Final Report for LNC97-112

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $100,405.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $100,405.00
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Dale Mutch
Michigan State University Extension
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Project Information

Summary:

[Note to online version: The report for this project includes graphic figures that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or ncrsare@unl.edu.]

We invited farmers, researchers and MSU Extension personnel to participate in teams to develop a research agenda that directly addresses farmer needs, and to participate in extension programs. The team designed a cropping system study to investigate soil quality and weed community changes during transition to low-input and organic systems. We have begun transition of 8 acres of research ground to organic. Four farmers spoke to an audience of farmers about cover crops in a program at KBS. We organized a train-the-trainer program (18 agency participants) and four regional programs (213 participants) in field crop ecology.

Objectives:
1. Establish a farmer-driven design team for researching organic farming systems at MSU/KBS for Southwest Michigan.
2. Establish a farmer-driven design team for researching low-input farming systems at MSU/KBS for Southwest Michigan.
3. Evaluate the feasibility of growing organic corn without animal manure.
4. Disseminate information and facilitate distance learning with electronic communications technology.
5. Host a statewide “Farmer to Farmer” program focusing on cover crops at MSU/KBS and three other regional alternative agriculture programs.

Methods/Approach: Our methodology has been to involve farmers directly in research decision-making processes and extension activities. Project goals are to develop a research agenda that directly addresses farmer needs, encourage collaboration among farmers and researchers, and provide a forum where farmers can learn from other farmers. We invited farmers, researchers and MSU Extension personnel to participate in two research design teams. Design team members participated in a “Farmer to Farmer� extension program and four field crop ecology programs.

Results: At design team meetings we discussed the farmer’s research needs. The dominant topics that emerged in both the low-input and organic team discussions were whole-system weed management, soil quality, and a whole-system approach to research. To address some of these issues, the design teams developed protocols for a cropping system comparison to investigate changes during transition to organic and low-input field crop systems. We are measuring aspects of soil quality, including wet aggregate stability, bulk density, particulate organic matter, and soil microarthropods, and changes in the weed community over time. Economic analysis will include labor and energy costs. In addition to the rotation study, we have three plots (8 acres) in transition to organic. We have submitted our application to the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA). We’ve been inspected twice, and certification is pending.

KBS hosted a statewide “Farmer to Farmer� program in February 1998, entitled “Can you use cover crops? Straight talk from the farm down the road.� Four farmers spoke to an audience of farmers about their farming systems. In a collaborative effort with another SARE PDP project, we hosted a “train the trainer� program in Michigan Field Crop Ecology for seven NRCS, nine MSU Extension and 2 Michigan Department of Agriculture employees. The participants of this program planned four one-day regional Michigan Field Crop Ecology programs that took place in January 1999, for 213 participants, including 92 agency employees.

Impacts and Potential contributions: The insight and guidance offered by the design teams has changed our research, especially by enabling us to do organic research. Having research ground in transition to organic certification is unprecedented at MSU.

The field crop ecology programs exposed 18 agency personnel and 213 other participants across Michigan, to an ecological way of thinking about agriculture. The resulting dialogue is a necessary first step in making the paradigm shift from the conventional industrial model to an alternative ecological model of agriculture.

Project Objectives:

1. Establish a farmer-driven design team for researching organic farming systems at MSU/KBS for Southwest Michigan.

2. Establish a farmer-driven design team for researching low-input farming systems at MSU/KBS for Southwest Michigan.

3. Evaluate the feasibility of growing organic corn without animal manure.

4. Disseminate information and facilitate distance learning with electronic communications technology.

5. Host a statewide “Farmer to Farmer� program focusing on cover crops at MSU/KBS, and three regional programs on alternative agriculture.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dale Mutch

Research

Materials and methods:

Our methodology has been to involve farmers directly in research decision-making processes and extension activities. Project goals are to develop a research agenda that directly addresses farmer needs, encourage collaboration among farmers and researchers, and provide a forum where farmers can learn from other farmers.

Objectives 1 and 2: (Establish farmer-driven design teams for researching low-input and organic farming systems at MSU/KBS for Southwest Michigan.) We invited farmers, researchers and Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) personnel to participate in research design teams. During winter and spring 1998 we held two meetings, each of the organic and low-input design teams. In August 1998, we had a field day at KBS where the two teams met together. In 1999 we had one meeting, each of the design teams in February, and another field day in August. For the winter meetings we selected locations that were centrally located for the farmer participants, and would be perceived as neutral or friendly atmospheres for the farmers. The low-input meetings were held at a Soil Conservation District office, and the organic team meetings were held at Fogg’s Organic Market. Bob Fogg, one of our team members, and his wife JoAnn run an organic market with a large meeting room. Development of that facility was partially supported by a SARE PDP grant in 1996. The meetings were a full day of work, from 8:45 to 4:30 with lunch catered. Farmers were compensated with an honorarium of $200 plus mileage for each meeting. University and extension personnel covered their own expenses.

