Participatory Research and Education Network for Sustainable Agriculture in Illinois

Final Report for LNC91-040

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1991: $110,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1995
Matching Federal Funds: $36,000.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $170,600.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Robert Hornbaker
Dept of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois
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Project Information


A network was established among three farmer-managed, community-based sustainable agriculture organizations in Illinois and the University of Illinois, with the purpose of conducting on-farm participatory research and education projects that evaluate and promote low-input sustainable farming practices.

Educational projects providing practical, easily interpreted information were designed by participants. Educational meetings, demonstrations and field tours were planned and conducted involving farmers, the UI Cooperative Extension Service, the Soil Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the media, and agri-business interest in the community.

On-farm research projects were designed by farmers in cooperation with university research scientists and later, with the newly hired UI on-farm research coordinator. Field studies were quantitatively evaluated using formal statistical procedures. The experimental design primarily used for the on-farm research was based on the paired-comparison, strip-plot model promoted by the Practical Farmers of Iowa. All treatments tested in on-farm research field trials were randomized and replicated.

Specific research and/or educational projects were selected by farmer-cooperators during the participatory process, but primarily focused on: (1) nitrogen fertilizer reduction on corn; (2) weed control strategies that reduced herbicide use in corn and soybeans in conservation tillage systems; and (3) tillage and rotation system effects on yield and profitability.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of the funded project were as follows:

1. Develop economically competitive and sustainable farming systems.

2. Facilitate the adoption of sustainable technologies and practices by Illinois farmers.

3. Develop the methodology and capacity for scientifically valid on-farm experiments and demonstrations.


Research results and discussion:

The formation of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network 1992 has resulted in extensive dialogue between farmers, University of Illinois researchers, and other agriculture institutions and organizations, strengthening the concepts and ideals inherent to sustainable agriculture system within Illinois. Numerous on-farm research projects were conducted as a direct result of the formation of the Network. Various field days, conferences, educational events were sponsored, and publications produced through the efforts of the Network, providing a unique forum for exchange of knowledge and ideas within the Illinois agriculture industry. Since the Network’s inception, the dialogue between groups on the future of Illinois agriculture has been raised to a higher level. Agriculturist and environmentalist have found common ground. Farmers and university researchers have begun to work together on common goals.

Findings and Accomplishments

The project facilitated many on-farm research projects over the two year period of the grant and therefore netted various “findings,” all of which appear in the yearly published reports (copies included). In 1992 a total of 43 on-farm research projects were completed by participating farmers. Over half (51%) of the projects completed in 1992 dealt with nitrogen. Nitrogen projects tested the rate and form of nitrogen applied and time of application in corn. Sixteen percent of the 1992 projects addressed non-nitrogenous fertilizer questions. Fourteen percent compared different rates of various herbicides in corn and soybeans. Other research topics in 1992 included tillage (12%), cover crops (7%), and various soil additives (5%).

In 1993 farmers researched a greater variety of topics. As in the previous year, farmers researched nitrogen (47%), non-nitrogenous fertilizers (16%), herbicides (4%), cover crops (7%), and tillage (16%). In addition, 1993 farmers conducted systems-based research (4%), investigated various management strategies for pesticides (4%), tested various soil additives (7%), and even did a little livestock research (2%).

Generally, findings indicated no significant corn yield differences due to nitrogen applied at lower-than-recommended rates until rates fell below 50-75% of recommended rates. In 1992-93, herbicide rate studies showed no significant yield effect when herbicides were applied at sometimes half the recommended rate. Reduced herbicide rates increased per acre profitability where yields were unaffected. Other studies showed no corn yield benefit obtained from aeration tillage. There were significant soybean yield increases due to aeration tillage in 1993. Cover crops seemed to make little difference in corn yields, but other factors that may be affected by cover crops, such as soil tilth, were not rigorously measured. Formal accomplishments are described below by objective.

1. Develop economically competitive and sustainable farming systems.

A major accomplishment within this objective was realized by convincing farmers of the value, and training them in the use of, randomized and replicated field experiments as a tool to test various sustainable agriculture practices at site-specific locations. Farmers commonly “experiment” with different ideas and make judgments and decisions based on informal observation. Due to the efforts of the Network, the value of more formalized research methodologies is commonly understood among the farmers involved in the program.

