and
monthly meetings in the off season.
Meetings can happen virtually, in-person, over the phone, or through whichever mode of
communication you have agreed upon in your communication plan.
See the Guidelines for Meetings section to find more information on structure of meetings and
ideas for topics to discuss.
Operation/Farm Visits
The mentor is expected to visit the mentee’s operation at least once during a mentorship year,
and the mentee is expected to visit the mentor’s operation at least once during a mentorship
year. Travel time is included in the mentorship year time requirement. We are not able to
provide reimbursement for mileage.
Virtual options: if geographic location does not allow for in-person visits, virtual visits are an
option. This must be discussed in advance with the Mentorship Coordinator, ideally during
onboarding when making a meeting plan for the year. If virtual visits become necessary due to
unforeseen circumstances, please discuss your plan with the Mentorship Coordinator.
End of Year Review
At the end of the mentorship year, both mentor and mentee will complete self-assessments on
their experience in the program. Together, the mentor, mentee and the Mentorship Coordinator


will meet to discuss their experiences during the mentorship year and look ahead at the option
of continuing the mentorship.
Educational Event(s)
It is recommended for the mentor and mentee to attend at least one educational event together
during the mentorship year to share in joint learning. Educational events could include an
agricultural conference, field days, workshops, and/or webinars. The mentorship coordinator will
notify all mentors and mentees of educational event opportunities regularly.
Program Check-ins
The mentor and mentee will separately check in with the mentorship coordinator during the
mentorship year. Check-ins may be short email or phone calls during times of the year when
mentor and mentee are busy and may be longer phone calls or virtual meetings when more time
is available. The check-ins will be a space for the coordinator to hear updates on the
mentorship, a chance for the mentor/mentee to ask questions, and an opportunity to discuss
mentorship plans moving forward.
Both mentors and mentees will participate in mid-year and year-end evaluations. These will
either be written or verbal surveys.

Guidelines for Meetings
Meetings are central to the mentorship experience, allowing discussion of experience, giving,
and receiving feedback, exploration of issues and talking through options for future action and
development. The mentor acts as the facilitator through skillful questioning, a non-directive,
non-judgmental approach, and the use of different strategies.
Mentors help their mentees explore choices and consequences, identify, and face up to
challenges, generate creative solutions, plan courses of action, and reflect upon and learn from
successes and failures.
Mentees on the other hand bring the agenda for the meeting, have goals in mind for each
meeting, and ensure the feedback from the mentor is following the path of learning they wish to
take. In meetings, mentees reflect on actions taken since the last meeting, and set goals and
action items to meet by the next meeting.
Meetings in general are meant to:

Review experience
Give feedback
Identify strengths and achievements
Identify weaknesses and areas for development
Explore options


Teach and learn specific skills and techniques
Engage in discussions
Discussing and sharing resources
Identify and agree on support needs
Set targets for future action

Structuring Meeting Discussion
Generally for meetings, a helpful structure can be to look back, be present, and look ahead.
This includes looking back on goals from the previous meeting and relevant experiences since
last meeting, discussing thoughts and ideas that come up in the present moment while meeting,
and looking ahead at goals, action items, and support needed until the next meeting. Here are
ideas to expand on this structure:
1. First, look back on recent experience and reflect on goals and action items set during the
previous meeting. What have you accomplished? What went well? What hasn’t worked?
Where do you need to refocus?
2. Discuss present experience. What thoughts have arisen now in light of what’s been
discussed and raised? What obstacles might there be and how can they be overcome?
3. Discuss future options, explore goals for future action, and discuss ways to meet the
needs identified. Identify action items to accomplish before the next meeting. Agree on
support needed until the next meeting.
Topic Guidance for Meetings and Mentorship
The focus for TOPP mentorship is transitioning to organic and organic certification, and all
meetings and discussions should surround this theme. Mentees will identify their primary goals
and areas in need of support in order to transition to organic, and mentors will provide the
advice and support of which they are knowledgeable to help guide their mentees. In the
transition to organic experience, learning viable and sustainable organic production practices is
critical for success. Within organic production are many different topics that can be discussed
during mentorship, including organic agronomy, market availability, farm viability, transportation,
resource identification, recordkeeping, organic system plans, preparing for inspections, and
strengthening conservation and biodiversity on the operation.
Specific and technical certification topics and questions will need to be referred to certifying
agencies and technical assistance. Mentors may share personal experiences with certification,
Organic System Plan development and recordkeeping, however, specific and technical
certification topics should be referred to certification agencies, technical assistance resources,
or the mentorship programs staff. Although mentors have gone through the certification process,
they may not be knowledgeable of all National Organic Program requirements and regulations,
and so it will be best to refer specific and technical certification questions to trained
professionals to ensure the accuracy of the guidance provided.
Certification specific topics to refer:


Technicalities and particulars of an Organic System Plan, especially in regards to a
specific certifier
Specific recordkeeping requirements
Certifier specific organic inspections requirements
National Organic Program regulations and standards

If you experience confusion about a topic or if you are unsure if you should be answering
a question:

Reach out to your mentorship program staff! Mentorship program staff can help with
clarifying whether you are qualified to address a topic, and direct questions to the correct
resource or technical assistance provider.

Make use of technical assistance resources! Technical assistance will be offered free of
charge in addition to the mentorship, with the goal of providing guidance on certification
topics. Certification agencies, extension offices, NRCS, and other agricultural
organizations have technical assistance available.

Mentors should stick within the topics they know well and can provide reliable, consistent,
and quality advice. Don’t provide guidance on a topic you are not knowledgeable about.
Acknowledge this is a topic best discussed with a different person or resource, and conduct
research and/or outreach for resources to help with answering the question. Reach out to the
Mentorship Coordinator if you are unsure of how to approach a topic.
Topic ideas to discuss during mentorship:
● Organic production practices
● Transition strategies
● Organic agronomy
● Market availability
● Transportation
● Sharing of resources
● Farm viability
● Conservation and biodiversity practices
● Personal experience with recordkeeping and organic system plans
● Preparing for organic inspections

Certifier Neutrality
Transitioning producers participating in the TOPP mentorship program can apply for certification
with any certifier of their choice. Transitioning producers have free choice in choosing whichever
certifier they want. Because of this, all mentorship discussions need to maintain certifier
neutrality. The Organic Integrity Database lists all certifiers, the states they service, and the
certification scopes they certify. Go to https://organic.ams.usda.gov/integrity to access the
database and search for certifiers.


Mentorship Progression
Over time, the mentorship will progress through different stages. In the beginning both parties in
the mentorship will be getting to know each other and learning about each other’s production
practices and operations. As mentors and mentees develop their relationship, they will fall into a
time of meeting regularly, setting goals, and working on challenges as they arise.
The mentorship may continue for months or years depending on the duration of the transition
and certification experience of the mentee, and depending on the wishes of both parties. The
mentorship will come to a close with an ending stage.
Beginning the Mentorship
The beginning of the mentorship is a critical time for getting to know each other personally and
professionally, and building rapport and trust in the mentoring relationship. The mentorship will
begin with onboarding facilitated by your mentorship program staff. During onboarding, mentees
will share their initial goals for the mentorship, and together with mentors will co-create an
agreement including a communication plan, agreement on confidentiality, and plan for meetings.
Beginning the mentorship includes:
● Onboarding to establish goals and plans f

All Regions



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