The Middle Border On-Farm Research and Information Network

Final Report for LNC88-011

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1988: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1992
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Patrick Moore
Land Stewardship Project
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Project Information


The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, the Kansas Rural Center and the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project formed a partnership in 1988 to conduct on-farm demonstrations, carry out research and disseminate information about low-input/sustainable agriculture practices to farmers in the “Middle Border” of the United States. For the purposes of this project, the “Middle Border” is defined as southwestern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota, Nebraska and northeast Kansas.

The Consortium developed farmer-to-farmer information exchange networks and established more than 100 LISA on-farm demonstrations and 14 replicated trials in the Middle Border region. Each organization in the Consortium has cooperated in the sharing of LISA on-farm research and demonstration methodologies and in the development of working relationships with University and Extension researchers. The Consortium carries out interstate on-farm research projects and cooperates in the organizing of LISA workshops and farm tours. The Consortium will continue to generate newsletters, pamphlets, handbooks and video tapes for distribution to the farmers of the Middle Border.

A distinguishing feature of the Consortium is that it relies primarily on local farmer networks to determine what should be researched and how it should be carried out. These networks provide important social support to farmers making the transition to LISA farming systems. They also serve as vehicles for local experiment stations and others to use in technology transfer and in disseminating findings from institutional research on LISA practices.

In its third and final year of operation, the Consortium will carry out on-farm research and demonstrations on a wide variety of economically sound LISA practices, including but not limited to:

• Assessing the Farmer usability of the on-farm soil nitrate test kit;

• Comparisons which research and demonstrate the varying capabilities of raw manure, compost and legumes to build and maintain soil fertility;

• Use of the rotary hoe for weed control in row crop production;

• Overseeding of legumes as a winter cover crop and a spring plowdown green manure;

• The use of more moisture conserving legumes in crop rotations and as interseeded crops with small grains.

The Middle Border on Farm Research Consortium is an innovative, grassroots-based initiative with far reaching potential. The third year of USDA LISA funding will help establish the regional farmer networks as viable, self-sufficient, non-profit organizations that will continue on their own with the benefit of interstate networks and university linkages. The successful establishment of these networks is key to the Consortium’s overall goal of bridging the gaps between farmers, researchers and private non-profit organizations in order to foster the widespread adoption of LISA practices throughout the Middle Border region.

Project Objectives:

1. Disseminate information on LISA farming techniques to the farmers of the Middle Border through workshops and farm tours.

2. Develop more self sufficient farmer-to-farmer, on-farm research networks to conduct and promote the widespread adoption of LISA practices.

3. Refine the documentation and methodology for participatory on-farm research

4. Integrate information generated from the Consortium’s participatory on-farm research experience into mainstream publications, and University/Extension information dissemination channels.

5. Publish books, reports and video tapes on low-input sustainable practices for distribution to farmers of the Middle Border.


Research results and discussion:
Procedures and Progress

1. Disseminate information on LISA farming techniques to the farmers of the Middle Border through workshops and farm tours.

Over the past three years, the member organizations of the Consortium have sponsored 158 workshops and 71 farm tours which have attracted more than 5,000 farmers, university researchers and the general public. The workshops featured presentations by some of the leading sustainable agriculture researchers and practitioners (i.e. Kirschenmann, Honeyman, Janke) as well as extension and university researchers, local farm panels and small farmer-to-farmer group discussions. The field days and farm tours gave farmers a first hand look at sustainable practices at work on neighboring farms. The exchange of knowledge and ideas generated by these organized farmer-to-farmer visits is extremely effective in conveying usable information. As a result, we estimate that at least 1000 farmers in the Middle Border have begun experimenting with the application of LISA techniques to their farms.

The workshops and farm tours are successful because of the participatory education methodologies inherent in their design. Farmers (like all adults) learn best from each other’s experience and are interested in what other farmers are learning in their quest for environmentally sound and profitable agriculture practices. The demand for more workshops and field days is on-going. Dozens of these popular LISA events are being scheduled by consortium member organizations in 1992 and for will undoubtedly continue for many years to come.

2. Develop more self sufficient farmer-to-farmer, on-farm research networks to conduct and promote the widespread adoption of LISA practices.

