This grant was used to develop and facilitate farmer research groups. An array of activities was used to mobilize and bring each of the groups together. Eight groups were formed initially, and five implemented on-the-ground experiments. Each group met several times to define its objective, its research protocol, review results, and revise protocols. All groups came together at an annual meeting to exchange results. Farmers implemented the experiments individually on their farms. Excellent and original ideas were proposed and tested by four groups (minimizing losses of nutrients from stacks of manure, direct long-cut-vacuum-grass silage; yields of corn silage with hen manure). Useful data were generated by several groups, and data tended to prove farmers hypotheses, but on-farm replication was a challenge for some participants in some experiments. Funding was not found to continue the project. Developing groups can take over a year, but is a worthwhile investment. Membership in some groups was more dynamic than expected. Farmers enjoyed structured interaction with each other and with scientists around the questions developed by the farmers, their own field experiments and interpreting the results of the experiments. Scientists reaped follow-up topics and techniques for their own research activities.
Farmer Research Groups were developed to engage farmers in an efficient and effective learning and technology development process. Similar initiatives have been successful around the world. The goal of this project was to organize farmers into groups to perform research of their choice in a manner that was more rigorous than the farmers’ normal research. The research results would be more meaningful for the farmers and for the agricultural community. Most farmers perform experiments on their farms on a regular basis, but the research is not usually replicated or does it have proper controls or measurements. Farmers are keen observers of their farming systems and integrate the biological and economic factors of their operations into farm management decisions in a way that researchers cannot. We formed eight research groups with a total of about 40 farmers. Five of the groups, with 3 to 6 farmers in each group for a total of 22 farmers, progressed beyond the discussion stage and implemented experiments on their farms. The topics of the five groups were: 1) comparison of yields of corn where hen manure was applied compared with the yields where fertilizer was applied; 2) evaluation of a new soil test for nitrogen management in corn, the Amino Sugar Nitrogen Test; 3) evaluation of direct long-cut-vacuum-grass silage; 4) evaluation of a fish emulsion fertilizer as a nitrogen source in vegetables; 5) simple methods to minimize nutrient loss from stacks of dairy manure. These experiments were structured testing of scientists’ recommendations in the case of the hen manure group and the manure stacking group. Both of these groups wanted to test extension recommendations that hen manure should not be applied to corn unless the rates are low enough to minimize the accumulation of phosphorus in the soil, and that manure should not be stacked in fields over the winter. The results from the hen manure group showed that it was difficult to apply hen manure to corn fields without applying excess phosphorus and nitrogen, but that there probably was a yield advantage where hen manure was applied and extension recommendations should acknowledge the total cost of the restrictions on hen manure applications. The manure stacking group’s results clearly showed that large amounts of nutrients are lost from stacks of manure when left uncovered in the field over the winter. The treatments used to cover the stacks with easily obtainable low-nutrient-availability carbon sources such as leaves and wood chips, reduced the nutrient loss from the stacks by about two-thirds. Whether this reduction in nutrient loss is sufficient to minimize pollution to a level that would allow extension to recommend the practice of covering stacks is unknown at this time. A second objective of this project was to create a nonprofit organization for farmer-run research. We were unable to generate enough interest by farmers to create such an organization. We think that a farmer research organization in New England would be a useful addition to the agricultural community, but the interest among the farmers we worked with in Connecticut and Massachusetts was not sufficient to from such a group.
Performance Target 1. Functioning multi-farm farmer research groups generating scientifically valid results with demonstration trials and innovation trials.
Verifiers for Performance Target 1.
Verifier number 1. Four farmer-run research trials annually, each involving 3 to10 farmers. These groups will be formed from contact with 300 to 400 producers in southern New England.
We developed a total of eight multi-farm farmer research groups. Five of the groups implemented trials on their farms. One group conducted trials in 2001; four groups conducted trials in 2002; five in 2003; five in 2004, and two in 2005. The number of farmers in the groups varied from three to six.
