Participatory Learning Between Farms and Field Crop Area of Expertise Team Members

Final Report for ENC96-012

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1996: $48,200.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Matching Federal Funds: $16,200.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $16,200.00
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Natalie Rector
MSU Extension
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Project Information


Michigan State University has several Area of Expertise (AoE) teams covering the state with the field crops team comprised of 24 multi-county extension agents and 16 campus faculty all working to provide local and state wide coverage to field crop producers and industries in the state.
Agents and specialists developed local learning teams, around a subject of interest and importance to their area, and were funded under the umbrella SARE PDP grant that the team received. From this evolved 13 diverse projects, involving local agents, campus faculty and local farmer partners. These teams accomplished such learning activities as: *5 local discussion group meetings on organic production and marketing which lead to an in state tour of 7 farms and a tour of 40 producers visiting Illinois and Iowa sustainable farmers. This project has created a dialogue between organic and traditional farmers that is most noteworthy. *Several tours visited a narrow row site plot and two educational sessions were held on the subject of narrow row systems (30" compared to 22" or 15"). *A large plot tour included stops to visit an alternative crop garden of 7 species (sunflower, industrial rapeseed, flax, cuphea, canola, safflower) and soil quality measurements under reduced tillage where participants could see the soil structure differences. *Two agents worked with farmers to better understand manure nutrients compared to purchased fertilizers. *A computer assisted manure management model was taught at 11 different locations for agents and farmers. *GPS "tagging" of weed species at harvest lead to management strategies for perennial weeds. *A project on rotational grazing tackled the typical, yet challenging, poorly drained fields that many beef cows are pastured on to find plant species compatible with the soil.

In-field demonstration plots with farmers included: organic soybean varieties compared for yield, protein and seed size; narrow row production systems in navy beans and sugar beets; clover interseeded into high management wheat in five different locations showed the clover would survive in thick wheat stands and did not hurt wheat yields; new technology crops and herbicides showed the weed control and economic impact of these systems; and inter-cropping oats into adzuki beans demonstrated naturally reducing potato leaf hopper damage.

A traditional agronomy in-service training was expanded to a two day event where each project reported back to the entire AoE Field Crops team with evaluations of the event being very positive. Not only has one agent learned more about a sustainable system but now all the AoE team members have been exposed to the projects. Each agent will then take these experiences back to many other farmers in many counties in the state. This provided an opportunity for the agents to gather their data into a presentation, which several indicated they will use to re-teach others at local extension meetings. Observing the agents' and specialists' presentations also provided some less tangible evaluation data such as enthusiasm, initiative, teamwork and ownership in learning by the individuals. Several projects have clearly demonstrated linkages that are bringing sustainable systems into the forefront of crop production and marketing in Michigan.

Project Objectives:

To develop small teams of local innovators (farmers, Extension agents, NRCS) personnel and others knowledgable in sustainable agriculture who will become highly skilled in key aspects of sustainable field crop systems, providing knowledge and leadership for widespread adoption of those practices. At a minimum, each team will include one agent, one farmer and one other local persons.

Translating the experiences of the local teams through area of expertise agents, NRCS personnel and through exisiting networks will multiply sustainable agricultural programs on a local and state-wide basis.

Farmers and Extension agents will increase their awareness of new learning and teaching skills via hands on experiences and workshops.

Network with NCR SARE PDP projects and utilize their training materials.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Measuring Soil Quality in Alternative Tillage Systems

Evaluate alternative tillage systems for the purpose of reducing wind and water erosion and nutrient loading of area streams. Encouraging change form a traditional fall plow system to strip tillage while showing additional benefits of improved water infiltration, bulk density and other soil quality factors. A systems approach was utilized, looking at rotations and tillage.

Methods and Outcomes

The Michigan Extension Field Crop Agents are organized as a state wide group called the Field Crops Area of Expertise Team (AoE) which is made up of 24 agents and 16 campus faculty. This group formed a committee to manage the SARE PDP project. This committee, made up of several campus specialists and agents developed an RFP that was sent to the team members soliciting them to develop a learning project to be conducted in their local area. From this, 13 projects were funded during the 1996-97 granting period. They are listed below. The amount of funding ranged from $800 to $5500 per project.

Project Title: Measuring Soil Quality in Alternative Tillage Systems
Agent: Jim LeCureux
Project summary: Evaluate alternative tillage systems for the purpose of reducing wind and water erosion and nutrient loading of area streams. Encouraging change form a traditional fall plow system to strip tillage while showing additional benefits of improved water infiltration, bulk density and other soil quality factors. A systems approach was utilized, looking at rotations and tillage.