Since 1989 when the Consortium first began its work in earnest, the farmer-based organizations comprising the network have steadily increased their membership and organizational staying power. For example in the fall of 1988 there were only 55 members of the Western Minnesota Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association, today there are 168 in the western Minnesota chapter and more than 450 SFA members statewide. In Nebraska, the NSAS has seen its membership rise from 92 in January of 1989 to 350 today. What’s more, these organizations comprising the Consortium have established active, democratically elected boards of directors. These boards have improved their knowledge of what it takes to run an organization, sponsor on-farm research and demonstration, and publicize these efforts to the broader public. In these recessionary times, each organization also has learned what it takes to keep educational programs and research projects going. Despite budget cutbacks and downsizing, the grassroots makeup of the NSAS, the SFA and the Kansas Organic Producers has kept them alive and now they are in key positions to assist the thousands of farmers making the transition to sustainable farming practices in the 1990s.

3. Refine the documentation and methodology for participatory on-farm research.

A measurable improvement has taken place in the way the Consortium’s member organizations conduct on-farm research and demonstration. In 1988, the Consortium had no previous experience in sponsoring and conducting participatory on-farm research, and many bugs had to be worked out of the process. The first season of OFR & D in 1989 saw 62 farmers setting up more than 100 LISA demonstrations and 14 replicated trials. This experience of the first year, pointed to a need to standardize methodology, trial record forms and reporting procedures. Consortium-wide meetings early in 1990 led to improvements in these areas and a decision to have at least one farmer from each state carry out the same research project to study the efficacy of the late spring nitrogen application test kit. In 1990, 84 farmers established 40 randomized replicated research plots and 64 demonstrations with guidance and assistance of Consortium staff. This many research plots proved to be too much to handle. The Consortium’s experience showed that only a small percentage of farmers were willing and able to conform to the exacting requirements necessary for conducting replicated trials. The focus in 1991 shifted to fewer projects and focused more on demonstrations than replicated trials. A total of 9 replicated trials were conducted in 1991, with 60 demonstrations. It is expected that in the future, Consortium member organizations will continue to focus more on demonstrations as a more doable, cost effective and more accessible educational tool for transferring LISA practices and methods to other farmers in the neighborhood.

Another improvement in the methodology came with the development of peer review groups of farmers to determine which projects were most worthy of receiving cost share funds provided by the LISA program. The Kansas Rural Center and the Land Stewardship Project have made extensive use of the peer review process and have found it to be an excellent way to build group commitment and investment into the participatory on-farm research and demonstration process.

4. Integrate information generated from the Consortium’s participatory on-farm research experience into mainstream publications, and University/Extension information dissemination channels.

Much of the work of the Consortium’s member organizations is just now beginning to percolate through the “traditional” information dissemination channels, yet there have been several noteworthy accomplishments in achieving this objective over the past three years:

At the National Conference on Sustainable Agriculture held in July 1990 in Nebraska, the following papers were presented by Consortium member organizations and staff:

• Values, Not Practices Make Agriculture Sustainable by Sam Welsch and Tom Tomas

• Sustainable Farming Associations in Minnesota by Audrey Arner and Doug Nopar

• On-farm Demonstrations: Farming in partnership with Nature by Jerry Jost

The above-listed papers were published in the proceedings of the conference and distributed nationally.

Other results and findings from the Middle Border On-Farm Research Consortium’s work have been disseminated in the following ways:

• Two LSP staff presented a paper at the 1991 American Farming Systems Research and Extension (AFSR/E) annual meeting held in East Lansing Michigan entitled: Participatory On-Farm Sustainable Agriculture Research by Stephanie Rittmann & Richard Ness.

• A Nebraska extension bulletin authored by the NSAS affiliates Doug Dittman and Alan Franzlubbers featured the results of an of farm research project investigating the efficacy of a late spring soil nitrate test kit.

• The KRC’s Jerry Jost is listed as a co-author of an article entitled: Releases of Splangia nigroaenea to Reduce Stable Flies in Kansas Dairies” to be published by the North Central Branch of the Entomological Society of America in the coming months. The paper is based on an on-farm demonstration being conducted by the KRC.

• The Nov./Dec. 1991 issue of the nationally distributed New Farm Magazine featured an article on the farmer participants of the Middle Border On-Farm research Consortium. More than 60,000 subscribers and 100,000 readers were introduced to the research network and the types of questions its participating farmers were investigating.