Verifier number 2. At least 3 multi-farm farmer field research trials involving members of six groups of farmers who have expressed interest in forming research groups. The six groups of farmers who expressed interest and the topics each group was interested in are listed below:
Very Alive Farm Group of Connecticut: Soil testing and PSNT to reduce fertilizer P and N applications
Canaan Valley Manure Cooperative in Connecticut: manure application methods
NOFA-MA: Organic no-till systems
Small Farm Association of Massachusetts: Endo-parasite control in sheep
Central Massachusetts Dairy Producers Association: Use of PSNT in CNMP – planning manure applications.
Woodstock Farm Group in Connecticut: Using high plant populations as a tool to reduce excessive field nutrient levels in fields and to increase yields
Four of the groups helped initiate Farmer Research Groups by hosting introductory meetings for members. The four groups were: Very Alive, Canaan Valley Manure Coop, NOFA (MA and CT) and the Central Massachusetts Dairy Producers Association. The alternative fertilizer industry initiated one group to evaluate a fertilizer made from fish waste. The topics that the Groups developed into farmer-led multi-farm trials differed than those listed above. One group investigated an alternative to PSNT, the soil amino sugar N test, which has been reported to be a reliable predictor of nitrogen needs for corn.
Verifier number 3. At least two “new” research groups formed around one of the topics listed below (Multiple individuals across the region have indicated interest in these studies, but want assistance forming a topical research group partnership):
Optimizing manure use on hay ground
Manure as a resource: Composting alternatives to liquid manure storage
Late season rotational grazing
Ryegrass varieties to extend grazing season/productivity
Dairy diets for cows on pasture to make the most of component pricing
Low cost, portable pasture poultry housing (MA Pasture Poultry Producers Association being formed)
Comparison of pasture poultry breeds for early season egg production
Discussions were held around nine topics; new research partnerships were formed around 1.hen manure management in corn silage production; 2. methods for field stacking manure; 3. direct long-cut-vacuum-grass silage; 4. evaluating a fish emulsion fertilizer; 5. evaluation of the soil amino sugar N test; 6. methane from manure digestion and power generation. Groups one to five proceeded to implement field trials.
Verifier number 4. A field day for each research trial with at least 15 farmers attending each field day.
Two farmer field days were held by the hen manure management group, and one by the direct long-cut-vacuum-grass silage group. These activities were each attended by 10-18 farmers. The trial results of all groups were shared among farmers at annual winter meetings held in 2003, 2004, and 2005.
Two off-farm extension activities were held for manure field stacking methods, primarily attended by USDA NRCS and Extension. An extension activity was also held for the methane group, also primarily attended by service personnel.
Verifier number 5. Two research professionals/faculty engaged annually with one or more multi-farm trials through the auspices of the farmer research organization.
Additional expertise was engaged for the Direct Long-Cut-Vacuum-Grass Silage group and with the methane group. Additional research faculty were not involved in groups.
Verifier number 6. Research-extension economists or local economic development specialists involved in at least two of the research organization’s multi-farm trials.
No economists or business development specialists were involved in the project. Members of two groups discussed developing economic measures and criteria, but they were not developed. This was a shortcoming of the project.
Performance Target 2. Formation of a functioning non-profit farmer research organization in the southern New England region. The objectives of the organization will be to develop and implement farmer-run research trials, generate and test new technologies for farm sustainability, and to educate farmers, environmental organizations and the public about their research results.
This was an optimistic and ambitious target. A research organization was not formed. Participating farmers in four of the groups were interested in continuing, promoting, and extending the farmer research group concept and activities. There was discussion initiated by farmers about fitting Farmer Research Groups into the activity set of other organizations as well as independently. But generating the understanding and momentum to form a farmer-run research organization required more time (years) than we allotted for this project.
Verifiers for Performance Target 2:
Verifier number 1. Organizational infrastructure with a defined membership created by end of year two. For example the organization will elect four farmers who actively serve as officers; involve 6 or more existing farmer associations and include two to four farmer research leaders coordinating an on-farm group; and 10 to 16 additional farmers who are active members within the research groups.
Leadership for individual research groups did emerge for three groups: the hen manure management group, the direct long-cut-vacuum-grass silage group, and the manure stacking group. There was little interest in formalizing the leadership/groups during the project. With the ending of the project, farmers were interested in finding ways to continue the initiative, but they did not want to form a non-profit organization for farmer-run research.
