During the third year of project, we continued field experiments to assess the effect of biochar on crop yields and soil fertility on six Indiana vegetable farms. We also continued to use a collaborative participatory research approach to co-manage the experiment with farmers and a structured student internship program in which the interns managed research plots, collected data, and assisted with key farm operations. Five new undergraduate students participated in our 2017 summer internship program. Tomatoes were transplanted at each farm. Biochar did not affect tomato yields on any farm. The interns completed questionnaires before and at the end of their internships. They indicated that their experience increased their understanding of farm budgets, marketing, pest and soil management, and their interest in participating in research generally and in on-farm research specifically. All of the interns indicated that their overall experience was positive. Similarly, the farmers indicated that they considered their intern to be an asset to their farm and remained very interested in serving as a mentor for student interns. The use of a participatory research approach, coupled with a structured research internship, appears to have potential to increase farmer interest in and understanding of research and to increase the understanding of students of farm life and farm management.
Our primary objectives for 2017 were to 1) conduct planning and training meetings with the farmers and interns, 2) assess the effect of biochar on crop yields on six Indiana vegetable farms, and 3) deliver and analyze a structured on-farm internship program to six undergraduate students.
During 2017, we successfully completed an on-farm participatory research program on biochar and a summer internship program in which the interns contributed to the research project and learned about farm management. We substantially increased the understanding of our interns about several aspects of farm management as well as about biochar. We also increased the interest of our interns and participating farmers in on-farm research. Cumulatively, data from the third year suggests that combining a research internship program with farmer-driven research has great potential to increase the interest of farmers and students in agricultural research and to produce students with a much greater understanding and appreciation of farming.
Planning and training meetings. We held two meetings during 2017. The first meeting, which was held before the start of the 2017 field season, was attended by the farmers and interns and focused primarily on expectations for the student internship, although experimental protocols were discussed. Codes of conduct for both farmers and the interns were discussed and signed. The second meeting held in fall 2017 and included farmers, interns, and members of the Purdue team. During the second meeting, we discussed the field season and reviewed analyses of both the field experiment and farmer and student questionnaires related to the internship.
Field experiments. We incorporated biochar, produced from a pine feedstock, into the soil at six Indiana farms at rates equivalent to 0, 10 and 20 tons/hectare and planted potatoes in spring 2015. Tomato transplants were purchased in the spring of 2017 and then transplanted. Chicken manure was incorporated into the soil before transplanting the kale. The plots were managed, primarily by the interns, during the growing season to reflect best management practices identified by the farmers and tomato plants were harvested at maturity. Biochar did not affect tomato yields on any farm.
Internship program. Six undergraduate interns (one intern for each farm) were initially selected from a pool of applicants in early 2017. The interns were interviewed by the farmers before being admitted into the program. One intern withdrew from the program at the start of the field season and was replaced by an intern who was not enrolled in college. They worked approximately 20 hours per week on their internships and participated in 5 online meetings with the Purdue team during the summer. The interns completed questionnaires before and at the end of their internships. They indicated that their experience increased their understanding of farm budgets, marketing, pest and soil management, and of how biochar affects crops and soils. They indicated that their experience increased their interest in participating in research generally and in on-farm research specifically. All of the interns indicated that their overall experience was very positive. The farmers also completed questionnaires at the end of the growing season. They considered their intern to be an asset to their farm and remained very interested in serving as a mentor for student interns. A majority of the farmers indicated that they were more interested in testing biochar on their farm at the end of 2017 than they were at the start of the project although most would not recommend that other farmers use biochar. They all agreed or strongly agreed that the project increased their understanding of experiment design and their ability to design their own research project. Finally, they indicated that they learned information from the other farmers that would help them on their own farms and that they would like to be involved in future research projects with other farmers.