Research topics investigating various sustainable agriculture principles (i.e. reduced inputs, cover crops, alternative tillage, etc.) were pursued by farmers on working farms using farm scale equipment. Farmers were the principle investigators in all the research projects. They were actively involved in every aspect of the research process from experimental design to interpretation of the data results. In 1992, 43 farmers completed on-farm research projects. In 1993, 45 farmers completed research projects. And in 1994, 40 projects were completed.

In order to make a determination of the economic competitiveness of the tested sustainable agriculture practices, farmers recorded field level cost information for each treatment compared. This cost information was then entered into a database and budgets were generated for each treatment. The budgets were then used to compare the treatments economically. A logbook was designed to simplify recording of cost data. The logbook proved to be an important, albeit frustrating tool for participating farmers. Attributing accurate cost figures to various treatments is as much art as it is skill. The logbook format was edited each year in an attempt to further simplify the process for both the farmer and the person inputting the information into the database. Three years worth of on-farm economic and agronomic data has been collected, compiled, analyzed, reported, and distributed.

2. Facilitate the adoption of sustainable technologies and practices by Illinois farmers.

ISAN personnel have observed a growing interest in sustainability issues by farmers and AES researchers and administration. On-farm research and educational activities sponsored by the Network have played a vital role in keeping these issues at the forefront. An increasing number of farmers who don’t consider themselves “sustainable” are asking new questions about nitrogen management and questioning conventionally acceptable means by which nitrogen needs in corn are determined. There is a growing suspicion among farmers that in the future farm chemicals will be increasingly regulated. This may explain why so much sustainable research effort at Illinois has focused on reducing nitrogen and other inputs.

In general, the on-farm research results support adoption of some reduced-input, sustainable farming practices, and revealed areas that need a closer look. Illinois on-farm research has generally shown it is possible to reduce the rates of nitrogen, non-nitrogenous fertilizers, and pesticides and still grow crops profitably. Farmers have been receptive to these results. In some cases, farmers have modified their farming practices based on what they learned through their on-farm research.

Field days and workshop were conducted by the regional farmer organizations to provide an opportunity for farmers and researchers to share ideas and opinions. A publication, Research for Tomorrow (enclosed), was developed each year to provide information about the on-farm research projects and field days.

The first “Sustaining the Farm Family Workshop” was held on February 25-26. The adoption of agricultural practices that are environmentally and economically sound is a foremost concern to Illinois farmers. However, little attention has been directed to how the adoption of these practices effect family members. ISAN and its member organizations hosted this workshop in order to begin this important first step to sustaining farm families. The workshop speakers emphasized the needs of spouses and children as farm families begin to use sustainable farm practices. The workshop included an opportunity for cooperators and their families to get acquainted in a relaxed setting. A special program was designed for the children. ISAN received a grant to conduct this workshop in 1994. We have received another grant to conduct a second workshop in March 1995.

3. Develop the methodology and capacity for scientifically valid on-farm experiments and demonstrations.

At the beginning, university researchers were recruited to teach farmers research methodology, perform statistical analysis, and help the Network develop the capacity for scientifically valid on-farm experiments. Coordination of that working relationship was lax resulting in a less than positive experience for both farmers and researchers. Consequently, a CES Specialist in Agriculture position was created specifically to coordinate the on-farm research program. In July of 1992, the position was filled.
The newly hired coordinator developed an On-Farm Research Guidebook (enclosed). The guidebook provides a basic explanation of some fundamental statistical principles upon which research theory is based, in an attempt to help farmers understand the rationale and value of replicating and randomizing treatments across the field. The guidebook also includes a step-by-step guide through the research process, and an example problem leads the reader through the process from conception of the idea to the analysis of the data and interpretation of the results. Worksheets were developed to help the farmer/researcher with some of the more technical aspects of analysis.

The on-farm research coordinator was also charged with the production of a periodic newsletter targeting the on-farm researcher. So far, six issues of Agro-Ecology Technical Notes: On-Farm Research have been published (enclosed). The newsletter is used as a vehicle to further teach valid research methodology, report on-farm research results, and inform the community of deadlines and dates of special events, i.e., conferences, field days, etc.

