Yesterday's Research for Tomorrow's Needs

Final Report for LNC97-123

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $63,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $29,228.00
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Rhonda Janke
Kansas State University
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Project Information


The objective of this project was to systematically collect, select and compile the early literature on farming systems for sustainable agriculture, for easy access by farmers, extension specialists, and scientists, both in paper copy and electronically, in a search-able database. Paper copies of all extension bulletins published by KSU, beginning in the year 1888, were collected and cataloged. The 2,324 titles were reviewed by 10 subject matter specialists, consisting of five farmers, and five KSU agronomists. Reviewers were asked to identify publications that (1) pertained to sustainable ag, and (2) contained information that could be used in modern farming. About 177 seemed to pertain to sustainable ag, and 68 of these were particularly relevant to today’s farming practices. These were then reviewed, and summarized in four publications, and made available on the KSU library’s information services website; The summary publications contain hotlinks to scanned copies of the actual historic bulletins, which can be read in their entirety. Paper copies are available by contacting the library. Additional documents, not necessarily pertaining to sustainable ag, can be found at

Project Objectives:

The objective of this project was “to systematically collect, select and compile the early literature on farming systems for sustainable agriculture, for easy access by farmers, extension specialists, and scientists, both in paper copy and electronically, in a searchable database.” Additional goals of this project were to identify research gaps that could be addressed in the future by the scientific community, and to describe this process for others who might want to review the historic literature in their state or region.


Materials and methods:

In the original plan of work, a team of subject matter specialists, made up of five extension agronomy staff, five farm couples, and one Kansas Rural Center staff person were prepared to sift through Kansas State University bulletins published before the 1950s, and to come up with either a cataloging system for identifying key publications that are relevant to sustainable ag today, and/or to reprint the best 10, 20, or 30 publications, and make them more widely available. At the time, George Brandsberg, KSU Communications Dept, was beginning to scan in historical bulletins for a web-site and CD ROM. We were interested in creating a catalog, and searchable database, of those historical publications having relevance to sustainable agriculture, and generally, to make those bulletins that contained valuable information more accessible to the public. A subset of the team met several times, in person, and via conference calls, to develop an approach or strategy. Hans Kok was project leader at the time that this work was initiated.

Mukti Bajaj, already a staff person in Information Support Services at the KSU library, was hired part-time on this grant to organize, and maintain file copies of all the general bulletins, technical bulletins, and circulars, and to compile feedback from the subject matter specialists. A master list of all of the publications (dating back to 1888) was sent to each of the subject matter specialists. They were asked to first scan titles, and then actual full copies of publications, and determine: (1) Is the information related to sustainable agriculture? (2) Could the information be used today? (3) Should it be included in the final output of this project? These responses were entered into a large database program, and reviewers were sent copies of bulletins and circulars to review in more detail.

At this point in the project, we realized that there were a total of 2,324 publications in our master list of historical documents, and that from reading the titles, 447 could be relevant to sustainable agriculture. Of these, reviewers were evaluating 317 of them, and had rated 177 as relevant to sustainable agriculture, and of those, 68 had information that could be used today. Of these, 54 were recommended for digitizing, and 18 had some information of value, but would require re-writing, or some sort of contemporary interpretive guide (see annual report, December 1, 1998). At this point, a poster presentation was given at the national Agronomy Society Meetings (October 1998), to let others in the field know about our work.

Following these evaluations and presentations, Hans Kok accepted another position, and left KSU, and Rhonda Janke became the project leader. Soon after, Mukti Bajaj also accepted another position and moved out of state. After conferring with the subject matter specialists originally enrolled to help with the project, we realized that the original, straight-forward plan of simply screening these publications down into a “top 20” or “top 40” list was not as easy as we thought, as there were several publications that came close, but could not be recommended to today’s farmers due to a “mixed message.” For example, a publication on apple orchards in Kansas recommended vetch and other cover crops for soil building, but also recommended arsenic and other toxins that are not used now (especially by sustainable ag farmers) for insect pest control. A serious re-thinking of this project began.

Lessons learned from this early phase of historical bulletin evaluation include:

• Many of the good crop rotation studies are not found in publications with the word “rotation” in the title, and thus one of our original ideas of using key-word/title searches to identify good bulletins was not going to work. Most of the rotation work was buried in publications called “Experiments with Wheat” or simply “Corn.”

• Many early publications on legumes and forages exist, including the second general bulletin ever published by KSU, titled “Experience with Cultivated Grasses and Clovers,” from 1888. However, most of these forages were used as animal fodder, not for soil building, and a surprising amount of “product research” was under way, even in the late 1800s and early 1900s regarding minerals and manufactured fertilizers as soil supplements. However, interesting information was gleaned on historical success with some legumes that have been recently been “re-discovered” in Kansas as cover crops, such as cowpeas.

• Several bulletins included some good advice on non-chemical control of weeds and insects, and described the biology and ecology of the pests. However, this advice was mixed in with recommendations for chemicals that are no longer legal, and it would put KSU in an awkward position if we reprinted these bulletins in their entirety, without some explanation or interpretation.

• There were very few bulletins that merited reprinting in their original form, in their entirety. For example, the wheat rotation studies were mixed in with wheat variety trials that would be relatively meaningless today, as these varieties are no longer available. Many bulletins had interesting “nuggets,” but the general public, or sustainable ag farming population, might not want to wade through 20 or 40 of these, just to get the nuggets.

• Even simply trying to organize the entire database, and attaching codes, either through the use of attached key words, or through the use of “metatags” imbedded into websites, appeared to be a difficult prospect. Even though some publications obviously had some relevance to sustainable ag, and some didn’t, most fell in a sort of grey area, that some reviewers might have called one way, and others the other. Again, using key-word searches, and having the entire publication available would make them more accessible to the public, but would they wade through them?

