Final report for ENE15-135
To thrive, farmers need to adapt to changes that arise on a near-constant basis, including unpredictable weather, new pests, volatile prices, and changing customer preferences. The importance of solving problems in innovative ways will become all the more important in the coming years as the speed and magnitude of changes are likely to increase due to environmental shifts, accelerating technological development, and an increasingly interconnected economy. This is particularly true for small farms that don’t have access to the resources needed to maintain the approaches they’ve become accustomed to using in the face of drastic and large-scale changes.
Despite their importance, the skills needed for adaptive farm management are often believed to be innate rather than learned. As a result, many farmers do not systematically plan and execute detailed plans for experimentation. Other guides that lay out basic on-farm research approaches tend to describe the scientific method as a way of performing on-farm trials using formalized research approaches. By contrast, the goal of this new manual is to present informal, farmer-developed experimental methods that are compatible with day-to-day farming activities.
“Problem Solving and Innovation on the Farm: A How-To Manual” is a new publication written to guide farmers through a step-by-step process to address problems and improve their farms in a creative manner. The seven-step Problem Solving and Innovation Framework resulting from the Design a Curriculum Workshop involving a team of Cornell University faculty, experienced farmer-innovators, and extension educators is detailed in a 100-page full color PDF. It involves multiple, continuous cycles of adjusting, evaluating, and improving farming systems in response to changes on an ongoing basis. It is presented in general terms so farmers can apply it to the unique conditions of their farm more successfully than cookie-cutter fixes. As a result, this publication will teach the necessary skills for farmers to experiment on their own, including establishing benchmarks, organizing data, and analyzing results.
The manual’s comprehensive content is complemented with references to additional resources for on-farm experimentation, problem solving, and innovation; how to search for and apply for grants; adaptive farm management worksheets; cell phone and computer applications designed to facilitate farm planning, mapping, and management; the use of personal drones and weather stations on farms to inform decision-making; and lists of farmer networks and agricultural organizations that support farmer problem solving. A range of figures and tables accompany the text to illustrate the principles presented and assist visual learners. Depending on their experience and background, readers will find different uses for the manual. For instance, new farmers can focus on the content regarding whole farm planning so that they will be able to effectively and easily integrate experimentation into their future farm management. On the other hand, more experienced farmers will benefit more from the techniques presented in case studies and example experimental designs. In using this document, farmers learned of a number of resources, funding sources, and tools available to them for problem solving. Many of these were not known to farmers, who appreciated all these resources in a centralized document that was presented in an engaging and visually-pleasing manner for easy access.
In addition to being distributed through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program’s online learning center, the manual was shared with farmers and extension educators who have collaborated with Laurie Drinkwater, Tomasz Falkowski, and Cornell Cooperative Extension in the past. The Problem Solving and Innovation Framework was described in presentations at three meetings of farmers and extension educators (New York Certified Organic, Northeast Organic Farming Association-Connecticut, and the Great Lakes Expo & Michigan Greenhouse Growers Expo), as well as the Cornell University Small Farms Program quarterly newsletter. At least 70 growers and extension educators either attended the aforementioned presentations or received a copy of the manual, and more will receive these materials through Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Science and SARE outreach.
Thirty agricultural service providers will create new programs to teach 600 farmers how to improve their operations using on-farm problem-solving/experimentation techniques developed by expert farmers. Two-hundred farmers managing 20,000 acres will use these techniques to problem-solve and to employ improved management practices.
Problem and proposed solution: There are over 150,000 farmers in the northeastern region, and the majority of those produce field, vegetable or orchard crops. Most of these farmers could benefit from improving their adaptive management and problem-solving skills.
While “good management” is frequently touted as an overwhelmingly desirable ability, it is often difficult to help farmers improve their general management skills. A key aspect of effective management is the ability to change management practices in response to environmental and economic conditions. However, many farmers do not possess the necessary skills to systematically evaluate and test improvements that would optimize the performance of their farming systems. Furthermore, many farmers are aware of on-farm research opportunities, which would entail collaborating with an agricultural service provider; however, they feel that they do not have the time or the expertise to engage in this type of research. In fact, time constraints are a major barrier preventing farmer’s from engaging in various types of on-farm experimentation.