The coordinator meets with farmers individually each winter to discuss results of the previous year’s project and plan what will be done the next year. At these planning meetings, goals and objectives are clarified, treatments are described, and plot plans are drawn. From that point, farmers work with their group coordinator to carry out the research plan. During the summer months the UI coordinator maintains contact with the farmer/researchers at field days and other educational events held throughout the state. In September, research logbooks are mailed to the farmer/researchers. Local group coordinators are responsible for helping farmers fill out logbooks by the set deadline. The UI coordinator is then responsible for the economic and agronomic analysis of each project. An annual publication reporting all results of Network participants’ projects is then produced.

The experimental design primarily used for the on-farm research is based on the paired-comparison, strip-plot model used and promoted by the Practical Farmers of Iowa. Treatments are randomized and replicated allowing statistical analysis of the data. Plots are as wide as one or more passes of the farmer’s own equipment, and stretch the full length of the field. Such a scale creates plots large enough to a) have a strong visual impact, and b) allow farmer participation without the requirement of special machinery. Many of the projects compared more than two treatments. In these cases the paired-comparison design was modified into a randomized complete block design testing multiple treatments — sometimes factorially — a design commonly used in field trials.

Case Studies

In the two years of the grant, two case studies were established; one is an attempt to maximize production of wildlife on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land, the other, a semi-permanent establishment of two cropping systems — organic and conventional — in a split field. By our definition, a case study is a long-term experiment without replicated treatments.

Maximization of Wildlife Production on CRP Land

Two parcels of land totaling 33 acres were enrolled in CRP. Wildlife food plots, seeded with sunflowers, corn, milo, and millets and bordered by warm-seasoned grasses, were established on 8.4 acres. The remaining 26.7 acres was planted as follows: 20% in food plots, 80% seeded primarily to cool-season grasses including redtop, timothy, and Korean lespedeza. Hardwood travel lanes were also planted throughout the acreage and a hairy vetch cover crop was used as a nitrogen source for the food plots.

Wildlife species were sighted and counted. Observations were systematically made on species such as rabbits, deer, doves, quail, and various passerines. For more information see Homer Buck and Paul Moore — Marion County in the 1992 on-farm research report.

Organic vs. Conventional System

This case study was begun in 1993. The farmer intends to continue the project for five years. The research objective is to evaluate the yield differences of two farming systems, organic and conventional, and how these change over time. The organic system utilized cover crops to provide nitrogen and help in weed control. The organic system did not use any chemical inputs. The conventional system saw the use of Bicep and Landoil at the time of corn planting as well as the application of 28% nitrogen sidedressed. The organically grown corn yielded much less than conventionally grown corn, 100 versus 139 bushels per acre respectively.

Organic corn was more expensive to grow — $108.36 per acre — than conventional corn costing $102.58 per acre. Even so, because of a price premium, ($3.92/bu for organic vs. $2.74/bu for conventional) organically grown corn yielded higher net returns than the conventionally grown corn, $285.21 versus $277.73 respectively.

Research conclusions:

Positive Benefits

A large segment of the findings derived from research conducted on farms in Illinois indicates overall farm production levels could be, at the least, maintained at current levels. It is believed by many that the sustainable agriculture practices automatically result in reduced yields and therefore reduced profits. Our findings refute this commonly held assumption. Not all, but many of the practices tested resulted in higher per acre net returns, some up to $30 per acre.

New Hypotheses

Our effort in this program did not lend itself to the forming of any new hypotheses.

Economic Analysis

Economic analysis was performed on all on-farm research projects. Participating farmers filled out logbooks describing field-level production costs for each treatment tested. Cost data was then inputted into a special database, which then generated production budgets by treatment. Database and budget software was developed by the Farm and Resource Management (FaRM) Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Department of Agriculture Economics. The FaRM Lab provided invaluable technical expertise enabling the sound comparison of treatments on an economic basis — information our participating farmers found extremely useful.

Much of the on-farm research tested reduced amounts, or the complete elimination, of a variety of inputs or activities such as tillage. As would be expected, reducing applied rates, or eliminating an input or activity altogether, resulted in lower production costs. What was interesting, though, is the effect of lower inputs on the net return. In 1992 for example, lower costs resulted in higher net returns 53% of the time. In these cases yields were either unchanged or increased with reduced inputs. In 33% of the time net returns decreased with decreasing variable costs. Net returns were unchanged 14% of the time in 1992. In seven of the 1992 projects there was no clear correlation between costs and net returns, negative or positive. In 1993 lower variable costs resulted in higher net returns 50% of the time and lower net returns 47% of the time. Three percent of the time the returns were not effected by lower variable costs. In studies that compared multiple rates of a treatment, response was many times expressed by a function that revealed an optimum rate.