Verifier number 2. Application for and attainment of legal non-profit organizational status in beginning of year three.
See answer for verifier number 1 above.
Verifier number 3. Submission of at least two proposals in year three, one to SARE and one to a granting agency other than SARE, to support their research and education programs.
Four proposals to continue and to expand the Farmer Research Group concept were submitted, two proposals to SARE, one to the USDA NRI program and one to the USDA IFAFS program. None of the proposals were accepted. The concept of funding the infrastructure to encourage, systematize, and coordinate farmer research on the farmers’ choice of open-ended topics was a difficult concept to sell in a proposal.
Verifier number 4. Continuing engagement of new research professionals/faculty for support of organizational field trials.
Continuing conversations were held with several research professionals about the farmer research group concept. Several meetings were held with industry professionals. These relationships and topics took more time to develop than was allotted in a SARE funding cycle. Our experience with developing and implementing farmer research groups is that farmer-led groups take more than a year to develop and often another year to implement a trial. The process includes bringing a group together, building a consensus within each group, internalizing research principles and the research group concept, and developing the details of an experiment. A field season is required for group members to organize and gain experience with field operations. Most trials require multiple years of data to generate meaningful results and to build the group. With both farmers and specialists we faced a conundrum: over-promoting the advantages of farmer-led research and then not being able to follow-through on promises which we felt would undermine the long-term linkage among farmers, research and extension because of incomplete projects and datasets, or the alternative to over-promotion: proceeding slowly (which we followed) and developing strong groups that implement research that provides useful results for the groups.
Verifier number 5. Increasing number and sophistication of research trials initiated and completed (with valid, analyzable results).
The sophistication of the trials implemented by the five groups varied widely. In the field, our efforts were to help farmers avoid designing trials with too many treatments, and to include adequate replication and controls. During the course of the project, several groups added measurements to their protocols (counting ears and measuring “sugar” in corn silage; measuring soil nitrate status under manure stacks, and in hen manure plots; testing alternative equipment in the vacuum silage group). Several groups were evolving to test new hypotheses, including economic evaluations, when projects ended. It is important to note one of our objectives was to encompass education in the research process. The results from on-farm trials of two of the groups, methods for stacking manure and direct long-cut-grass silage, were used as the basis for initiating controlled trials on research stations with varying levels of farmer involvement.
During the first 2½ years of the project we presented the concept of farmer-led research at numerous and varied farmer meetings, conferences and other venues, including the farm press. In Connecticut we held two 3- to 5-hour meetings and in Massachusetts one 3-hour meeting to introduce the project to dairy farmers. Ninety farmers attended the three meetings. After the meetings, we made follow-up phone calls with each participant to discuss their ideas and their impressions of the project and to restate the opportunity to form research groups with other farmers on a topic of their choice. We also made phone calls to approximately 160 dairy farmers who had not attended one of the meetings. We also presented 10 to 20 minute informational talks about the formation of farmer research groups at many farm meetings in Connecticut and Massachusetts. These short informational talks were presented at meetings that farmers attend on an annual basis. For example, we presented at the Connecticut Vegetable Growers Winter Meeting in 2002 and 2003, the Connecticut Fruit Growers Association meeting in 2003, field days in Massachusetts in 2002 and 2003, and at the Litchfield Dairy Committee Meetings in Connecticut in 2002 and 2003. Farmers (mostly non-dairy) also contacted the project on their own initiative. When the farmers contacted us, we asked them about what ideas they were currently working on, considering or actively testing on their farms. (They were not asked their problems, though some volunteered this information). They were also asked if they might benefit from coordinating their activities to test new ideas on their farm with other farmers. As groups of farmers began to emerge we advised farmers not involved in the groups about the topics being discussed by other farmers either by phone or by mail. In some instances farmers were approached directly about participating in a particular research group, either by a farmer or at the suggestion of a farmer who thought they might be interested. With few exceptions farmers were interested in discussing their farm situation and innovations they had made on their farms. Many asked to be kept informed about the research groups. We made lists of the farmers’ interests and ideas so we could connect farmers who had similar ideas. An important function of the project was the linkage of