Several additional factors increase the necessity for farmers to possess excellent problems-solving skills. First, the changing climate of the northeast will require that farmers continue to adjust their farming practices. Second, many farmers are integrating more complex, ecologically based practices in an effort to reduce purchased inputs and improve their bottom line. Third, organic farming is continuing to expand and there are many new farmers who have limited farming experience who are interested in using organic management strategies. Organic agriculture has few specific management recommendations and, because of the reliance on biological processes, these systems tend to evolve over time and require good adaptive management skills. Finally, most of these ecologically based practices are more site-specific compared to conventional, input based counterparts.
Some farmers, particularly those well known as innovators, have developed their own effective systems for testing and developing new, improved practices. These systems of inquiry enable them to combine research and problem solving with normal farming operations. Our project offers the opportunity for problem-solving systems developed by the very best, innovative farmers to be made available in a “how to” manual and through outreach programs which will be offered by trained extension educators.
Working with eight expert farmer- innovators we compiled and organized information on the best problem-solving practices that have been developed by these farmers into a “how to” manual that can be used to teach these methods to others. We then made these farmer-developed methods available to agricultural service providers using the manual as a basis for 4-hour training workshops.
This project first produced a “how-to” resource manual, followed by training workshops for farmers and extension educators about on-farm problem-solving and innovation. First, we used the DACUM process (“Design-a-Curriculum”) to systematically collect and organize on-farm problem solving research approaches used by eight outstanding farmers who are skilled innovators.
Second, using this information we wrote a manual, entitled Problem-solving and Innovation on the Farm, which organizes proven research strategies compatible with day-to-day farming demands into steps that can be followed by others. In addition to the step-by-step description of how farmers problem-solve and carry out research, sample experimental designs and timelines, documentation methods, example case studies, and data templates were included in the manual.
Third, using the contents of the manual, we hosted three workshops spanning the NE region (Connecticut, New York, Michigan) to train farmers and agricultural providers in this crucial aspect of farm management. The training workshops used a combination of formal instruction and group discussion. During these workshops, we obtained feedback on the manual, which we used to revise the text accordingly.
1. 100 extension educators participate in an online survey to determine the current level of knowledge and learning needs and to help guide the writing of a “how to” manual called Research and Problem-Solving on the Farm.
We created an online survey using survey monkey and sent it out to New York state vegetable crop extension educators. Our collaborator Robert Hadad assisted us in reaching out to his extension colleagues via their weekly newsletter.
Unfortunately, we received very few responses. We suspect that the educators we reached out to do not sense any urgency in their need to reply, as some had previously indicated to us that they were indeed very interested in using this manual in their work.
2. Two agricultural service providers, a hired consultant, and 8 farmer-innovators engage in a DACUM process to gather information about on-farm problem-solving and experimentation approaches.
We gathered eight farmers and two DACUM facilitators at Glenora Inn and Winery for two days, March 1-2, 2016 (see attached agenda). Nicolas Lindholm and Eero Ruuttila traveled from Maine to join us. Jody Bolluyt came from the Hudson Valley, and Chaw Chang, Lou Lego, Brent Welch, Klaas Martens, and Karma Glas joined us from the Finger Lakes region. This remarkable group of growers collectively represent nearly 200 years of experience. The farmers discussed at length their personal philosophies and decision-making processes. The DACUM facilitators from Ohio State led the creation of a chart breaking down what many experienced farmers do instinctively into discrete steps like “consult partner,” “walk the land,” and so forth. We were thoroughly impressed by the depth of the discussion and the farmers’ diligence in ensuring that the final steps listed in the chart accurately reflected their ideas.
The outcome was a framework describing the step-by-step process used by this group of experts to problem solve and conduct research on their farms. At the completion of the two day workshop, the group had created a DACUM chart (attached) outlining the action steps taken when experimenting or innovating on the farm.
3. Researchers draft a “how-to” manual based on the outcome of the DACUM process meeting described in Milestone #2.
We began developing the manual based on the framework identified during the DACUM workshop. We reached out to extension educators and farmers to get feedback on the sections of the manual, and identify the best resources to list for the initial steps of whole farm planning that lay the groundwork for future on-farm experimentation. One agricultural service provider reviewed the outline. The farmers at the DACUM process and in communications stressed the importance of big-picture thinking, careful planning of work-life balance, and assessing one’s strengths. We searched for the best resources available regarding these topics as we proceeded with the rest of the manual.