This project is conducted at a site that includes other plots, coordinated by the 42 Innovative Farmers (IF) in cooperation with MSU Extension. The Innovative Farmers plan and organize all the projects, including this one, at their 40 acre site on Wadsworth Rd., Bad Axe, MI. Farmers acted as tour guides and described the plots to over 150 visitors to the site during a day long tour. A final report of all plots is developed and distributed to over 700.

NRCS cooperated in determining the soil loss from residue checks. Crop inputs were provided by local agribusiness. The Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality and Michigan Dept. of Agriculture have provided grant funds for a larger project in this area.

One IF member stated that farmers in his neighborhood are switching to chisel instead of moldboard plowing. A 6,000 acre farmer switched to no-till/zone-till and another operation switched to zone-till. Many are watching the plots and experimenting on their farms.

It is important for farmers to “see” the difference in soil structure and infiltration rates on these plots. After a heavy rain the plowed plot graphically showed standing water much longer than the strip till plot.
Soil quality concerns are creating an interest in cover crops and alfalfa. This is spring-boarding into growers investing in an alfalfa processing facility.

Project Title: Alternative Crop Garden
Agent: Carrie Andrich
On the same site as the above mentioned 40 acre Innovative Farmers site, another project was also conducted. This was a plot of 7 species of plants (sunflower, industrial rapeseed, flax, cuphea, canola, and safflower). This plot showed farmers and agents what the plants look like and the agent gained first-hand knowledge on how to seed the crops and followed their development through to harvest. Weed control was the biggest challenge. Harvesting was also a concern. This visual display of plants broadened the thinking of farmers who visited the plots to learn about many non-tradition crops that are capable of being grown in Michigan. The same 150 people as mentioned above, visited these plots and the Innovative Farmers were also involved in planning, implementing and discussing the garden during the summer tour. One page fliers were developed on each crop (attached to report).

Project Title: Organic and Sustainable Farming Advancement
Agent: Dan Rossman
Markets, environmental concerns, personal health, and profitability are all driving factors behind a growing interest among conventional farmers in organic farming practices. A diverse group of people started to explore a common interest in organic and sustainable farming in February of 1997. Five attended the first meeting and today 49 are on the organic mailing list, forming a subgroup of the Thumb Chapter of the Organic Growers of Michigan and OCIA.

In 1995 the agent began working closely with 4 farmers on transitioning to organic production. In 1997 they held three workshops introducing many people to organics, certification process, paperwork, practices, markets, etc. A diverse group of 20 came together: three farmers with over 2000 acres, a health food store manager, two dairy farmers, an 80 year old widow who actively farms, a prison official, small plot gardeners, a 40 acre fresh market vegetable producer, local agribusiness suppliers and several others. During the summer of 1997 several on farm-plots were initiated by the farmers and agent: a clear hilum soybean variety plot, a flamer was tested for weed control, and four farmers were studied as case studies for farmers transitioning to organic production. A summer tour of these plots attracted over 40 people. A bus trip to Iowa and Illinois gathered up 36 farmers (including 5 Extension agents) to visit farms using organics, strip farming, no till, narrow rows, precision farming and value added products. Results of the organic soybean plots and the case study in organic market opportunities were shared in the 1998 Gratiot and Clinton County Crop Report (2000 copies) and at 17 meetings reaching 500 people. “Interest was overwhelming” according to Extension agent Dan Rossman. This project continues with great enthusisam and has also created interest in another area of the state where three agents are working across several counties to replicate this success.

Project Title: Sustainable Practices for Wheat 2000
Agent: Steve Poindexter
Incorporating legumes into wheat rotations by demonstration plots on farms seeks to find the most efficient seeding and fertilizer rate for the red clover while maintaining wheat yields. One agent established a protocol for conducting clover plots frost seeded into wheat that was used by other agents. Five plots were established. There was no yield loss to the wheat when inter-seeded with clover. Several of these plots were followed through to the next season, planting corn into the clover. Future corn yields after the clover were significantly better. One plot will be followed through to see if sugar beet yields are better when planted two years after a clover crop. Improved soil health from a clover cover crop will be looked at for several years in this project and followed in a rotation system typical of the area. This project has also lead to plots looking at different tillage systems under a corn/dry bean/sugar beet rotation, again looking at soil health and the impact of cover crops. The high residue system of chisel plowing performed as well as plowing and farmers will give this system greater consideration. The sugar beet industry is also interested in the tillage and cover crop interaction to improve beet yields. MSU’s Bean and Beet Research farm were involved in one of the trials.