innovative farmers with similar interests throughout the region. Eventually, farmers were brought together in a method of their choice (face-to-face meeting, conference call) to discuss forming a research group to perform a structured evaluation of their topic. The usual progression for a group was to meet for the first time using a conference call. Two or more conference calls were often made before the farmers would meet at a location that was convenient for them. One 3-hour meeting was usually not sufficient to develop a design for an experiment; some groups required 2-3 meetings to finish their experimental design. The groups formed in various ways. In one case a leading farmer took initiative and asked other farmers to come together to support his idea. In another instance an extension specialist asked farmers to meet to study the idea of an alternative to the presidedress soil nitrate test (PSNT). Industry first convened the fish emulsion study group. Each research group had a distinctive course of development. Of nine group discussion meetings, five progressed to designing field trials or experiments. The discussion of the problem, past experiences with problem resolution, ideas for its resolution, and how the idea might be tested on-farm was simultaneously a consensus building process and an educational process about research design. The problem, ideas and design discussions were shaped/guided around the discussion of the overall farm environmental and economic sustainability. Each research project had an inherent systems orientation because it was implemented on-farm, by the farmers at scales they found both feasible and meaningful to implement. A cyclical, open-ended process was generally followed by each of the research groups. The general process is outlined below:
1. As a group in consultation with a scientist, farmers refined each research question and field design so that it could generate a useful conclusion and an interpretable experience for other farmers. This process took 3-7 group communications.
2. Farmers independently implement the protocol on their farms. They were assisted by scientists, who helped collect information, and provide materials and other assistance as needed.
3. The farmers reconvened as a group (either face-to-face or through conference calls) or at the annual winter meeting to discuss results, refine and revise the research plan as required or desired. We noted that the seasonality of the different experiments affected farmers’ interest in participating in the winter annual meeting.
4. Steps 2 and 3 continued over a 3-4 year period. At the end of 3-4 years, the farmers in each group will have a meaningful dataset and a meaningful set of observations/field experiences revolving around their topic or problem of investigation.
The exact process was shaped, modified and fit to each group’s members and its dynamics. Just as the origin, formation and evolution of each group differed and influenced its success; similarly the field methods reflected their members’ interest and technical capacity.
A brief description of the experimental designs for the five groups that implement experiments is below:
1. Hen manure group to compare the yield of corn silage where hen manure or commercial fertilizer has been applied.
The main objective was to compare two treatments: Hen manure applied at the rate the farmers normally use and the recommended rate of nitrogen fertilizer. The treatments were replicated three times in field strips varying in length from 270 feet to 590 feet. One farmer had dairy manure as an additional treatment. A farmer joined the group in 2004, introducing additional treatments of different timing of application of the hen manure, but this farmer did not replicate all his treatments.
2. Soil Amino Sugar N Test group. Two nitrogen treatments, a zero nitrogen treatment and a high nitrogen treatment with three replications of field-length plots.
3. Evaluation of Direct Long-Cut-Vacuum-Grass Silage equipment. This was an evaluation of the method to make grass silage using a direct-cut method. No comparison treatments were originally included in the study. Most farmers made two test piles, a few only made one. Individual piles served as replicates. The farmers have defined comparison treatments for follow-up studies.
4. Fish Emulsion fertilizer as fertility source for vegetables. Four treatments: treatment 1 was the rate of fish emulsion fertilizer recommended by the company selling the fertilizer; treatment 2 was a zero nitrogen rate; treatment 3 was a low rate of nitrogen fertilizer; and treatment four was a high rate of nitrogen fertilizer. Each treatment was replicated three times, but one farmer did not replicate the treatments. Two of three farms attempted multiple experiments in a year testing the fish emulsion on sweet corn and pumpkins.
5. Manure field stacking methods. The initial group of four farmers defined 4 treatments with one replication per farm. The four treatments were: dairy manure stacked in the usual manner, manure stacks covered with leaves of wood chips, manure stacked on a bed of finished compost or wood chips, and manure stacked with a cover of wood chips or leaves and with a base of finished compost or wood chips. We obtained a SARE partnership grant to increase the number of farmers and additional farmers made piles in 2004. The new farms were required to replicate treatments twice, but only two of the four replicated the treatments.
In all five of the groups some farmers included their own additional “observational” treatments to the experiments.