We tried to ensure that the farmers felt comfortable and knew their ideas were valued, because they are not accustomed to being asked for opinions by researchers. To further encourage farmer participation and increase their comfort with the project, we visited all the farms at some point during the first year. All five cooperators in the low-input team, have collaborated with the KBS Cover Crops Program in on-farm research. Three of the organic cooperators have worked with one or both of the project coordinators on various projects.

We took some time at the beginning of the first meetings to get to know one another. We asked each collaborator to tell a humorous or embarrassing story about themselves, with the project coordinators leading off. Each participant had received three discussion questions before the meeting:
1. What are some of your biggest questions about your farming operation?
2. What are some problems or questions that have arisen when you’ve tried to adopt a new practice?
3. What are some ideas you’ve heard of from other parts of the state, country or world that you would be interested in trying?
We spent the morning discussing these questions, and in the afternoon sorting questions and ideas into categories of research.

In the second meetings we returned to topics generated in the first meeting to design research protocols. The principal item was to design a cropping system study to investigate changes during transition to low-input and organic field crop systems.

The August 1998 field day was the first time the two teams met together. As an icebreaker and team building exercise, we arranged small groups of organic farmers, low-input farmers and researchers, to assess soil quality in the research plots by digging a hole and using the USDA Maryland Soil Quality Assessment Book. This also served to initiate discussion of soil quality research protocols. The objective of this meeting was to evaluate farm management sampling protocols for the transition study.

The August 1999 field day was the last meeting of the project. We brought Dan French, a farmer from Minnesota to the meeting to speak with our design teams, to stimulate discussion about where they could go from here in influencing the Land Grant University research agenda.

Objective 3: (Evaluate the feasibility of growing organic corn without animal manure.) Mike Parlin, the farmer cooperator for this part of the project is a member of the organic design team. We chose to address this objective within the cropping system transition study rather than do on-farm research with the Parlins. We have consulted with them on their operation and benefited from their experience in managing the transition study.

Objective 4: (Electronic communications technology.) Distance learning technology was employed to deliver a Michigan Field Crop Ecology Training program, to four locations in Michigan (see Objective 5).

Objective 5: (“Farmer to Farmerâ€? and regional alternative agriculture programs.) Four farmers were invited to speak to farmers at a program about cover crops: “Can you use cover crops? Straight talk from the farm down the road.”

We combined efforts with a NC SARE PDP project (ENC 96-017 “In-Service Training in Sustainable Agriculture and Agricultural Ecology for NRCS Personnel and Partners,” 3/96-2/99, project coordinator, Larry Dyer) to provide training programs in Michigan Field Crop Ecology. A “train the trainerâ€? program was conducted in September and October of 1999 for MSU Extension (MSUE), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) personnel. The participants of this program planned four one-day regional Michigan Field Crop Ecology programs, for agency personnel and innovative farmer leaders in communities across the state. One of these programs used distance-learning technology to reach out to four more distant communities. The programs included presentations by MSU specialists, design team member Dr. Gary Manley, and a local farmer at each site. There was also a period of small group discussion followed by feedback for the researchers. Dr. Larry Dyer, project manager on this project, took the lead in organizing the Michigan field Crop Ecology programs.

Research results and discussion:

Objectives 1-3: The dominant themes that emerged in design team discussions of research needs were very similar in both the low-input and organic teams. Weed management was a major concern, and both teams were interested in weed management from a whole system perspective. The low-input team especially was interested in diversifying their rotations with new crops. Both teams stressed the importance of systems-level research because the cropping system is an integrated whole, and something is always lost when you try to divide it into parts for research. When asked what we should measure or monitor in cropping system research, measures of soil health or quality were considered fundamental. The low-input team thought we should develop a soil quality or soil health index that would include indicators of soil biological activity. One design team member, Dr. Gary Manley has conducted research on his farm into the effects of cover crops on soil arthropods. That research has been funded by Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Association grants and a SARE producer grant.

