Comparing Farming Systems with Different Strategies and Input Levels: A Research/Education Program with Replicated Micro-Farms

Final Report for LNC94-073

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1994: $119,054.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $136,197.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Charles Francis
Grain Place Foundation
Co-Coordinators:
Richard Olson
U. of NE-Lincoln, Ctr. for Sustainable Ag. Systems
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Project Information

Summary:

Objectives: This project was designed to design and implement a one-year undergraduate internship in comparative farming systems with hands-on experience for students in planning and managing a small-scale farm. We also wanted students to learn how to compare the productivity, economics, energy use, and environmental impacts of different farming systems for eastern Nebraska. The farms were located for maximum visibility for the public, and the range of enterprises brought a number of faculty and farmers together to work with the students.

Methods of Field Education: Five micro-farms ranging from 11 to 20 acres were established by students at the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center (ARDC) near Mead, Nebraska. The micro-farms had different systems: conventional corn/soybean rotation; diversified conventional crop rotation ; agroforestry with row crops and woody perennials; organic row crop rotation; and forage-based beef production. The micro-farm project was closely integrated with the Forestry research infrastructure to allow sharing of equipment and other resources. Three full-time forestry farmer-technicians played a key role in teaching practical aspects of farming to the interns. Two full-time farmers in the area served as mentors for the interns and provided reality checks as they helped in the classroom, reviewed micro-farm plans, and hosted the interns for tours and work days on their farms.

Educational Results: The first class of four students completed the spring and summer terms of their internships. A spring term curriculum was developed consisting of general readings and discussions of sustainability combined with instruction in specific agronomic techniques and development of micro-farm management plans. In addition to micro-farm operations and working with the mentors, summer term activities included participation in agricultural research at ARDC and tours of research and education programs such as the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Two students completed the fall curriculum focused on synthesis of farm data and evaluation of the relative performance of the five farming systems. The second year had seven students through the spring and summer season, and two of them completed the fall semester. An economic model was developed for use by the interns to extrapolate micro-farm operations and management decisions to full-size analogs. A rule-based model linked to published data on time requirements and costs of field operations and inputs was developed to translate micro-farm operations into the economics of the analog farms. A second model linking micro-farm operations and inputs to energy use on full-size analog farms was completed by Richard Olson who designed the curriculum and supervised the program. Extension activities included the production of a brochure describing the intern program, fliers summarizing planting decisions for each micro-farm, and the inclusion of the micro-farms in several farmer and faculty tours.

Impacts & Contributions: We concluded from this experience that hands-on planning and implementation are essential to understanding and comparing farming systems. There was great enthusiasm for the field work, and less excitement for the written exercises connected with analysis and evaluation of the success of each system. Those who completed the program have gone on to good jobs in consulting or to graduate school. It was more difficult to recruit students than we had imagined, and without the stipend we would not have attracted those who did participate. We set our sights and expectations too high for most of the available students. The time and energy needed to develop the curriculum and exercises were underestimated, and without the full time dedication of a senior graduate student to the task it would have been impossible. We did learn about student motivation and how to evaluate learning.

Introduction:

A research and education project was designed and implemented to provide undergraduate students an internship opportunity in farm and ranch planning as well as hands-on, practical field experience. Small scale farms were set up so that each student could plan and operate the farm for an entire growing season and through harvest and sale of crops. Five different farming systems were used: conventional row crops (corn-soybean rotation), diversified conventional cropping (corn, grain sorghum, soybean, wheat, alfalfa), agroforestry (all of these crops plus some alternative crops), organic cropping (same field crops plus some vegetable crops), and forage-based beef production using rotational grazing. The project was designed for students to evaluate the crop and animal productivity, economics, and energy efficiency of each system and then to compare the systems. We intended to establish baseline information so that long-term impacts of these alternative systems could be measured in the field. Finally, the project included educational outreach to other students, farmers, and educators.

Land for the project was identified at the Agricultural Research and Development Center near Mead, Nebraska, specifically located on the section managed by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife. Faculty (James Brandle) and field support personnel from that department were instrumental in design of the experimental area and field supervision and instruction of students. Other faculty from the Departments of Animal Science, Horticulture, and Agronomy were involved with specific students and systems. A graduate research assistant in Agronomy (Richard Olson) worked virtually full time with the design of curriculum and supervision of students over the two years of the project. Students were recruited who had high grade point average, good recommendations, and expressed interest in farming system design and field experience. They were paid a stipend for the time in doing field work. There were four students in the first year, with two completing the entire course; seven students participated in the second year, and two completed the course.

An economic model was developed for use by the interns to extrapolate micro-farm operations and management decisions to full-size analogs. A rule-based model linked to published data on time requirements and costs of field operations and inputs was developed to translate micro-farm operations into the economics of the analog farms. A second model linking micro-farm operations and inputs to energy use on full-size analog farms was completed by Richard Olson who designed the curriculum and supervised the program. Extension activities included the production of a brochure describing the intern program, fliers summarizing planting decisions for each micro-farm, and the inclusion of the micro-farms in several farmer and faculty tours. A book that includes the entire curriculum is forthcoming, and technical articles will report the results of the comparative evaluation of the five farming systems.

Project Objectives:

• Design and implement a one-year undergraduate internship in comparative farming systems that emphasizes hands-on experience in developing and implementing a management plan for a small-scale farm.