There were three groups that had serious discussions about ideas the farmers were interested to research, but these groups did not implement field studies. The three groups were: Methane generation systems for small farms and electric power, reclaiming pasture from brush, and use of compost for bedding in dairy barns.
Chronological Milestones: Research Farmers (primary beneficiaries)
1. Contact with 240 farmers through 15 informational meetings and distribution of project fact sheets. Six “founding” farmer associations (80 farmers) meet with “project” to develop multi-farm research trials and discuss organization concept.
Approximately 60 farmers from different associations met with the project. Many more than 240 farmers were contacted during the curse of the project through mailings and meetings. Fifteen presentations but not dedicated meetings were held to promote the project.
2. Seventy-five (75) farmers have further contact with project in year 1.
Completed. At least 100 farmers had contact with project in year 1.
3. Twenty (20) farmers from the six associations decide to participate in 2 multi-farm trials.
Not completed. Farmers did not participate based on their organizations.
4. Twenty (20) other “non-associated” farmers meet with project about developing multi-farm research trials.
We had about 40 farmers meet with the project.
5. Two topical research groups form with 7-10 farmers agreeing to participate in research group partnerships.
6. At least 16 farmers design and implement research trials (2-4 research partnerships)
We had 24 farmers design and implement research trials in 5 research partnerships
7. At least 12 farmers complete their trial.
We had 24 farmers complete trials.
8. Half the trials generate statistically valid results in year 1
We had 10 of 12 trials in year 2 generate statistically valid results
9. Five field days conducted (annually) by farmers based on their research
Only three field days were completed. The farmers were cautious about sharing their ideas and results and did not want to have field days unless the data was substantial and interesting for other farmers.
10. Annual meeting of 55 farmers: 30 from original group plus 25 new farmers
Annual meeting held with 30 farmers participating. Decision was made not to invite new farmers, based on farmer input.
11. Organization leadership emerges at end of year 1 beginning of year 2.
Leadership emerged at the group level for some groups, but organization leadership was not developed.
12. Distribution of results of 4 group trials (16 farms) in six founding association’s newsletters, and in a SNE Farmer Research Organization Newsletter.
Results from trials prepared and distributed to the five groups, but not widely distributed outside the groups. The farmers wanted to wait for better results before distributing their data.
14. Distribution of results in 2 popular regional farm publications
We wrote two articles for the Natural Farmer publication that presented the process of how to form research groups and implement on-farm trials, but individual group results were not published. The farmers did not want to publish their results because they wanted to wait until they had more data.
15. Formation of next season’s groups, and selection of new research topics, and design of the next season’s trials.
Existing groups continued, but new groups were not formed after 2003 because of lack of concerns about continued funding for the groups.
16. Sequence continues in years 2, 3 and 4 with a 60% retention rate of experienced farmers and the addition of new farmers to establish at least 5 research partnerships (20 farms) in year 3.
Retention rate about 65%. There were 5 partnerships in year 3 (but more were possible if we could have obtained funding for the future).
17. Percentage of statistically valid trials increases to 70%.
18. Three more existing farmer associations distributing organization’s trial results by year 3.
Moving towards this at this time, but results only distributed at conferences.
19. Leadership solidifies by year 3 with 3 to 6 farmers creating a formal non-profit organization.
Not completed. Not enough interest by farmers to form an organization, but there was much interest to continue the groups.
20. Two proposals submitted by the nonprofit organization early in year 3.
A nonprofit organization was not formed. We did submit four proposals to obtain longer-term funding for the farmer research groups. One proposal was submitted to the USDA NRI program, one to the USDA IFAFS program, and two proposals with the University of Maine and the University of New Hamphsire to SARE.
Three summaries of the results from the five groups were distributed to the groups during the project. A report summarizing the hen manure group’s experience will be published in the Connecticut Farm Bureau Newsletter. We participated in two on-farm research training workshops in Maine as invited speakers.
Two articles published in the Summer 2002 editions of the Natural Farmer publication that presented the process of how to form research groups and implement on-farm trials.
We published abstracts on the project results at the Northeast Regional Agronomy Society Meeting in Vermont in 2003, at the International Farming Systems Conference in Florida in 2003, at the National Agronomy Society Meetings in 2003 and 2004.