We combined several areas of interest into a cropping system study. We wanted to know what changes in soil quality would occur during transition to organic to assist farmers in transition. The low-input team also wanted to know if improvements in soil quality expected for an organic system could be achieved in a low input system. The KBS cover crops program had begun a crop rotation study in 1995 comparing a corn-corn-soybean-wheat rotation with conventional levels of chemical inputs to a low-input system with cover crops and reduced herbicide levels. In Spring 1998 we began transition of the conventional system to low-input, and the low-input system to organic. The design teams created the farming protocols for these systems.

The low-input team kept the corn-corn-soybean-wheat rotation, reduced the herbicide inputs to 10-inch bands over the rows, and added cover crops to the corn and wheat. The organic team changed the rotation to a four-year corn-soybean-wheat-clover rotation with cover crops in the corn and wheat. For comparison we added a conventional corn-soybean rotation without cover crops.

Larry Dyer and Michel Cavigelli, Project coordinators at KBS, reviewed soil quality/health protocols during the 1998 season, including several soil health score cards and the USDA Soil Quality Test Kit, and discussed with the teams which parameters they thought would be the best indicators. The design teams were most interested in measurements of biological activity in soil. The measurements we’ve selected integrate the effects of biological activity: wet aggregate stability, bulk density, particulate organic matter, and soil microarthropods. Standard soil testing will also be done. We will also monitor changes in the weed community during transition. An economic analysis of those systems will include labor and energy costs.

Corn yields for 1998 showed no differences between conventional, 2nd year low-input and organic corn, but 1st year low-input corn was significantly lower than 2nd year low-input or conventional (Figure 1). The 1st year low-input corn was no-tilled into clover and wheat stubble, and it may have suffered more than the other treatments from the droughty conditions of 1998.

There were no significant differences among corn yields in 1999. There was no yield difference among low-input, conventional and organic soybeans in 1998 (Figure 2). In 1999 organic soybeans outyielded both conventional and low-input soybeans. Organic wheat yielded lower than low-input wheat in both 1998 and 1999 (Figure 3).

In 1998, organic corn had a higher nitrogen credit in the pre-sidedress nitrate test (Figure 4). The plots in transition to organic had been in a low-input rotation with cover crops since 1995, which might explain such a difference detected early in the transition process. In 1999, however, there were no significant differences in nitrogen credits among corn treatments. If anything, the conventional and 1st year low-input corn may have had higher nitrogen credits. This could be due to the exceptionally dry year in 1999, which could have left unused nitrate in the soil profile, and the cool spring of 2000 which would have slowed decomposition and nitrogen mineralization in the organic soils depending on organic matter decomposition for nitrogen.

Soil quality sampling was first done in April 1999 and was repeated April 2000. Processing and analysis of the year 2000 samples is in progress so we cannot make comparisons between years. Comparison of treatments for soil quality parameters for 1999, for example water-stable soil aggregates (Figure 5) yielded differences, but no clear patterns. We really don’t expect to see much difference between years or among treatments in this short time frame.

This project participated in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program (REU) by hosting a research intern from Oberlin College. Her research project was to compare Collembola, a group of soil detritus feeding insects and an important part of soil nutrient cycles, among the conventional, low-input and organic soybeans. This was a very dry season and numbers of Collembola were very low, but the organic soybeans had significantly more Collembola (Figure 5).

The organic design team served as consultants to advise the transition to organic of three research plots (8 acres) at KBS. Susan Houghton, Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) inspector for southwest Michigan has joined our design team. Our plots have been inspected and our application has been submitted to OCIA. One plot has been granted transitional status, and certification is pending. We need certified organic ground to be able to do truly organic research. In 1999, two of the transitional fields were planted to trials of food-grade soybean and open-pollinated corn varieties. In 2000, the open pollinated corn variety trial is being repeated in one plot. In the plot with transitional status we are studying a system using spring-planted cereal rye in soybeans for weed control. This system originated with a farmer in Gratiot County, Michigan, who had planted high densities of soybean and rye as a cover crop, then decided the soybeans looked good enough to harvest. He had such success with the system that farmers around the state are repeating it, and we are doing a more analytical experiment of the system here at KBS. This is a good example of the truly farmer-driven research we intend to do at KBS.

