Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 027 - Why On Farm Research Matters featuring Dean Baas and Alan Sundermeier

Dean Boss: Do you have a valid control? I try to tell farmers, particularly farmers that do their own comparisons, you know, even if it's just, plant a strip that doesn't have the treatment because I do honestly believe that cover crops have been given credit for things that they haven't done and they've also been blamed for things that they haven't done.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. For our final episode, our guests discuss the importance of on-farm research. Dean Baas works for Michigan State University Extension. He also serves as SARE Coordinator for the state of Michigan and is on the Midwest Cover Crops Council. He’ll be speaking with Alan Sundermeier from Ohio State Extension. Alan also has a history with SARE as a former co-coordinator of the Ohio program. Here’s Alan:

Alan Sundermeier: You know, Dean and I both do university research. Small plots. I have a university farm close to me. You know, you try things there and it's very controlled and you need some of that kind of research. But if you don't ground truth it, you never know if it's really going to work or where a farmer is going to apply with his machinery, his conditions. So that's really why I have always thought you have to do both. You know, you have to try these things on small-scale, very precise. But then if you don't take it out to the farmer before you talk about it, you may be taking a big gamble.

Mallory Daily: Alan and Dean have been in the business of bringing farmers the latest research in sustainable ag for a long time, and like many folks in this field, they’ve crossed paths more than once during their careers.

Alan Sundermeier: I'd just like to go back a little bit in history. Dean and I have connections through mutual people and together. You know, I helped of course with the Midwest Cover Crop Council early on, but even before that, for some reason I found out about the Kellogg Biological Station up there in Bell Creek, Michigan, which is all that far from Northwest Ohio. So I thought, as a new educator, I'll go up and see what Michigan State has to tell us. At least they weren't amazing Blues, so we were allowed to go up there and I met Dale Mutch and he was working in cover crops and that was brand new. You know, Ohio State hadn't really done anything that I knew of at the time. So I got a SARE grant through our county commissioner. You know, you always politically position yourself to be in good cahoots with your politicians, locally. So I kind of helped him and we got a farmer/rancher grant looking at the cover crops and hairy vetch. But then we had this thing called oil seed radish and no one really had seen it before as far as I knew there in Northwest Ohio. So Commissioner Bennett had some hogs. We put that on after wheat and put these radishes out there and we brought Dale down, had a field day and a workshop and the local guys that came out couldn't believe their eyes that that stuff really grew and as you know, Dean, that the rest of the story just took care of it from there. It was all up or downhill from there, I guess.

Dean Boss: Yeah. It's interesting that you bring up Dale, because Dale is the primary reason that I got involved in sustainable agriculture and cover crops. He's actually one of the SARE heroes that was honored early on when they started that program. And Dale was passionate about sustainable agriculture and cover crops before a lot of that stuff was really in vogue or whatever.

Alan Sundermeier: I guess you could say he mentored both of us, really.

Dean Boss: He mentored us and he had a lot of things that, you know, he figured out how to get them done and he was passionate about working with farmers.

Alan Sundermeier: You know, Dean and I both do university research. Small plots. I have a university farm close to me. You know it's 30-to-50 feet long. 50-feet long is a large plot in these places and you try things there and it's very controlled and you need some of that kind of research. But if you don't ground truth it, you never know if it's really gonna work where a farmer is going to apply with his machinery, his conditions. So that's really why I have always thought you have to do both. You know, you have to try these things on a small-scale, very precise. But then if you don't take it out to the farmer before you talk about it, you may be taking a big gamble.

Dean Boss: Well, and another one of the things that we learned from Dale was, even for the small plot work, he often included farmers in as like an advisory group to the research that was happening small-scale.

Alan Sundermeier: To know what small scale would do.

Dean Boss: And so they had, since they were part of that process that you had the buy-in to go: yeah, let's go try it on my farm. You know, since they were brought into the development of the research to begin with. We're following it at the small-scale. When it came time to do on-farm, he had all kinds of volunteers who were happy to have him come to their farms and do it.

Alan Sundermeier: And I think that's the beauty of the SARE Partnership Grants, now, because they are forcing matching, you know, of the educator, of the teachers, you know, that are kind of controlling it, but they have to work with that on-farm component. So it's a good new grant system that they have. And, of course, I just got one, Dean!

