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 will compile and organize 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 will then make these farmer-developed methods available to agricultural service providers using the manual as a basis for three 4-hour training workshops.
- Rachel Bezner Kerr, Associate Professor, Development Sociology, Cornell University
- Tomasz B. Falkowski, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University
Agricultural service providers:
- Brian Caldwell is an experienced farmer and extension educator
- Robert Hadad from Cornell Cooperative Extension
- David Colson from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
- Chaw Chang, Stick and Stone Farm, Ithaca, NY
- Jean-Paul Courtens & Jody Bolluyt, Roxbury Farm LLC, Kinderhook, NY
- Michael and Karma Glos, Kingbird Farm, Berkshire, NY
- Lou Lego, Elderberry Pond Farm, Auburn, NY
- Nicolas Lindholm, Hackmatack Farm, Penobscot, ME
- Klaas Martens, Martens Farm, Penn Yan, NY
- Eero Ruuttila, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Lowell, MA.
- Brent Welch, Bright Raven Farm, Trumansburg, NY
This project will first produce a “how-to” resource manual then conduct a series of training workshops for extension educators about on-farm problem-solving and innovation. First, we will use the DACUM process (“Design-a-Curriculum”) to systematically collect and organize on-farm problem solving research approaches used by eight outstanding farmers who are highly skilled innovators. Second, using this information we will create a manual, entitled Research and Problem-solving on the Farm, which organizes proven research strategies compatible with day-to-day farming demands into steps that can be followed by others. Third, using the manual, we will host 3 workshops spanning the NE region (Maine, New York, Maryland) to train agricultural service providers in this crucial aspect of farm management. During these workshops we will obtain feedback on the manual and challenges/barriers they foresee in delivering this information, and revise the manual accordingly.
The training workshops will use a combination of formal instruction, large group discussion, and small group activities such as case studies where they can apply what they’ve learned. Workshop participants will be assigned reading to complete before the workshop, and will bring examples of problems they’ve encountered to be used as case studies during the workshop. In addition to the step-by-step description of how farmers problem-solve and carry out research, sample experimental designs and timelines, documentation methods and data templates will be included in the manual. To support their skill-building efforts with farmers following the workshop, participants will have opportunities to consult with the project team via email and through two consultation calls. Materials used in the training workshops, including Powerpoint presentations, teaching case studies, and other materials will be made available to participants.
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. (October 2015)
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.
(Link here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/GJKCQ52)
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. (early December 2015)
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. The manual will explain these steps in more detail, with examples, so novice farmers and others can thoroughly grasp the meaning.
3. A core group of four extension educators and ten farmers will receive a preliminary draft of the “how-to” manual to evaluate.
Development of Manual
We began developing the manual based on the framework developed 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 out there for these topics as we proceed with the rest of the manual.
One idea that came out of the DACUM workshop was to use case studies to illustrate the steps to problem solving and on-farm research with specific examples from real farms. In December 2016, we visited Elderberry Pond Farm in Auburn, NY to interview expert innovator Lou Lego. We wrote up a case study based on his solution to cucumber downy mildew and have circulated it via email and at the NOFA-NY winter meeting for feedback from farmers. In December, we developed a plan for the discussion session at the NOFA-NY meeting with farmers and extension educators to gain insights into what elements they consider most essential to the manual, how they relate to the case study format, and what additional resources or techniques they have found useful that would be a good additions to the manual. Outcomes of this discussion will be reported in the next reporting cycle.
We conducted four additional interviews to serve as the basis for examples of problem solving in action. These case studies were drafted and finalized for inclusion in the manual.
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 have time to 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.
Since being hired, Tomasz interviewed eight farmers (Thor Oeschner, Anton Burkett, Klaas Martens, Jean-Paul Courtens & Jody Bolluyt, Michael and Karma Glos, and Lou Lego) to clarify the contents of the manual. He also wrote eight case studies detailing real-world examples of farmer problem-solving based on these interviews.
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 we are making final revisions before sending it out to extension educators and farmers (including those who participated in the DACUM event)
Review of Manual
We have 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) who have agreed to review the draft of the manual. We have contacted another extension agent (Crystal Stewart, Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture of Cornell Cooperative Extension) and farmer (Melissa Madden, Good Life Farm, Interlaken, NY 14837). They have not yet formally agreed to review the manual, but we expect that they will be capable of doing so. We plan to send the manual to these individuals at the end of January 2019 after a final round of internal revisions. We will then incorporate their suggestions into a finalized draft that we will disseminate to extension educators.
Proposed completion dates for subsequent milestones reflect the revised project timeline.
4. 200 service providers receive invitations or read advertisements, and learn about the training workshops and manual.
2018 Progress Update: We have drafted an advertisement that will be disseminated by the extension agents with whom we will collaborate for the workshops we deliver to farmers (Milestone #5).
5. 70 agricultural service providers and educators attend one of three training sessions held throughout the NE (20-25/each workshop) and learn about problem-solving and experimentation on the farm. (January 9, February 21, 23)
2018 Update: We applied to present workshops regarding on-farm problem solving at 2019 NOFA VT, CT and RI winter conferences. Our application was accepted by NOFA CT, and we will present at their 37th Annual Winter Conference (ORGANICONN) on February 23rd. We also successfully applied to present at the January 9th meeting of the New York Certified Organic Meeting. These presentations will be relatively brief (~2 hours). We will balance efforts to obtain feedback from growers regarding the project and present an abbreviated version of the manual contents.
We have also contacted extension agents at Pennsylvania State University Extension, Cornell Cooperative Extension, University of New Hampshire Extension, and University of Maine Cooperative Extension to schedule stand-alone 4-hour workshops. We have agreed to present workshops for Wayne County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension (February 21st) and Eastern New York Cornell Cooperative Extension (February Date TBD). We are contacting additional extension educators for assistance in scheduling a final workshop in New England or Pennsylvania in early March.
6. 20-25 extension educators provide detailed feedback on the manual at the workshops described in Milestone #6.
8. Extension educators and farmers have access to the improved version of the manual.
9. 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 (January 2017-onward)
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 (March 2019-onward).
11. 30 extension educators complete and return verification survey to report on educational programs conducted and farmer applications of these techniques.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Beneficiaries who participated in the project’s educational activities and events:
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.