Project Title: Narrow Row Corn
Agent: Steve Poindexter
15”, 20” and 22” corn production has gained interest in the Saginaw Valley area of the state. A current lack of understanding exists on how narrow rows affect crop residue, quickness of canopy, weed pressure and reduced cultivation. These issues were addressed by implementing three on-farm test plots.

Results: 22” rows achieved canopy cover one week earlier and 15” rows two weeks earlier as compared to traditional row widths. Narrow rows showed a consistent yield increase but the question is if the conversion is economically feasible for farmers.

A narrow row field day was held in the area and a state-wide educational session was held at Michigan State University bringing in a Canadian resource person.

Project Title: Utilization of precision agriculture technology for identifying, locating and developing a weed control program
Agent: Rich Hodupp
A yield monitor with a “tagging” system to mark areas in a field at harvest, was utilized to map perennial weeds. In one case a producer mapped one year and used the data to make a management decision to plant Round-up Ready soybeans to help control hemp dogbane. A second season of data indicated he had reduced the weeds, but not eliminated the problem. He then planned to rotate to corn, using the map to help him spot treat the weeds rather than spray the whole field. The agent worked in cooperation with farmer Ron Rodzos following this technology and how it impacts weed control decisions. A precision agriculture user group has been formed (14 attend) where farmers and industry share and learn together. Information was presented at a groundwater/nitrogen tour to 41 people and at a variety tour to 52 people. Presentations were given at the Michigan Agri Business Assoc. conference to 124 people; MEGA conference to 160 people; IMAGIN Conference, 39 people; Escanaba, 24 people and Indian River, 15 people attending.

Project Title: MSUNM, a case study and training of a manure nutrient management computer
Agent and specialist: Rich Hodupp and Dr. Lee Jacobs
MSUNM (Michigan State University Nutrient Management) is a computer program that has been developed to help farmers management their total farm nutrients. An agent and MSU specialist teamed up to sponsor five agent trainings and 6 workshops for farmers on the computer program.

Project Title: Enhancing natural enemies in organic field crop production.
Agent and specialists: Harold Rouget and Dr. Doug Landis
This project investigated the feasibility of using grass intercrops to control leafhopper damage in organic dry bean production systems. Four treatments were implement, a control and three other oat seeding rates. Randomized complete block design was used. The results indicate a trend for lower potato leaf hoppers in dry bean plots containing an oat intercrop and no obvious negative impact on dry bean growth. This was conducted on the Steve Vollmer farm in Caro.
Results were presented to MSU Extension AoE team and printed copies of the project were distributed.

Project: Improving alfalfa yield and quality by detecting and managing potato leafhopper
Agent: Paul Gross
In the fall of 1997 a leafhopper resistant variety of alfalfa was seeded around the perimeter of a non-resistant variety on the Moeggenberg Farm. This area served as the site of a field day where 12 farmers participated in a hands on workshop to learn about monitoring potato leafhoppers. Results of the plot were printed in a county newsletter and reached 650 farms. Strips in the field were sprayed with insecticide for comparison. Observations showed that leafhopper populations were higher in the resistant variety, but did not hurt the yield or quality. Leafhopper populations were low during the growing season and farmers feel that regular varieties with conscientious scouting is better when compared to the increased expense in resistant seed. Following this field through several growing seasons may alter this initial response. A second plot was established in the spring of 1998 with different resistant varieties being compared. Both plots will be monitored by the farmers and extension agent over the coming seasons for yield, quality and insect pressure.

Project: Starter Fertilizer with Manure Application
Agent: Martin Nagelkirk
Is starter fertilizer needed for corn production when manure is applied at sufficient rates to replace the nutrients? That is what this project asked. A field trial was established on the Miller farm in Marlette, Michigan consisting of three fertilizer treatments and four replications in a split block design. Soil and manure analysis were conducted. In this trial, banding nitrogen as a starter did significantly increase yield over the control of no starter, despite the liquid dairy manure. No visual differences were noted. Future studies will continue to look at the impact of manure and starter fertilizers.

Project: Alternative Crops: Irrigated sugar beets
Agent: Fred Springborn
The closing of a major potato processing plant left a large void in Montcalm County. The agent established three sugar beet plots in 1997 to see if this might replace the lost potato acreage. The plots compared 20” and 30” row spacing on irrigated sandy loam soils. Pine Flat Farms were cooperators. A tour was held at the plots and results were printed in the Annual Field Crops Report, the Sugar Beet Advancement Plot Book and local Extension newsletters. The plot results created interest in area farmers resulting in 1000 acres of irrigated sugar beets in 1998. A collection site for the sugar beets was established in the area by one of the sugar companies. Plots were also established in 1998 to look at the potential of the crop and learn about crop management.