Finally, after requesting two no-cost extensions, and conferring with team members, we decided that rather than try to attach meaningful key words to 2,324 historical publications, or even 117, we would identify clusters of publications, that when combined, would have enough meaningful information for a sustainable ag farmer. These would be reviewed, cited, and also made available, either in print or scanned form. Lisa French, Kansas Rural Center staff member, and farmer, agreed to develop summaries from these bulletin clusters. Donna Schenck-Hamlin, of the Information Support Services for Agriculture, agreed to develop the website. At the initiation of this project (1997) websites were being developed, but the primary extension outreach tool was the printed bulletin. By the time this project finished in 2001, the opposite was true, and most farmers are using the web on a regular basis. Many of KSU’s extension publications are now web-only, and so we decided to go this route with our material.

We felt that in Kansas, there was enough good information to write about at least four topics: (1) cover crops, (2) soil quality/management, (3) non-chemical pest management, and (4) alternative crops, high value crops (fruits and vegetables), and agroforestry. There was also a lot of information in the bulletins relating to animal science, and agricultural economics, but this information seemed to be much more “dated,” or less relevant to today’s farmers than the other four cluster topics. Even though crop rotation had been included in the discussion of many of the crop variety trial bulletins, there didn’t seem to be a critical mass of research specifically on this topic, exploring different rotation sequences, for example. Other topics had much more than a critical mass of research; for example one could write a book based on the number of bulletins published on bindweed, and grasshoppers in Kansas! We weren’t sure we would have an enthusiastic audience for that limited, though still relevant topic, however.

In Summary, Lisa French took home four boxes of publications, one for each topic, and wrote four very informative, easy to read, interesting summaries based on the four cluster topics. Donna was able to put Lisa’s summaries onto the library’s website, and put in hot-links to the actual scanned historical document, each time it is cited in Lisa’s summary. George Brandsberg had scanned in many of them in the course of his work in the Communications Dept., and Donna and her employees scanned in many more exclusively for this project. Though the cost of this project may seem high, given that it is library research, rather than field research, the effort was extremely labor intensive, and could not have been accomplished without SARE support.

Research results and discussion:

Some of the anticipated results of this project, such as a CDROM version of the database, did not materialize. We also anticipated compiling a document that identified future sustainable agriculture research needs based on gaps in the historical literature. This output/outcome became more absurd, as we found that within any given state’s research program, there will probably be more gaps than research. Also, in the past 5-10 years, new avenues of research have opened up in sustainable ag, such as working with marketing and CSAs, food quality and safety, herbs, compost and compost tea, etc., many of which are new, and not linked to the historical work at all. That said, some of us working on this project did take the information we were gleaning to the “work teams” that made up the K-State Research and Extension planning for the 5-year plan that began in 1998, and so some of the information, including gaps, was communicated to colleagues in the context of planning.

A manual describing this process also has not been developed. This report can serve as a document for someone thinking about doing a similar project, and will illustrate some of the pitfalls of mining the historical literature for sustainable ag information, and at least one way to glean something useful out of what is there.

Research conclusions:

Too soon to tell. Outreach on this project is just beginning, and this project was never intended to change specific practice “a” to practice “b.” The overall benefit of this project is to let people know that sustainable agriculture has been around for a long time, and some of the practices used and promoted now are validated by examining the historical research.

Farmer Adoption

Involvement of Other Audiences

An important audience and also participant in this project has been staff on our own campus. Both the library staff and the communications department staff have become more aware of the importance of sustainable agriculture through working on this project. Perhaps more attention is now paid to articles they read in the popular press about sustainable ag, and more books and journals are ordered for the library. One specific example is an invitation to give a guest lecture at the library luncheon “Frankenstein” series this past fall. The PI, Rhonda Janke, was asked to address current issues in agriculture from a sustainable ag perspective, especially the “Frankenfoods” debate. The title of her seminar was simply “Scary things in agriculture.” The library staff attending the lecture were very interested in the topic, and supportive of our efforts in sustainable ag.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Publications at this point are limited to the website, which includes the source documents and the full text of the literature summaries (author: Lisa French).

I. Agroforestry and High Value Crops: A summary from KSU circulars and bulletins 1908-1956.
II. Cover Crops: A summary from KSU circulars and bulletins 1908-1956.
III. Agronomic Weed and Pest Management; A summary from KSU circulars and bulletins 1908-1956.
IV. Soil Management: A summary from KSU circulars and bulletins 1908-1956.

A press release was written in November 2002, and was included in Jana Beckman’s “Overview of Selected SARE Projects in Kansas,” published by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops. More publicity and outreach needs to be done at this point, as we feel that this is a valuable resource, not just for Kansas farmers, but farmers and researchers throughout the country with an interest in sustainable farming practices from an historical perspective.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Areas for future work include conducting similar projects in other states or regions. Perhaps regional publications on soil quality, cover crops, or other topics could be created from combining pools of historical literature. I don’t know that I would recommend going back and re-reading every publication that was ever printed, since some really aren’t worth reading. I also believe that this is not a topic for an intern, or someone not familiar with agriculture or sustainable agriculture to take on. Even those of us in this field for many years were scratching our heads over some of the material, wondering if it was worth re-printing or not.

A more useful approach might be for someone with both an ag background and some historical training to write a book, or series of short books, by “mining” these publications, and providing a new interpretation. Topics not covered in our project that might be useful could be “the history of the cooperative movement in the Midwest,” and most of the animal science/husbandry methods. Our team was made up of primary agronomists, horticulturalists, and crop/livestock farmers, but none of us felt able to take on these topics. The role of the ag universities over the years, and how their research is helping/not helping sustainable ag. would be another topic of interest.

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.