This project aimed to create a participatory plant breeding project to support and enhance sustainable agriculture in Wisconsin. Through a series of meetings and interviews a working group was created. Ultimately the group of farmers and researchers fragmented into individual relationships and a coherent project was not established. The final conclusions of the research examined the institutional barriers to creating this project and centered on the creation of a working guide for others engaging in participatory research.
Over the period of over two years this project evaluated and attempted to establish a participatory plant breeding project to serve fresh market growers engaged in sustainable production in Southern Wisconsin. Through a series of interviews and meetings this project ultimately proved difficult to accomplish. While there was sustained interest in creating varieties by both farmers and researchers, institutional limits for both groups appeared to have limited the growth of a larger project. The last phase of the research evaluated the constraints and looked toward practical guidelines and resources to enhance participatory research for farmers and researchers in the future.
The following objectives of the project were met:
Through dialog, education and goal setting farmers, university researchers, a non-governmental organization, and small seed companies/producers enhance understanding of plant breeding/seed system and of potential for sustainability.
Through the same means a multi-institution support network is created.
All stakeholders learn about alternative plant breeding systems and their potential role in creating/sustaining them.
Educational guide on methodology for participatory/sustainable plant breeding in U.S. land grant university context.
Identification of institutional barriers to participatory research.
Creation of research brief on participatory research.
The objective of creating a coherent and working sustainable plant breeding project at university of Wisconsin was not met. As discussed further in the discussion section institutional barriers to the project were studied as a result of not meeting this project goal.
The main research methods utilized were interviews (both face to face and phone), ongoing email communication, and a round table meeting. These forms of research were used to both organize participants in the project, in a participatory manner, and ultimately to evaluate its outcomes. Formal in depth semi-structured interviews took place two to three times throughout the course of the project with each participant. A limited number of participants were also included in evaluation of publications.
The perceived impacts of this project were different across the project participants. Farmers are engaged with plant breeders in on-farm research, who they met through this project; however the quality of this relationship was different.
A majority of the research support provided by UW-Madison faculty, 70%, has been through consultation rather than more participatory forms of research. Three farmers found that their initial contact with faculty members was useful, but follow up was difficult and researchers seemed disinterested in working with them.
This research found an institutional weakness in supporting non-traditional or non-laboratory studies, even given a widespread interest by university researchers. It pointed to a lack of a formalized reward system for researchers working with farmers, as exists with extension. Additionally, nontenured faculty could not participate in the same manner as tenured faculty members.
The project milestones were met in a timely manner, but the outcomes from the meeting, interviews, and follow-up discussions did not create a vibrant or coherent participatory research system in the field of plant breeding.
The individualized nature of university research compounded the limited amount of time and money researchers had, constraining their ability to take on a project themselves. Sixty percent of farmers and over just over half of the faculty members felt a funded pat-time position which helped with grant applications, farmer and researcher communication, and project logistics may make participatory research more successful.
Lastly, farmers felt that informal research activities, and exchange of knowledge among farmers was easier to maintain than work with the university.
Educational & Outreach Activities
There is one main publication which resulted from this project which outlines research and protocols for participatory research.
In addition this project was presented at three academic conferences, one farming conference, and at round table sessions between 2005-2007.
The need for on-farm participatory research still appears to be an important priority, but will continue to be difficult to meet within University of Wisconsin constraints.
The results of the project, as published in a study through The Center for Integrated Agricultural System will be available to researchers and farmer at a variety of sustainable agriculture conferences, and have been mailed to plant breeders working in this area across the nation.
The publication will likely draw attention to the limitations and opportunities provided by participatory research, and underline the best way to create partnerships between farmers and researchers. This will lead to more successful projects in the future.
The single positive economic benefit from this project was a result of increased dialog and transfer of technology between individual researchers and farmers. As a result of the initial meeting at least three researchers made new or improved plant varieties, which may benefit farmers, available. The publication on participatory research as well as in depth discussion between researchers and farmers may have an impact both on how crops are selected and how research is conducted in plant breeding. This would be accomplished in the first case, by introducing farmers to new economically beneficial varieties and in the second case may help create more relevant research.
This project did not focus on farmer adoption of a technology but rather a research method. Participatory research with the university was only adopted by a minority of farmers. Farmer adoption was limited by constraints including: strong seasonality of vegetable growing in Wisconsin and competition between research and farming priorities; a high level of diversification which limited farmer’s ability to expand into seed production; and lack of response by researchers to farmers requests for genetic material or research materials.
Areas needing additional study
Areas which would benefit from additional study would be comparative analysis of successful and non-successful participatory research projects nationally. This would allow for a better understanding of how institutional forces (such as state funding, university structure and tenure) may create differential adopt and success rates for this research method.
A similar study that examined farmers’ engagement in participatory research based on their level of diversification and crops grown would be useful.