Project: Rotational grazing beef on wet soil
Agent: Natalie Rector
Marginal ground in this area of the state is good for grazing, but often includes patches of poorly drained soils that do not support legumes and often do not support palatable grass species. This project worked with a local farm to select and establish a fescue pasture area, than managing the beef cows during the wet season, to turn less productive ground into viable pasture areas. Establishment was successful and management of the cows and longevity of the pasture will be monitored.

Project: Biological Control Instructional Materials for Extension Agents
Specialists: Dr. Doug Landis
Carabid beetles (Coleoptera carabidae) are some of the most abundant and potentially important predators in field crop ecosystems. However, because they are typically active at night and they are superficially similar in appearance, most Extension agents, agricultural professionals and producers do not recognize them or their value. Viable techniques to conserve and enhance the abundance of these insects are being developed. Thus, it is necessary to familiarize these clientele with these predators and their role in biological control. Collections of the most important weed seed feeding carabids and the most important insects eating carabids were prepared and used for agent and clientele training. A fact sheet entitled: “Getting to Know the Ground Beetles: Important predator in Michgian Agricultural Systems,” was prepared and used in these trainings. To date, the materials have been used in 8 meetings to train over 929 persons in the identification and biology of ground beetles. Trainings that materials have been used at:
"Beneficial Insects in Agriculture." Ingham County Rural Education Day. April 29, 1997. Mason, MI. (750)
"Conserving Beneficial Insects in Agricultural Landscapes." July 8, 1997. Michigan State University, E, Lansing, MI. (15)
"Enhancing Biological Pest Control with Filter Strips."August 29, 1997. Robert Burns Farm, Midland Co. MI. (20)
"Enhancing Biological Control of Insects and Weeds." Ag. Action Day. January 29, 1998. Kalamazoo, MI. (40)
"Biology, Identification and Management of Ground Beetles for Insect and Weed Control." New directions in soil and pest management: A training program in crop ecology for professional griculturists.
March 17, 1998 Frankenmuth, MI. (40)
March 18, 1998 Battle Creek, MI. (25)
"Introducing Biological Control to Hispanic High School Students." June 8, 1998. Julian Samora Research Institute, MSU. June 8, 1998. (20)
"Michigan Field Crop Ecology Training for Extension, NRCS and MDA Personnel." September 9, 1998. Kellogg Biological Station. (19)

Project: Developing Expertise in New Technology
Agent: Dave Pratt
Assessing new herbicide technology and plant resistance with regard to long term environmental benefits was looked at by this agent and farmers by implementing on-farm herbicide trials. Roundup Ready, triazine resistant lambsquarter and SR corn were evaluated. The soybean plot was sprayed with 9 different combinations of herbicides replicated 4 times to look at the most economical and environmentally safe weed control program. The triazine plots had 10 different combinations replicated 4 times looking at reduced rates and some new herbicide chemistry. The SR corn was sprayed with 5 combinations, replicated 4 times. The new technology appears to be effective.

Farmers attended field tours and winter meetings on this topic, reaching about 600, plus having the data published in the state wide publication. Other agents and specialists utilized the data in their local presentations. NRCS co-sponsored several of the tours and events.

Project: Pre-Sidedress Nitrate soil tests for reduced sidedressed nitrogen
Agent: Mike Score
Pre-sidedress nitrate soil tests had not been used in this area and the new agent in the county saw this as an opportunity to work with several producers. His advisory group encouraged looking at on-farm plots from a total farm systems approach, including IPM scouting, plant populations and fertility. The new agent found that the farmers responded better, and made more management changes due to farmer-to-farmer methods of sharing plot data than to Extension presenting the concepts. The on-farm plots have increased the credibility with local agri-businesses. An advisory board meeting of local farmers rated the on-farm projects, funded by SARE, as one of the most effective initiatives conducted by the new agent in his first two years as agent. The combination of IPM scouting observations by the agent and compiled into a weekly newsletter, often related to the SARE projects, have been used to improve crop production and helped gain credibility for the new agent. A noteworthy quote from Jeff Horning, a farmer member of the advisory committee: “I didn’t believe soil nitrate testing or adjusting plant populations could have such positive effects on yield or net income until I sat here and listened to other producers talk about their on-farm research results.”