• Develop a research/demonstration model for comparing the productivity, economics, energy use, and environmental impacts of five alternative farming systems for eastern Nebraska.

• Establish baseline soil and crop monitoring to allow evaluation of trends and relative condition of the five farming systems.

• Derive a series of alternative management strategies, educational and extension materials, and teaching tours of the farms for students, farmers, and the general public.

Research

Materials and methods:

Land was identified at the nearby experiment station and cooperative operating agreements established with the Departments of Forestry, Fisheries, and Wildlife, Agronomy, Animal Science, and Horticulture. Five micro-farms ranging from 11 to 20 acres were established by student interns at the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center (ARDC) near Mead, Nebraska. The micro-farms had different systems: conventional corn/soybean rotation; diversified conventional crop rotation ; agroforestry with row crops and woody perennials; organic row crop rotation; and forage-based beef production. Each system had a series of key guidelines within which it would operate. For example, all farms had to use best management practices and minimize the use of purchased inputs wherever possible. The organic farm had to use only those inputs allowed by organic certification groups. The micro-farm project was closely integrated with the Forestry research infrastructure to allow sharing of equipment and other resources. Three full-time forestry farmer-technicians played a key role in teaching practical aspects of farming to the interns. Two full-time farmers in the area served as mentors for the interns and provided reality checks as they helped in the classroom, reviewed micro-farm plans, and hosted the interns for tours and work days on their farms. Although a few small equipment items were purchased, the project depended primarily on the equipment available from Forestry and nearby departments.

Students did the initial soil sampling in the micro-farm fields, received results from the soil testing laboratory, and interpreted them according to Extension recommendations. Five types of farms were allocated to the available areas, and students prepared farming plans for the first season that were part of a ten-year plan for each system and farm. These were developed in the spring semester with the help of visiting professors, farmers, and other resource people within the university system. With the help and guidance of university technicians, faculty, and farmers, the students implemented each of the systems on their farms and kept careful records of all inputs and field observations through the cropping season. After harvest, they analyzed the results and did economic assessment of system performance. Each student also chose a specific research topic and planned field activities with a faculty member to accomplish this research. This part of the program provided some quality one-on-one time with faculty and field technicians to give students a better understanding and some practical experience in field research.

Richard Olson designed the curriculum, wrote the exercises, provided the specific steps and learning activities, all planned to help students meet well defined and precise learning objectives for the program. He used several methods for evaluating student learning, including self-evaluation, numerical rating schemes, and faculty observation and interview of students. A number of field tours were held where students described the project and the performance of their own systems.

Research results and discussion:

The first class of four students completed the spring and summer terms of their internships. A spring term curriculum was developed consisting of general readings and discussions of sustainability combined with instruction in specific agronomic techniques and development of micro-farm management plans. In addition to micro-farm operations and working with the mentors, summer term activities included participation in agricultural research at ARDC and tours of research and education programs such as the Konza Prairie near Manhattan and The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. They also visited farms of the program mentors, gaining practical orientation about the application of practices and systems under real-world farming conditions. Two students completed the fall curriculum focused on synthesis of farm data and evaluation of the relative performance of the five farming systems. The second year had seven students through the spring and summer season, and two of them completed the fall semester.

An economic model was developed for use by the interns to extrapolate micro-farm operations and management decisions to full-size analogs. A rule-based model linked to published data on time requirements and costs of field operations and inputs was developed to translate micro-farm operations into the economics of the analog farms. A second model linking micro-farm operations and inputs to energy use on full-size analog farms was completed by Richard Olson who designed the curriculum and supervised the program. The curriculum will be assembled, published, and made available to other instructors with interest in the internship learning process. Results of the economic, production, and energy analyses will also be published.

Results from the students’ individual research projects were reported by them to the course instructors. The quality of these reports was highly variable, and several were asked to re-write their reports in more detail.

Research conclusions:

There is little doubt that the student interns who completed the program reaped substantial benefits from the planning and field implementation aspects. They have graduated and moved on to positions in crop scouting, agricultural banking, and graduate study. Those who completed just the spring planning and the summer field sections of the work certainly gained from the rigor and thoroughness of the classroom and field exercises. It was disappointing to the instructors that so many students dropped out of the year-long course without completing all the learning objectives. Additional contributions of the project were the cooperative working relationships that were established among key people interested in experiential education in several departments on campus. We were gratified by the time and energy offered by faculty in response to our requests for visiting speakers, field visits, or discussions of production technologies with individual students. This suggests that a well-organized and financed program of whole-farm systems planning and experiential field implementation would be well received and supported by a number of faculty members.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Extension activities included the production of a brochure describing the intern program, fliers summarizing planting decisions for each micro-farm, and the inclusion of the micro-farms in several farmer and faculty tours. The detailed curriculum for the intern course will be published through the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems and made available to educators. An overview of the educational process was reported in a poster session at the annual meetings of the American Society of Agronomy (Olson, R.K., and C.A. Francis. 1996. “Student internships in farming systems.” Agron. Abstr. p. 3). The program was also reported in a newsletter article (Francis, C., and R. Olson. 1996. “Intern program begins second year.” Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems Newsletter, Jan-Feb, p. 3). The Lincoln newspaper carried a feature story with photos of the interns working on their various micro-farms in the field (“Interns work in chosen fields,” Lincoln Journal-Star, July 7, 1996).

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.