Objectives 4 – 5: Kellogg Biological Station hosted a statewide “Farmer to Farmer” program on February 19, 1998, entitled “Can you use cover crops? Straight talk from the farm down the road.” Four farmers spoke of aspects of their farming systems. Henry Miller, a specialty crops grower from southwest Michigan and Wendel Miller, a dairy producer from the upper peninsula of Michigan spoke of their SARE-funded project to study the use of cover crops on Henry’s farm as forage for livestock from Wendel’s farm. Gary Manley spoke of another SARE-funded project to study the influence of cover crops on soil arthropods. John Simmons talked about his transition to organic agriculture. The last part of the Farmer to Farmer program was a discussion of how the farmer participants like to receive information. They stressed the importance of learning from each other and seeing new practices on farms. One important comment from a farmer was to take full advantage of the ‘multiplier effect’ of a small number of farmers who attend meetings like Farmer to Farmer passing information on to friends and neighbors.

We combined our efforts for objective 5, to provide programs in alternative agriculture, with a SARE PDP project to conduct training in field crop ecology for MSU Extension (MSUE), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA). A Michigan Field Crop Ecology ‘train the trainer’ program was conducted in September and October of 1999. The program was an initial two-days, with another follow-up session. Participants were 7 NRCS, 9 MSUE and 2 MDA employees.

The participants of this program planned four day-long regional Michigan Field Crop Ecology programs that took place in January 1999. Three of the programs were conducted in different regions of Michigan. The fourth program was staged on the Michigan State University Campus and used distance-learning technology to reach out to four more distant communities. The programs served 213 participants, including 92 agency employees. One objective of these programs was to initiate study circles and farmer networks across the state in which interested farmers and agency personnel can learn from each other about an ecological approach to agriculture. This objective originated with participants in the ‘train the trainer’ program, and they were encouraged to take the lead in organizing study circles.

Research conclusions:

An important goal of this project was to change our research here at KBS. The insight and guidance offered by the design team has enabled us to begin doing organic research. Having research ground in transition to organic certification is unprecedented at Michigan State University. Farmers and Extension agents around the state are beginning to see KBS as a resource they can turn to with questions about organic systems. The farmer initiative around soybeans with a cereal rye cover crop is evidence of that.

The farm managers at Kellogg Biological Station attended most of the design team meetings, and have indicated that they learned from the farmers. They have taken an interest in using cover crops in their cropping systems, and are very supportive of our efforts in organic and low-input resarch.

The Field Crop Ecology Programs were organized around Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-2646, Michigan Field Crop Ecology (Cavigelli et al. 1998). These programs created exposure to over 200 people of a different way of thinking about agriculture. The reactions of participants to the material presented in those programs identified a need for further information, and lead to the production of MSU Extension Bulletin E-2704, Michigan Field Crop Pest Ecology and Management (Cavigelli et al. 2000). Training based on this publication will begin in Winter 2000-2001.

The KBS cover crops program extended an invitation to design team members to attend the 1998 SARE conference in Austin, Texas. One farmer, Bob Kline, was able to accept the invitation and went with the KBS group to the meeting. Mr. Kline is a large seed corn grower in St. Joseph County, Michigan. He is very interested in farming in a sustainable way, hence his involvement in the design teams, but he had very little exposure to the ‘sustainable agriculture movement,’ so the SARE conference was a learning experience for him. As a leader in the farming community of southwest Michigan, that experience will no doubt have ripple effects.

Involvement of Other Audiences:

Henry Miller and Larry Dyer did a joint presentation at the MSU Agriculture and Natural Resources Week session on sustainable agriculture, March 12, 1998. The theme of the sustainable agriculture program was farmer-researcher collaboration. Miller and Dyer looked at the Miller farm as an integrated system from the perspectives of farmer and ecologist.

A poster of the cropping system transition study was presented at the Agronomy Society of America meetings in 1999 (Dyer et al. 1999), and at the Michigan State Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN) 2000 Sustainable Agriculture Research Symposium (Dyer et al. 2000).

Larry Dyer also assisted Henry Miller and Wendell Miller in preparation of an oral presentation for the MSAN 2000 Sustainable Agriculture Research Symposium (Miller and Miller 2000).

Four design team farmers, Henry Miller, Eldon Christophel, Gene Ford and Bob Fogg, and Larry Dyer attended a program organized by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan: ‘A Life-cycle Approach to Sustainable Agriculture Indicators,’ February 26-27, 1999. The meeting was dominated by academic and agency personnel, and the farmer participants were crucial in providing a realistic perspective for the meeting.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:
Information Products and Outreach

The information products listed below have all been cited in the text. Several other publications are pending. We have learned a great deal from our meetings with the design teams, and they have strongly influenced our research program, however, we think it is important to find a larger audience for what we have learned. We will be conducting a formal interview with each of our design team farmers and researchers to form the basis of a publication that can be distributed to the research community at MSU and beyond.