Dean Boss: Absolutely. I agree with you. I think that there was a gap there. You know, SARE had money for farmers, they had money for researchers, which they always encouraged that they worked on-farm. But this grant was specifically designed to do on-farm work for either research and/or demonstration. So I think that was definitely a good advancement on their part to kind of fill that niche. So why do you think on-farm research is important? Bottom line?

Alan Sundermeier: Well, you know, you can read a lot of journal articles, you can read a lot of textbooks, that's not going to convince a farmer very well and we can stand up there and regurgitate all this literature and it may work somewhere else. It may work even in the same locality under different conditions. Farmers are hard to convince, you know, like we've learned many times. You take it to them and they try it. And of course, the neighborhood is involved. If you have one or two or not, they're going to observe it and really kick the tires around there to know if it's working or not. And if it works, it's great. If it doesn't, well then you keep trying and see what didn't work. But you have to get the farmer to do it himself to really convince him this practice or whatever your testing is going to work, I think.

Dean Boss: Well, the other thing I found is farmers listen to farmers. I can stand up there and I can give a PowerPoint presentation all day long and they still remain somewhat skeptical. But if you take them out to an iron fire research site and you stand there and you let them kick the tires at the site, look at it and dig into dirt and look at the cover crops or the crops that were grown after the cover crafts. And then when that farmer says, "Yeah, I really like this. This is working for me. I've noticed these types of things. The soil is mellower, it absorbs water better." Oftentimes the farmer doesn't have any kind of quantitative data to support those types of statements. But the fact that they see it, feel it, observe it has a lot of credibility to other farmers. And I think one of the advantages, not only to see if the things you do small-scale actually work on a large scale, but if they do, it's a wonderful way to pass the information on to other farmers. I love it. I've always said that I gauge the success of a field day with how long do people hang around after the formal meeting is done. When you do those out in farmers' fields, you know, you have clusters of three, four, five farmers standing around and talking for, you know, a half-hour, hour afterwards.

Alan Sundermeier: Some established preachers, I call them. A Gay Brown, Dave Brant, they're in more demand than you and I, I guess.

Dean Boss: Yeah. Oh, I, I would agree.

Alan Sundermeier: But they're getting the message out there and they've done things on their farm now. Was it done scientifically or not? Maybe we should talk about the difference between proper on-farm and demonstration on-farm, right?

Dean Boss: Yeah.

Alan Sundermeier: You know, I see the differences. How accurate do you want to be? Some things you want to be quite accurate and get it precise. Other things, you don't really have to be that accurate and that's fine too. There's a place for both.

Dean Boss: There's a lot of qualitative aspects that, you know, it looks good. It feels good. I mean those are all legitimate feelings, you know. And sometimes that stuff is more important than others. Probably my biggest beef about, on-farm research is: do you have a valid control? Because there's a lot of cases, particularly when things are set up right where on on-farm, it's come look at this field. I use cover crops and go over here and look at this field where I didn't.

Alan Sundermeier: Well, they have variables there, maybe.

Dean Boss: Well they have different field histories. They might even have a different soil type.

Alan Sundermeier: Or even if you go half a field. One half of this, the other half something else.

Dean Boss: Well, at least do that.

Alan Sundermeier: But that can be dangerous, too.

Dean Boss: That can be dangerous. But that's still at least better than having two different fields. And so I think that's something that I try to tell farmers, particularly farmers that want to do their own comparisons. You know, even if it's just plant a strip that doesn't have the treatment. Because I do honestly believe that cover crops have been given credit for things that they haven't done and they've also been blamed for things that they haven't done. So unless you have that control on-farm, you're not gonna really be able to judge.

Alan Sundermeier: But as good scientists, you know, to lay out a proper on-farm plot, we should have three, hopefully four replications. I mean, you do the same thing at least four times and you should randomize it; not get it in the same order as you go across the field. And that takes the variability out. If you're going to do that much effort, try to set it up correctly so that the results are more believable and your variants would be a lot less, hopefully, if you do it correctly.

Dean Boss: Yeah. Oftentimes that is impractical to do on-farm, just because of the fixed equipment sizes and shapes of the fields and all those types of things. But if you can, that is definitely the best thing to do.

Alan Sundermeier: With GPS and all the technology farmers have, it's a lot easier than using the weigh wagon and taking a measuring wheel and trying to figure it out. These guys just click on the computer in their cabs and away they go. And they can get the yield monitor to get--yield monitors are accurate enough as long as you don't mess around with it and change the calibration in the middle of the field, yield monitors to me are fine. They may be all five bushel, but that's fine. It's all five bushel for it all then, so we can do those things.

