1996 Project Highlights
Producer Involvement Boosts SARE Program
Farmers and ranchers have become an integral part of the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program since it was established as a competitive grants program in 1988. Eight years later, producers help set priorities, select projects, develop programs, implement on-farm trials and aid in outreach to their peers on a wide range of projects that cover all types of agriculture.
SARE's four regional administrative councils are made up of producers, extension agents, researchers and representatives from industry, nongovernmental organizations and state and federal agencies. The councils recommend grant funding decisions to USDA an d determine regional research needs, some of which are raised by farmer representatives who bring forward issues they see in the field and in their communities.
For example, members of the North Central administrative council determined in 1995 that the region would benefit from more research on the marketing of farm products.
"Marketing is something farmers need a lot of help with," says Tom Guthrie, council chairman and a southwestMichigan hay farmer. "People have trouble setting up markets and getting their products to markets in a way that is economically advantageous."
Before grant proposals are considered by SARE's regional administrative councils, they are reviewed and ranked by technical committees, which include representatives from a variety of backgrounds. Producers like John Merrill, a NewHampshire dairyman, play an important role on the committees,applying their practical knowledge to ideas conceived by researchers.
Merrill joined the Northeast Region technical committee five years ago and served for three years before moving to theNortheast administrative council. Although project reviews entailed many hours each year, he felt he benefited as much as he gave of himself.
"In some ways I contributed, but I feel I got more out ofit than I put in," Merrill says. "I had an opportunity to learn a huge amount about a lot of areas of agriculture that Ididn't know much about. And I had the opportunity to be involved with a group of incredibly bright and motivated people."
In most cases, farmers and ranchers collaborate with researchers to create proposals for SARE funding. Tom Trantham, a Pelzer, S.C., dairyman, discovered SARE at a time when his farming practices needed an overhaul. "I had focused so tightly on production I didn't really see the rest of the world," Trantham says. "I would wake up some mornings and hope the place had burned down."
One spring, when Trantham lacked the capital or credit to buy his usual supply of commercial fertilizer, he hauled an old manure spreader from the back of his barn and treated one of his pastures. By April, the field was beautiful.
"I let the cows out, and they went straight to that field," he says. "I said to myself, "If farmers could have 12 Aprils, they could make it on pasture."
He began to explore a southern strategy for rotational grazing. He approached Clemson University researchers who helped him craft a proposal for SARE funding. Once the proposal was approved, Trantham worked with Clemson scientists to test methods of establishing fertile, nutritious year-round grass pastures.
Trantham now realizes more profits and has time to undertake farm improvements. "In the last two years, I've been the happiest I have ever been on this farm," he says. After completing the SARE project, Trantham agreed to join the SouthernRegion administrative council. In 1995, he was elected chairman.
Awarding Producer Grants
On-farm research trials involving producer collaboration with scientists have been a component of many SARE-funded projects since the program¹s inception. Recognizing producer interest was growing, SARE also began funding farmers directly, such as Iowa hog farmer Tom Frantzen. In 1994, Frantzen received a SARE grant to validate his rotational grazing experiments. For three years,Frantzen had been turning his 1,100 hogs out to graze in crop fields, including strips of corn and alfalfa. The SARE grant,which enables him to produce data about sow weight and input costs, shows he can make a profit. Today, he produces a 40-pound pig at a cost-efficient $14.
Producer involvement is also crucial for SARE's two-year-old effort to communicate sustainable agriculture concepts and practices to Cooperative Extension Service staff. A special congressional appropriation funds SARE's Professional DevelopmentProgram, which offers information and education relevant to sustainable agriculture to extension agents and others who work in the field.
In Montana and Idaho, members of local farm improvement club sare providing leadership in the effort. The clubs, the brainchild of the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) inHelena, Mont., began in 1990 as a way for farmers and ranchers to share information about sustainable agriculture. With a professional development grant from SARE's Western Region, AERO enlisted farmers from the clubs to train ag professionals.
"We like the collaborative model of research and learning," says Nancy Matheson, AERO agricultural program manager. "We've always encouraged clubs to hook up with resource people, and 99 percent have done that. Now we're taking that model to the [Extensi on Service] audience."