Multiple-Farm Collaborative Research
|At a field day at Kenagy Family Farms in Albany, Ore., farmers and collaborators share information about their project. Such networking opportunities lead to more meaningful research projects. |
– Photo by John Luna
In many areas, groups of farmers or ranchers have banded together to conduct on-farm research about a topic of interest – with marked success. Producer research teams work especially well when university, USDA or nonprofit organization researchers join as part of a “participatory” research team.
The power of participatory research comes from combining the creativity, experience and resources of many people to address a common problem. The data that results from trials conducted on several farms across several years also is more reliable and more trustworthy than a few replicated trials conducted at one or two locations.
While farmers and ranchers gain a greater understanding of their unique production systems and learn to use simple research methods to answer questions on a range of topics, researchers benefit from conducting research in the “real world” context of working farms.
The participatory research model values both farmer and scientific ways of learning, effectively integrating them to generate new knowledge for more informed production and management decisions.
By collaborating with university or USDA researchers, farmers benefit from their technical experience in research design, data collection and analysis. A common lament of farmers and ranchers conducting on-farm research is that the trials are established with good intent, but other time-consuming activities during the growing season prevent them from taking data at the proper time. Forming partnerships with researchers who can help collect data improves the process.
“Rather than one-sided information coming from the extension educator to the farmer, on-farm research using a researcher and a farmer is very persuasive,” said Scott Marlow, director of community-based agriculture for RAFI-USA. One of his projects involved working with North Carolina peanut growers interested in reducing their use of pesticides.
“Not only does on-farm research give the farmer power to evaluate new information, but it also provides an inexpensive way for a researcher to generate information for himself and the university,” Marlow said. “And that information really gets out in the community.”
Collaborative research conducted on multiple farms can be structured, although farmers may want to opt for a simpler experimental design using paired treatments on individual farms. This approach is more suited to questions addressing the choice among just two or three treatments. (Learn more about treatments.)
In western Oregon, a group of seven farmers and university researchers evaluated a strip-tillage vegetable production system as an alternative to the existing conventional tillage systems. The group established side-by-side trials using plots of at least two acres on their fields each year for three years. Each trial consisted of just two treatments: strip-till and “grower tillage.”
Participating farmers used their own equipment to harvest the vegetable crops, and the processing company buying the vegetables assessed quality based on yield and grade.
In nine on-farm, paired comparisons of the strip-till system for sweet corn production, researchers found a 78-percent probability of increasing net profit by $75 an acre and a 22-percent probability of losing $30 an acre using the strip-till system compared to the standard grower tillage systems.
By looking at the yield response on individual fields, the growers can evaluate various cultural factors that may have caused the yield declines where they occurred. A multi-site approach also takes advantage of the collective creativity and resources of the farms. Participating farmers typically meet to share results. Many times, this leads to more questions for the group to research.
After testing one strip-till machine design for three years, the Oregon vegetable growers decided to embark on a different approach. They pooled their resources and received a SARE grant to build a faster and more efficient strip-till machine to use in ongoing trials.
-- John Luna, Oregon State University