We conducted four additional interviews to serve as the basis for examples of problem solving in action. In August, Heather Scott, who was the primary person working on this project, moved to another position. Because Laurie Drinkwater was already busy with classes for the semester, she didn’t immediately hire and work with a new person.
After filing for a no-cost extension for this project, Laurie Drinkwater hired Tomasz Falkowski as a postdoctoral researcher. Tomasz began working on this project in May.
Tomasz interviewed ten farmers (Thor Oeschner, Anton Burkett, Klaas Martens, Jean-Paul Courtens & Jody Bolluyt, Michael and Karma Glos, Lou Lego, Steve Groff, and Adam Squire) to clarify the contents of the manual. He also wrote eleven additional case studies detailing real-world examples of farmer problem-solving based on these interviews, which were included in the manual.
In addition to the case studies, Tomasz performed a comprehensive literature review regarding the steps farmers identified as being critical for the problem-solving process. Based on this background research, he wrote a complete draft of the manual detailing on-farm research. This draft was subsequently edited heavily, and sent out to extension educators and farmers (including those who participated in the DACUM event) for review.
4. 200 service providers receive invitations or read advertisements, and learn about the training workshops and manual.
We sent invitations to extension educators at the University of Vermont (UVM Extension Champlain Valley Crops, Soils and Pasture Team, UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Team, UVM Extension Pasture and Livestock Program); Cornell University (Cornell AgriTech, Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture program, Cornell Vegetable Program, SCNY Regional Dairy & Field Crops Team, Small Farms program); Pennsylvania State University (Sustainable Horticulture program); and University of New Hampshire (Sustainable Horticulture program). Despite repeatedly emailing or calling 14 individuals across these institutions, we were unable to generate sustained interest for standalone training workshops regarding the topics presented in the manual from extension educators. As such, we shifted our objectives to focus on presenting the manual materials at conferences and meetings for farmers, who seemed more receptive of the concepts we presented.
5. Agricultural service providers and farmers attend up to three training sessions held throughout the NE (~20-25/each workshop) and learn about problem-solving and experimentation on the farm.
We successfully applied to present an abbreviated version of the manual contents at the January 9th meeting of the New York Certified Organic Meeting. Approximately 25 individuals attended this two-hour presentation. Most attendees were farmers in New York, but several extension educators were also present. We received feedback underscoring farmers’ desire to see more case studies and real-world examples, which we represented in the manual contents.
We also applied to present workshops regarding on-farm problem solving at NOFA VT, CT and RI winter conferences. Of these, our application was accepted by NOFA CT, and Tomasz Falkowski presented at their 37th Annual Winter Conference (ORGANICONN) on February 23rd. Again, approximately 25 individuals attended the one-hour session, almost all of them beginner and prospective farmers. This illustrated the importance of tailoring the manual to different audiences. Although we had initially anticipated catering to more experienced farmers, we included additional material that would help younger farmers, such as a brief description of whole farm planning, for example.
Laurie Drinkwater presented the manual at the 2019 Great Lakes Fruit and Vegetable Expo held in Grand Rapids, MI. This was a large gathering of growers from across the Great Lakes region, attracting over 4,000 people. About 20 people attended her session.
6. 20-25 extension educators provide detailed feedback on the manual at the first training.
Because we were unable to generate interest among extension educators for training workshops (see Milestone #4), we were unable to complete this milestone. Instead, we chose to send the manual to a core advisory group of extension educators and farmers for review.
7. A core advisory group of extension educators and farmers will review, evaluate, and propose revisions to a preliminary draft of the “how-to” manual.
We identified and contacted three extension agents (Brian Caldwell, Robert Hadad, David Colson) and nine farmers (Chaw Chang, Jean-Paul Courtens & Jody Bolluyt, Michael and Karma Glos, Lou Lego, Klaas Martens, Michael Kane, Anton Burkett, Mike Kane) to review the draft of the manual. We sent them the document at the beginning of April 2019. Of those, we received feedback from seven individuals (two extension educators and five farmers). Based on their feedback, we added eight new illustrative case studies, a separate chapter on experimental design, and appendices describing additional resources for problem solving. This represented a significant amount of additional effort and prolonged the time spent writing the manual as opposed to disseminating our findings.