We will be summarizing the first two years of data from the cropping systems trial for publication. That will at least be a description of the cropping systems with a comparison of yields and economics. We will also present data on soil quality, soil microarthropods and weeds. If treatment differences are not substantial enough to warrant stand-alone publications for those areas the data will be included in the cropping systems report.

Publications

Cavigelli, M. A., S. R. Deming, L. K. Probyn and D. R. Mutch (eds.). 2000. Michigan Field Crop Pest Ecology and Management. Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-2704, 108 pp.

Cavigelli, M. A., S. R. Deming, L. K. Probyn and R. R. Harwood (eds.). 1998. Michigan Field Crop Ecology: Managing biological processes for productivity and environmental quality. Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-2646, 92 pp.

Henry Miller and Wendell Miller. 2000. Developing Partnerships between southern Michigan cash crop farmers and northern Michigan livestock farmers. Michigan State Sustainable Agriculture Network 2000 Research Symposium on Sustainable Food & Agricultural Systems, March 22, 2000, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. (see Attachment 1)

Mutch, D., T. Martin, L. Dyer. 1998. Incorporating cover crops into field crop systems in Michigan. Poster, SARE Conference, Building on a Decade of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, March 5-7, 1998, Austin, Texas.

Dyer, L. E., M. A. Cavigelli, T. E. Martin and D. R. Mutch. 1999. Soil quality in a farmer-designed cropping systems trial. Poster, Agronomy Society of America Annual Meeting, 1 Oct B 4 Nov 99, Salt Lake City, UT. (see Attachment 2)

Dyer, L. E., M. A. Cavigelli, T. E. Martin and D. R. Mutch. 1999. Soil quality in a farmer-designed cropping systems trial. Poster, Michigan State Sustainable Agriculture Network 2000 Research Symposium on Sustainable Food & Agricultural Systems, March 22, 2000, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. (see Attachment 3)

Harwood, R., D. R. Mutch, J. Sanchez, J. Boles, L. E. Dyer, M. A. Cavigelli. 1999. Using production ecology as an organizing framework for research and extension. Poster, Agronomy Society of America Annual Meeting, 1 Oct – 4 Nov 99, Salt Lake City, UT.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

We feel there is a need for a better forum for farmers to discuss their research and information needs, and make those needs a more prominent part of the Land Grant University research agenda. Our experience with this project was that it is very difficult for farmers to sit in a meeting and tell researchers what their information needs are. We have much more success at identifying researchable questions while visiting farms and talking with farmers about specific operations. In this way we can generate far more research questions than we are able to address. We have not found an effective way to communicate those research questions to a larger community of researchers. We think a more effective approach than bringing farmers in to talk with researchers would be to take researchers out to visit farms. This will be the central theme of a future KBS-based training effort.

The design teams expressed a need for systems-level research. The cropping system study designed with their input is an effort in that direction, but it seems in many regards inadequate. Our research plots are still not complete farming systems. A research methodology needs to be developed to address research questions in the context of actual farming systems. In addition, farmers are looking for guidance in implementing the ecologically integrated farming systems we spoke of in our field crop ecology workshops. Given the nature of an ecological approach, we will never have the sort of “recipes” that have served as the basis of the conventional industrial approach to agriculture.

We have submitted a preproposal for NC SARE 2001 Research and Education grants to apply the concepts of ecosystem management, being developed for managing public lands, to farming system research and management. An ecosystem management process could provide the systems-level context for agricultural research and a holistic, scientific process for whole-farm management.

Some of the characteristics that make ecosystem management suitable for managing public lands are also applicable to farming systems. The system must be managed to achieve measurable economic, environmental and social goals. At the same time, ecosystem integrity must be maintained so ecosystem functioning and the ability to provide ecosystem services is not compromised. Sustainability is a precondition, so practices that deplete the system are unacceptable. An essential EM element is adaptive management. Ecosystems are dynamic and our knowledge of them is incomplete and constantly changing. Because of the uncertainty of natural and human processes, management must be adaptable. In an EM process management decisions are treated as hypotheses with specific, predicted outcomes. These hypotheses are tested by monitoring the outcomes of management practices. This process can help farmers better understand the ecology of their farming systems and accelerate the adoption of ecologically based, sustainable farming practices.

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.