Each of the above projects met a need of the agent and the farmers in that particular area. For example, in some areas of our state there has been a significant amount of work in nitrogen management and in other locations the work the agent established was new to the farmers. Since there is a mix of experienced and new agents on the AoE team, projects reflect those levels.
Michigan also has a wide diversity of soil types. On some of our heavier Saginaw Valley soils, moving from moldboard plowing to conservation tillage is just beginning to happen, where our lighter soils in the state have tended to adopt no-till more quickly.

Some projects may seem more “sustainable” than others. The diversity of these projects is viewed as a positive approach to reaching the wide range of farmers and agents in our state. Sustainability is viewed as a direction to head, and each project shows a step in that direction from where they were currently standing.
The unique aspect of the Field Crops Agents across the state being organized into an area of expertise team is that as a team they are responsible for their own training and for regional and state wide programming. Since a committee of this group selected the local projects, relevant ideas were pursued for both the one requesting the project and for the rest of the state. When the project is accepted, it is known that there is a commitment to report the project back to the entire AoE team, not just back to the committee. To accomplish this, an annual inservice training event was expanded to a two day training, with the majority of the time being dedicated to the agent/specialists giving a presentation on the project to the entire team so all team members benefit from what each agent has learned or experienced over the year. This causes the agent/specialist to learn even more, because they have to formulate the project into a presentation and after the presentation is developed they are more likely to reteach their findings to other audiences. Between this and the annual plot report booklet, the ability to relay this information to the entire state and to many more farmers is greatly multiplied. The formalized grant process has given the agents more concrete projects to work on and more commitment to complete them.

Specific training events:
1. TITLE: Ohio Sustainable Ag Group
DATE: October 8, 1996

2. TITLE: Local organic discussion group
DATE: Met 5 times during 1997
ORGANIZATONS REPRESENTED: Thumb Chapter of Michigan Organic Growers.

3. TITLE: Summer Tour of 7 organic farms in several counties of central Michigan
DATE: July 1997
ORGANIZATONS REPRESENTED: Organic Growers of Michigan

4. TITLE: Bus tour to Illinois and Iowa to visit sustainable farming systems
DATE: August 25-27, 1997

5. TITLE: Narrow Row Crop Production
DATE: March 1997, as part of a week long educational event at MSU

6. TITLE: MSUNM (MSU Nutrient Management)
DATE: 11 replicated trainings

7. TITLE: Innovative Farmers Field Plot Tour
DATE: August 1997

8. TITLE: Agronomy Update
DATE: December 11 and 12, 1997
NUMBER OF INDIVIDUALS TRAINED: 35 agents and MSU Specialists
ORGANIZATIONS REPRESENTED: MSU Extension Agents and Faculity

9. TITLE: Field Crop Ecology
DATE: March 17 and 18, 1998 (repeat sessions in two locations of the state)

Project Outcomes


Potential Contributions


I have tried to provide some evaluation components in each project as related above. 
There are several overall observations that are significant to the project. The two day agent training where agents and specialists present their projects to the whole AoE team was instigated as a way for every member to, in some way, benefit from the technical and process skills that a funded project created. This event proved far more fruitful than simply a day to share data. Every agent, with little prompting, provided a first class, professional presentation to their peers. Not one agent took this lightly or “sluffed” off. The presentations showed sincerity, interest, dedication, enthusism and ownership in their learning. This can be attributed to the projects being selected by the agents and farmers, meeting a need at a time of importance in their area. This has also generated commradery among the AoE team and given individual team members respect from their peers. The positive spin-offs of such self esteem and team spirit should be obvious. Several more experienced agents are serving as mentors to younger agents in pursuit of their local projects. When agents hear of successful projects, that were conducted on “real” farms, they are then more secure in trying these projects in their own community. Just as farmers find on farm data to be more credible, agents also find that when one agent/farmer team has been successful, they too could be successful.
Many agents had not conducted rigerous on-farm projects before. We have had several presentations by MSU Faculty on the layout and design of on farm demonstrations. We have also had one-on-one training and assistance in performing staticial analysis of the data. 
The close relationship with farmers on these projects has caused several agents to be greater risk takers. Organic production projects, if instigated by the agent, might have been risky for the agent, but when encouraged by the producers it gains credibilty in the area. 

Linkages to SARE Projects: 
Three agents involved in on-farm projects gave presentations to the SARE Professional Development Program Administrative Council, June 24, 1998 in Traverse City, MI. This gave the agents an opportunity to visit with many of the council members and discuss other projects as well. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.