Several farmers and extension educators offered positive reviews of the new manual. For instance, Mike Kane of Shamrock Hill Farm noted, “Forty years ago, the ideas in this manual would have been invaluable to me as I designed and developed my farm.” Lou Lego of Elderberry Pond Farm echoed the opinion, saying, “It is a great new framework that will benefit both farms and universities. [It has] lots of good references, graphs, and illustrations, and the farmer examples add to the value.” All farmers featured in case studies gave their approval that their examples be included in the manual.
8. 30 Trained extension educators create new programs to teach 600 farmers about how to use proven, farmer-friendly problem-solving methods to improve their operations
Given the lack of interest from extension educators, we were unable to implement the trainings required for this milestone. We hope that extension educators will begin more widely applying the principles and practices described in our manual now that it has been published online.
9. Extension educators and farmers have access to the improved version of the manual as a downloadable PDF document for publication on the SARE website.
Tomasz Falkowski and Laurie Drinkwater revised the manual text based on feedback from farmer and extension educator reviewers. We then sent the revised manual to Allison Goldstein for copy editing. Based on her feedback, we again revised the manual text to ensure readability and proper grammar. This text was then sent to Kirsten Ankers, who provided a sample graphic design for the manual. After providing her with feedback, she completed a final, full-color, downloadable PDF of the manual (attached) for publication on SARE’s website. This process proved far more laborious than expected given the additional materials (8 new case studies, another chapter, and full-length appendices). What initially was expected to be a short extension manual became a 100 page text with figures, tables, and illustrations. Effort that would have otherwise been spent disseminating the results was allocated toward completing the manual text so that it would be a useful resource for farmers.
10. 30 trained extension educators are supported by the project team in their efforts to help farmers apply these methods to improve their farming operations through phone conversations and access to the manual and supporting materials.
The lack of buy-in from extension educators prevented us from completing this milestone. It is still possible for extension educators who become interested in the topics presented in the manual to contact the PIs of this project to arrange workshops or additional assistance.
11. Publish article regarding manual in Small Farms Quarterly
To further advertise the publication of the manual, Tomasz Falkowski wrote an article for the Winter 2020 issue Cornell University’s Small Farm Quarterly. This publication is a printed four times a year and features articles addressing a wide variety of issues regarding farm management. It was enjoys a wide readership throughout the Northeast and was named “Best Publication” by the New York State Association of County Agricultural Agents (NYSACAA) in 2006.
12. 30 extension educators complete and return verification survey to report on educational programs conducted and farmer applications of these techniques.
The lack of interest in this project from extension educators precluded us from scheduling trainings when this survey would be administered. However, we expect to remain in contact with farmers who have received and will be applying the concepts presented in the manual in order to re-evaluate the manual (which has already gone through two rounds of review by farmers).
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Participants in the project’s educational activities:
Farmers involved in this project (as DACUM workshop participants, reviewers, or presentation attendees) remarked that they would change their approach to on-farm problem solving and innovation as a result of this work. Younger farmers acknowledged the importance of establishing a whole farm plan to identify a vision ad goals for their farm moving forward, which would help them prioritize which aspects of farm production needed to be urgently addressed, as opposed to those could wait until more time was available to devote to less-pressing issues. They also reiterated the importance of walking their fields while also recognizing they could not trust their memories alone, underscoring the importance of systematically recording notable observations in some way (e.g., photos, Excel, journals). These detailed observations of the farm system allowed them to identify problems before they threaten farm operations, and provide inspiration for possible solutions. Farmers also learned how to pair a question with experimental methods that were appropriate to the constraints of experimenting on an active farm. In particular, they recognized the importance of using controls (and replication in some circumstances) to account for different sources of inter-annual or spatial variability, which many of them previously did not consider in their year-to-year trials. Several noted uncertainty about identifying which problems could make do with simply implemented solutions developed elsewhere (as opposed to more drastic alterations that needed to be adapted to the unique context of their farms). We clarified this distinction through a number of illustrative case studies of farmers who successfully implemented changes ranging from small tweaks to farm system redesigns and providing guidance about evaluating product claims. Farmers also appreciated our discussion of balancing the desire to respond to unexpected problems that arose during trials to ensure production while ensuring the rigor and validity of the experiment. Finally, farmers learned of a number of resources, funding sources, and tools available to them for problem solving. We described additional materials describing elements of on-farm experimentation, problem solving, and innovation; how to search for and apply for grants; cell phone and computer applications designed to facilitate farm planning, mapping, and management; the use of personal drones and weather stations on farms to inform decision-making; and lists of farmer networks and agricultural organizations that support farmer problem solving. Many of these were not known to farmers, who appreciated all these resources in a centralized document that was presented in an engaging and visually-pleasing manner for easy access.