Dean Boss: So do you think a drone technology is going to help us further on-farm research?

Alan Sundermeier: The idea of on-farm research is to test a theory. So if you can point out something that's good or bad or not by these other technologies, sensors or whatever, it's going to help us answer that question: is something I've done better or worse and can I pinpoint the reason for it? It may not be quite as replicated, randomized scientific, but it helps answer that question: am I improving or not on this practice?

Dean Boss: I think technology, one of the biggest advantages is it's giving us a chance to visualize a lot of these things because in the past we would, like, harvest the strip and use a weigh wagon and say for that strip we had "X" amount. Where with the yield monitors, the system draws you a map and it shows you how it calculates for a lot, not the whole strip but little squares within the strip. So you can actually, when you look at that yield map, you can see, you can see how it varies in the field. And then if you also have like a drone image, you can also see how the color might change within the field. So I think it's given us a chance to visualize some of the, some of our research much better.

Alan Sundermeier: You know, it's kind of a waste of technology. Farmers that are set up with this and have it available to them should automatically be doing some comparisons. Why have the technology just to see what my yield is? I should know the difference of different practices, yields of a cover crop or soil health practices or fertility. That is a return on investment of that technology. So you should be testing something to improve your productivity, your profitability using the technology for on-farm research.

Dean Boss: From my observations, I think it has got farmers asking those critical questions now. When they look at those yield maps and those types of things and they see some large differences, they can't help but ask the question, "Why is that different?"

Alan Sundermeier: What went wrong or right?

Dean Boss: So I think it's actually making some people--they may not be as far as doing some research into it, but at least now they're starting to ask the questions and they're calling up and asking for advice on some of some of these types of things because they can finally see those differences where those were very hard to see before.

Alan Sundermeier: And they might question the people that are selling them or their local retailers' usual complement of additives and inputs. Do I really need them or not? So as we look ahead, you know, we're both in that Western Lake Erie Basin and water quality concerns. How do we use on-farm research maybe to look at improvements to water quality concerns? I think that's going to be bearing down on us in our area there, isn't it?

Dean Boss: Yeah. I think we need to get better at quantifying what's coming off the farms, whether it's monitoring of tile systems, doing more edge-of-field type research. I think that's the direction we have to go on it because it's very easy for things, like nonpoint source phosphorus, to blame the people you can't quantify. And I think there is some of that going on where, you know, we can't figure where else it may be coming from. So it's gotta be coming from ag lands and--

Alan Sundermeier: There might be ways that farmers can defend themselves. They'll have more proof from this.

Dean Boss: And a lot of farmers have adopted conservation practices to help prevent that. So where that may have been true once, it may not be true now. And I don't think we have the data and the research to verify that it has changed. It's still too easy to blame something that you can't measure.

Alan Sundermeier: Sustainable practices that help with water quality that you can verify with on-farm research. This is a natural trend. I think it's going to put pressure on the ag community, but we have a way, you know, we can address it, I think. So what do you see is the vision for the future of agriculture? We're supposed to look 30-years ahead even.

Dean Boss: I truly believe that the sweet spot for sustainability is somewhere in the middle between pure conventional agriculture and pure organic agriculture. I think that both could learn from the other. And I think there could be a lot of reduction of inputs and herbicide use and pesticide use if the conventional farmers adopt some of the practices. I'm not going necessarily going all the way to organic, but starting to look at some of the things that they do to not use those. But I also believe that the organic guys could learn from the conventional guys, too, that I don't believe it needs to be two sides, which I, for a long time and it's gotten a little better, but I still, it still feels like it's two opposing groups.

Alan Sundermeier: And it confuses the public then, too.

Dean Boss: Yeah, I think there's things that they can both learn from the other. You know, one of the things that concerns me when we talk about soil health and organic production is all that tillage. You know, if you have to do all of that tillage to control weeds, how much are you destroying your soil health with all that tillage, you know?

Alan Sundermeier: No-till organic, I've tried to research it. It's a challenge.

Dean Boss: It's more than a challenge!

Alan Sundermeier: Well, we have to try for it.

Dean Boss: And I think when you include environmental sustainability, the health of the soil and the productivity, I think the sweet spot is somewhere, you know, in the middle between those two.