We brought five farmers from the groups to the National SARE meeting in Vermont in 2004 for a presentation on farmer research groups.
We had one farmer present his evaluation of the farmer research group concept to a workshop in Maine in 2004 about how to organize and implement farmer-led research. Sue Ellen and Tom Morris also presented information about the project at the workshop in Maine in 2003 and in 2004.
Two scholarly publications- one on the manure stacking research groups work jointly with on-station study, the other reviewing the evolution of three different models of research groups are being drafted.
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
This project had mixed results. We succeeded in forming 5 farmer research groups. The groups enabled farmers to test their ideas for improving their farm’s sustainability by implementing research studies and collecting data. We guided three groups in discussions and information sharing. The experiments implemented by the different groups varied in quality and impact. Some important and promising practices emerged from the trials. The project succeeded in introducing an alternative research paradigm to the farmers. This project allowed farmers to develop their ideas into testable research hypothesizes. As anticipated, the studies were not elaborate, data rich, or highly controlled research but they generated valid preliminary data. They qualified as valid scientific contributions. These groups also served as vital tools for education and community building. It empowered farmers and improved communications among the agricultural community members.
The project was unsuccessful in that it was not sustained. We were unable to secure future funding and consequently did not develop new and additional groups. Having created and demonstrated a successful model for farmer research and learning we did not establish an enduring mechanism for future groups. We did not find and allocate enough resources in a timeframe that allowed the continuation of the project. We did demonstrate the potential for performing research by groups of farmers on topics of their choice in southern New England.
We succeeded in meeting our primary performance target of forming farmer research groups that generate scientifically valid data using on-farm trials. We did not progress to the point of forming a non-profit farmer-led research organization in southern New England, which was the second performance target. We think our timetable was too ambitious for the time allocated and for the number of farmers in southern New England. One of the potential problems with our project that we discussed with the SARE interview team during our proposal interview was the small number of farmers in southern New England who might be interested in joining a farmer research group. The only benchmark we can use is the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), which is a farmer-run research organization in Iowa. When PFI started in the mid-1980s they had about 100 farmers as members and about 50 of the farmers were actively implementing on-farm experiments. In Iowa there are about 100,000 farmers, which means that only about 0.1% of the Iowa farmers were interested to join a farmer research organization. If the same percentage of farmers are interested in joining a farmer research organization in southern New England, there would only be about 11 farmers interested in joining an organization because there are only 11,124 farms in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island (2002 Ag Statistics).
The process engaged many farmers not typically involved with the land grant system. It was a provocative educational tool. It helped transform relationships between farmers and technical information.
The project helped build the farm community, helping many farmers bridge isolation and work with neighboring farmers on problems of mutual interest. The groups developed some important ideas that deserve further research. In particular, the idea of using easily available organic materials like wood chips and leaves to substantially reduce the amount of nutrients lost from stacks of manure should be further investigated, and the idea that hen manure will provide a greater yield of corn compared with application of fertilizer, should also be further investigated. Researchers in Iowa have also shown that application of hen manure produces greater corn yield than application of fertilizer (2002 Leopold Center Annual Report, Ames, IA).
We understood how difficult it would be to communicate to farmers and colleagues. We should have persevered more assertively forming and maintaining relationships with existing farmer associations and with other service providers.
Farmer groups tended to be smaller than anticipated bringing up concerns about the critical mass of interested farmers needed for a research group. Retention of participants was greater than anticipated. The entire process of establishing groups and obtaining useful data was slower and more demanding than anticipated. The groups progressed at a pace determined by the farmers in the group, but this pace was slower than anticipated. Guiding the groups was more time consuming than expected. Attempts at obtaining funds to continue the program demanded more time and energy than we had anticipated.
Areas needing additional study
We think that a farmer research organization in New England would be a useful addition to the agricultural community. Farmers and researchers interact in many ways in New England, but there is not an organization that dedicates itself to developing and testing ideas from farmers. There is probably a large enough number of farmers who would be interested in participating in a farmer research organization in New England, but there is probably not enough farmers interested in southern New England. Establishment of a farmer research organization would require the funding of a full-time position with money for travel and farmer stipends.