In addition to these most noteworthy examples, there have been several dozen class talks and lectures given by Consortium staff and cooperators at Universities, colleges and vo-ag classes throughout the Middle Border region. We expect that much of the work of this objective, however, remains to be accomplished as the results and findings from multi-year experiments begin to filter their way through traditional channels and are gradually integrated into university/extension publications and programs featuring sustainable agriculture practices.

5. Publish books, reports and video tapes on low-input sustainable practices for distribution to farmers of the Middle Border.

Since its inception in the fall of 1988, the member organizations of the Middle border On-farm Research consortium have produced and disseminated the following:

• 48 separate newsletters featuring LISA practices, OFR & D results and farmers experienced with LISA practices have been mailed to more than 7,000 farmers, researchers, government agencies and interested citizens throughout the Middle Border.

• Six separate OFR & D reports documenting the experiences of the farmer cooperators in the Consortium have been published and a total of more than 1300 copies have been sold and/or distributed to farmers throughout the region.

• Four professionally produced video tapes featuring farmers sharing their on-farm experiences with the Rotary Hoe, Cover Crops, Nitrogen Management and Controlled Grazing have been sold and distributed to more than 244 farmers and educators throughout the United States.

• More than 40 “in-house” videos of workshops and keynote addresses have been produced by Consortium staff embers and made available through lending libraries to hundreds of farmers throughout the Middle Border region.

Research conclusions:

The potential production, social, economic and/or environmental impact if findings of these studies are widely adopted:

If the types of LISA practices researched and demonstrated by the Consortium were to be widely adopted by farmers throughout the region, the very face of agriculture in the Midwest would change. There would be far more land in pasture being rotationally grazed, therefore the soil erosion and groundwater contamination from farm chemicals due to row crops would be extensively reduced. More farmers would be relying on crop rotations, and interseeding of legumes and alternative sources of manure and composting rather than purchased nitrogen from the farm supply co-op. When they did use nitrogen, they would only use as much as they needed based on late spring soil nitrate tests. Herbicides, when used, would be used as a last resort, rather than a first line of defense against weeds. The need for insecticides would be reduced greatly. All this would have a profound, positive effect on environmental quality and wildlife habitat for the region. In social and economic terms, it would mean that farm supplies would make less money, but that most farmers employing these practices would have a higher net return from their farming operation.

If the types of practices researched and demonstrated by these farmers were to be widely adopted there would also be a much greater diversity of crops grown throughout the Middle Border rather than the traditional corn, beans and wheat that predominate now. The farmers employing these practices would have to be smaller, more numerous and more diversified than they generally are now, and this in turn would lead to a resurgence in food grown and marketed for local processing and consumption rather than the global export market. There would be a revival of local farmer cooperatives in order to procure alternatives to fossil-fuel based farm inputs and to collectively market alternative and premium crops. All this would have a profound, positive effect on the vitality and economic development capacity of small towns throughout the Middle Border Region.

New hypotheses or alternative paradigms resulting from the project that have enriched the scientific basis of sustainable agriculture:

• Small scale, diversified farmers are better served by participatory approaches to research and extension where they can be actively involved as peers of researchers and extensionists in identifying research needs, designing and implementing experimental protocols and in delivering research results.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

It is expected that the findings from the first three years of the Consortium’s work will continue to be disseminated through scientific journals, the popular press, extension bulletins and via video in the years to come. The primary vehicle for this dissemination will take place through the Midwest Alternative Agriculture education Network (MAAEN) which has been formed to promote the widespread dissemination of participatory education and research activities relating to sustainable agriculture. MAAEN members include: The Rodale Institute, the Land Stewardship Project, the Kansas Rural Center, the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, and the Sustainable Farming association of Minnesota. Plans are for each MAAEN member to exchange educational materials and research and demonstration findings with each other, to set up a speaker’s bureau, to publish an inter -organizational newsletter and to have quarterly teleconferences and annual face-to-face meetings to facilitate the dissemination of each organization’s work.

Number of farmers/ranchers in Attendance at:

Workshops: 3,225
Field Days: 2,040
Annual Meetings: 605

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

• More research on time-controlled grazing.
• More research on cover crops and soil building legumes.
• More research on the use of refractometer as an on-farm management tool.
• More research on the effectiveness of Holistic Resource Management approaches in improving farm income and environmental quality.

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.