Alan Sundermeier: Well, you know, soil is the basis. And SARE through the years has always supported well projects that look at soil and a lot of aspects and that's even going to be more important I think as we go forward. So, you know, if it's soil health or it's cover crops or whatever the term in the future, it's going to be hard to ignore the basis of all food production. Where it starts from as a soil, be it livestock or crops, I guess. So, you know, how are we going to come up with better technologies, how we can merge more sustainable systems into that. We're going to have to get smarter about our soils or going to lose them. And it's tough to grow new soil.

Dean Boss: So are there certain research needs that can't be addressed with on-farm research? Can you do it all?

Alan Sundermeier: Can we do it all…

Dean Boss: On-farm?

Alan Sundermeier: There's probably some very precise measurements as you get into the fauna and microbial complexities of things that can vary by just a few inches in the soil. Just to have the instruments where you don't want a tractor to run over a few thousand dollar instrument kind of thing. And as a KBS up there, you know, has these climate monitoring devices and things, you want to control things very precisely. There's probably still a place to have it on a university location, but a lot of the things, as you give it to a farmer, figure it out, he'll either go to shop or he'll go to the field, you have enough time, maybe a little bit of money with some grant money, he'll be able to get it figured out. I have confidence in that.

Dean Boss: I still see a place for, I guess I would call it, weeding out the options I on a small-scale. When you have a lot of, a lot of potential ways of building soil health or different cover crops that you could use, it's very difficult to test a lot of those on-farm. So I think there will always be a place for small plot work to, at least, narrow it down to what may be the best of the options before you go on-farm. It's just really hard to manage large numbers of treatments on-farm.

Alan Sundermeier: There's only so much risk farmers willing to take, even with grant money to help out. If you're asking for a zero nitrogen check on corn, you'd better not be a very big check, right?

Dean Boss: Yeah, that's a little tough.

Alan Sundermeier: But in proper research on nitrogen curve, if you don't have a zero check. You're wasting your time. So how do you get that on farm? Well, just a small spot.

Dean Boss: Yep. But you know, one of the things I've always appreciated about SARE and on-farm research is that they insist that you pay the farmer for their participation in the research. So with SARE money, you have the opportunity to say, we have to do a zero nitrogen trial, but I'm going to pay you for the yield-loss that is going to result from that. So, you know.

Alan Sundermeier: Keep it reasonable.

Dean Boss: Keep it reasonable. I think they're okay with that, knowing that they're going to going to be compensated for that type of risk in a research plot.

Alan Sundermeier: I think it's important that we continue to look at avenues to share information from the on-farm research. You know, as a farmer looks at a peer reviewed journal article from Agronomy Society or something, he's not going to read things like that even though it is going to solve maybe some issues that he's dealing with. You know, the complexity of the scientific literature is bad and SARE has done a great job, I feel, with all their bulletins and books and other publications and now fact sheets. We have a good avenue to get good practical, understandable farmer friendly information from this research out to the public.

Dean Boss: Absolutely. And much of that research is from on farm research. So I think that also helps bring a level of credibility to the farmers when they read, read about SARE projects or read SARE bulletins, there's a of the sidebar panels that say, you know, on so-and-so's farm, they found when they did this, such-and-such happened.

Alan Sundermeier: If there's a chart it's a pretty simple to understand this type of thing. It's not too complex, but it's getting the message across. And that that's what we have to have and continue to have in the future. I mean, things get more complicated, but yet you want it to keep simple. So how do you do both? So Dean, if a farmer wanted to go about on-farm research, how would he begin? What's out there to help him?

Dean Boss: Well, I would probably recommend that farmer visit their local county extension office. I think they can point you in the direction of ag educators that are a lot of times looking for farms to do research on or a demonstration-type project. And oftentimes, they also have researchers from the land grant universities that are also looking for farmer cooperators. I would also recommend doing a Google search and see who's working on stuff that you're interested in being a part of. And it never hurts to contact the researcher directly. You may be surprised that they may be, have been looking for quite a while for somewhere to, to do the work and a cooperator to work with and you just might be the one, so don't be afraid to call him or send him an email.

Mallory Daily: And that’s a wrap for the Our Farms, Our Future Podcast. You were listening to Dean Bass of Michigan State University Extension and Alan Sundermeier of Ohio State Extension. We’ll link to their work in our show notes. As we mentioned in the intro to this episode, this is our very last show. We're so grateful you've stuck with us until the very end! You'll always be able to access the show archives on your favorite podcast platform. And SARE's latest projects can be found on This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host, Mallory Daily. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. As always, thank you so much for listening. Bye for now.