Farmer Adoption

Changes in Practice

Through extensive nitrogen rate studies conducted over several years at many locations, farmers are discovering profitable yields can be obtained at lower-than-recommended nitrogen rates. Farmers have reported lowering nitrogen rates in corn across the farm by up to 50% as a result of what was observed from on-farm research. It can only be assumed that farmers are taking what they are learning via their on-farm research and applying it to their decision making process.

It is not uncommon for farmers to express apathy towards agricultural research, believing it has no direct application to them personally or their unique farming situation. The act of bringing farmers into the research process has served to change some farmers’ attitudes towards research and researchers. Farmers have a deep interest in research that addresses their particular problems, producing results that directly apply to them.

In addition to research, farmers have become aware of the need to play a greater role in influencing policy on a state and national level. This is a natural consequence of the extensive networking taking place in Illinois today and can be directly attributed to the creation of ISAN.

Operational Recommendations

Based on the findings of this project, it is recommended that a farmer use on-farm research as a tool to test reduced-input and other sustainable agriculture practices under his/her particular farming circumstances. Many of the strategies tested by farmers in this program showed promise, others were not encouraging.

Farmer Evaluations/Testimonials

Farmer comments are included in each of the reports (1992 and 1993).

Producer Involvement

Number of growers/producers in attendance at:

Field Days……………………535
Other events:
Farm Family Workshop………78

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The on-farm research findings were distributed to all Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and Cooperative Extension Service (CES) offices in the state. The publication was also sent to the members of ISAS and ISA. Press releases concerning the reports were sent to agricultural publications and included in several newsletters. Copies of the report are made available at all ISAN workshops, meetings and field days. Copies were distributed by ISAN and its member organizations at various meetings and events, including the Illinois State Fair.

Information about the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network was (1) distributed to all SWCD offices in the state, and (2) included in the quarterly newsletters of ISAS and ISA. ISAN activities were discussed, and the display and materials taken to the following 1993 meetings/events:

January 19, ISAN Conference; January 27, Tazewell County Cooperative Extension Agronomy Day; February 2, SISAA Annual Meeting; March 6, Illinois Agri-Women Annual Meeting; March 8, ISAS Workshop (Peoria); March 10, SISAA Workshop (Olney); March 15, WISAS Workshop (Perry); March 19, ISA Workshop (Rantoul); March 27, ISA Annual Assembly; March 29-30, ISAN Retreat; April 7, WISAS Annual Meeting; April 24, Earth Day (Springfield); April 30, SISAA Field Day; June 15, Illinois Agricultural Youth Institute; June 30-July 1, Agro-Forestry for Farm Diversity Conference; July 21, Farm Managers Workshop; August 3, SISAA Field Day; August 4, ISAS Field Day (Black Prairie); August 13-22, ISAN display at the Illinois State Fair; August 14, SISAA Field Day; August 19, ISAS Field Day (Advocates); August 20, ISAS Field Day (Gateway); August 21, ISA Field Day; August 24, ISA Field Day; August 26, ISAS Field Day (Advocates); August 26, SISAA Field Day; September 11, Henry White Farm Field Day; September 16, WISAS Field Day; September 21, WISAS Field Day; October 14, IDOA World Food Day.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

The objectives of the funded project were to (1) Develop economically competitive and sustainable farming systems, (2) facilitate the adoption of sustainable technologies and practices by Illinois farmers and (3) develop the methodology and capacity for scientifically valid on-farm experiments and demonstrations.

ISAN was formed to carry out the above three objectives. Soon after the Network formation it was realized that we lacked the skills needed to effectively achieve the desired objectives. As a result the Network is currently spending time and resources on leadership development/training and conflict resolution skills. In addition, the Network needs a better understanding of the dynamics of change in social conventions. Furthermore, the Network now sees a need to broaden the concept of sustainable agriculture to include the health and well-being of rural communities.

Those involved in this effort are excited about the progress that has been made over the past two years. At the same time, Network participants have a clear understanding of the areas that need improvement. With a clear vision of what needs to be accomplished in the future, the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network will continue to move sustainable agriculture ahead in Illinois.

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.