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
Thirty agricultural service providers will create new programs to teach 600 farmers how to improve their operations using on-farm problem-solving/experimentation techniques developed by expert farmers.
We repeatedly made inquiries regarding the possibility of hosting training workshops or presentations for agricultural service providers. Unfortunately, our efforts were unsuccessful. Extension educators were either uninterested or unable to host or attend trainings. There are several factors that may have contributed to our inability to coordinate with extension educators. First, many extension educators conveyed that they were over-extended due to lack of staff, and could not attend trainings. Second, the plethora of extension materials detailing formalized experiments in farm settings and our conversations with some extension educators suggested many still harbored skepticism of informal approaches to farmer-led experimentation (like the ones we presented in the manual) lacking all the characteristics of the scientific method.
Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers
Farmers were, in general, more receptive to this project than agricultural service providers. However, although several farmers learned about the topics we present in the manual, we were unable to explicitly verify whether these farmers made changes to their typical farming practices. We had initially planned to conduct trainings and distribute surveys to evaluate project outcomes, but the challenges we encountered in arranging these workshops due to lack of extension educator buy-in precluded us from doing so. Furthermore, we were unable to distribute the manual beyond the individuals we reached directly through their involvement in this project, collaboration on other research projects, or attendance at our presentations at conference meetings. Although we had hoped to disseminate this work more widely after completing the manual in 2017, two obstacles arose that prevented us from doing so. The first was several turnovers in personnel, which took time to resolve. Second, the manual was originally conceived as the smaller of two products (the other being workshops). As the project evolved, we changed our objectives based on feedback from farmers and extension educators (as evidenced in the revised project milestones). The manual expanded into a full-length, full-color book, which required much more attention than initially anticipated. Generating, revising, and typesetting the additional content (including case studies, text, figures, and references) required time and resources that we could not later devote to organizing and implementing workshops. All remaining time was spent in preparing press releases through Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science, Cooperative Extension, and Small Farms Program. These target outcomes could be further assessed in the future now that the manual is available online by tracking the number of views and downloads.
Additional Project Outcomes
In working on this project, we identified three new farmer-collaborators (Michael Kane, Adam Squire, and Harold Schrock) from their participation in conferences where we presented this work.
Several farmers and extension educators offered positive reviews of the new manual.
“Forty years ago, the ideas in this manual would have been invaluable to me as I designed and developed my farm.” –Farmer from Southern Tier New York
“It is a great new framework that will benefit both farms and universities. Much better than farms and universities doing their own thing and reporting on them independently hoping there is cross fertilization. [It has] lots of good references, graphs, and illustrations, and the farmer examples add to the value.” –Farmer from Central New York
“I believe the manual is a valuable tool for new and experienced farmers to explore the decision making processes of a variety of farms. All farms have unique systems we can all learn and benefit from.” –Farmer from Central New York
In addition to the logistical challenges to assessing project target outcomes described in the respective narrative responses, we feel that this project is difficult to evaluate using standardized metrics (e.g., acres of production affected). The nature of the experimental designs we present in our manual involved multi-year, iterative processes, which farmers would not be able to implement in the course of the project. Thus, any assessment would need to occur several years after the manual was made available to the public. Furthermore, adopting the process described in the manual is not an all or nothing question; farmers can be inspired to pick and choose individual components of the Innovation Framework we present (or apply it to a subset of their total land), further complicating what constitutes successful management change. Finally, a comprehensive and detailed assessment of how farmer knowledge systems evolved as a result of this project would be a separate project in and of itself, requiring collaboration with scientists well-versed in qualitative social science research methods.