The crux of this project was to combine on-farm research with outreach activities in order to measure nitrogen fixation in working vegetable farms and promote farmer-farmer and farmer-researcher knowledge exchange. Detailed measurements of soil properties, cover crop biomass and biological nitrogen fixation rates were conducted in 27 fields located on 11 farms. We learned that nitrogen fixation rates are generally greater in hairy vetch cover crops compared to peas and that overall nitrogen fixation is highly variable across farms and fields. Nearly all of our farmer collaborators sought our advice on management options related to legume cover crops and all of them modified their cover crop management practices in some way during the three years of this project. We reached 259 stakeholders through a series of intensive workshops and shorter presentations at meetings and field days. On average, about half of the participants in the intensive workshops could identify a specific change or new management practice that they planned to test within six months. We also provided information on legume management to nearly 30,000 stakeholders through Q and A columns published in newsletters and other publications targeting farmers in the northeast. Lastly, we produced a new legume management resource which was published in The Natural Farmer (readership of 5500) and will also be made available on line.
Our project had two main objectives:
1. Survey of BNF on Working Farms: We will provide farmers with rates of N-fixation in their fields by conducting an extensive on-farm survey on 25-30 vegetable farms.
2. Farmer Learning Opportunities: We will design and offer two opportunities for farmers to learn more about green manures and BNF (workshops and newsletter column).
Three performance targets supported these objectives:
1. Over 2000 growers and those working as grower educators will read answers to farmer questions on green manure management for BNF in our newsletter column.
2. Of the 50-60 farmers involved as workshop attendees or collaborators, 25 will plan to adjust their management of green manures within 6 months of workshop and survey completion.
3. Overall, the 60 farmers trained in green manure management for BNF will act as informal educators to another 60 farmers who were not directly trained.
Evaluation of performance targets
There were two key events that occurred during the first 18 months of the project which required some modifications in how we actually carried out the work. First, Sarah Johnston, the Director of NOFA-NY, left her position and as a result the organization withdrew from the project in order to evaluate priorities and focus on re-staffing and building the organization. We collaborated extensively with NOFA-NY, through using their venues for workshops and writing columns for their newsletters, however we did not have their assistance in linking with growers for collaborative on-farm research or for workshops and evaluations of impact. Secondly, Dr. Julie Grossman accepted a faculty position at NC State and was not able to serve as the lead educator for the project. Julie was highly skilled and had extensive experience in conducting farmer education on nitrogen fixation and legume management so she could not be easily replaced. Her departure meant that the PI (LED) had to carry out some of the work Dr. Grossman originally planned to do. While I enjoyed the opportunity for greater first-hand involvement, it was extremely difficult to add this work to my packed schedule since I am only 10% extension and teaching often interferes with grower workshops in the winter. Despite these two setbacks, we accomplished more outreach and were able to provide learning opportunities to a broader audience of growers and educators than we originally planned. We also collected a tremendous amount of on-farm data on cover crop management and performance. Nevertheless, without the active involvement of NOFA-NY to assist us in recruiting farmers, we did not engage quite as many active collaborators for the on-farm sampling as would have liked and the duration of the project was lengthened by 18 months.
Over 2000 growers and those working as grower educators will read answers to farmer questions on green manure management for BNF in our newsletter column.
We greatly exceeded our expectations in this area of delivering information about legume cover crops to growers and educators through written resources. The Vicki Vetch columns are still running and NOFA NY has just requested that we expand the column to answer other grower questions. We published 8 columns in 2 newsletters, and the Small Farms Quarterly magazine reaching a total readership of nearly 30,000 stakeholders. Furthermore, during the final year of the project we co-produced a special issue for The Natural Farmer (circulation 5,500) with the editor, Jack Kittredge. This special issue will be posted on the web and will serve as a resource for growers and educators for the next several years.
Of the 50-60 farmers involved as workshop attendees or collaborators, 25 will plan to adjust their management of green manures within 6 months of workshop and survey completion.
For a variety of reasons including changes in project personnel, increased interest in leguminous cover crops among both organic and conventional growers and interest in the unique, on-farm measurements of cover crop performance from working farms, we surpassed this performance target. We reached 259 growers/educators through eight workshops and field days. We conducted before and after assessments in the three intensive workshops (two conducted at the NOFA-NY winter meetings and the more recent workshop for new farmers held in Ithaca). Feedback from participants indicates significant learning on a practical level and a high frequency of plans for adjusting management regimes. In the introductory workshop held in 2008, more than half of those who filled out the evaluations gave examples of plans to modify cover crop management as a result of the workshop. In our second, more advanced workshop, the evaluations indicated 80% agreed/strongly agreed that the workshop was beneficial to their work and described an adjustment/new practice they planned to try based on what they learned at the workshop. Follow-up on actual changes in practices 6-months prior to the end of the project proved to be more challenging. Farmers were very difficult to reach and despite considerable effort devoted to calling participants for follow-up conversations, we were not as successful at gathering quantitative information in this way, particularly from farmers that we knew only through their participating in workshops. We do have several examples of innovation and management adjustments among collaborating farmers with whom we have more regular contact. Within this group, we see a trend for increased efforts to expand the use of cover crop mixtures in rotations. From our conversations with these 18 farmers, it is clear that our project has provided support for these management adjustments; however we also know that there are several other factors driving this increased motivation. We discuss this in more detail in the Impacts/Outcomes section.
Overall, the 60 farmers trained in green manure management for BNF will act as informal educators to another 60 farmers who were not directly trained.
This performance target was significantly adjusted to reflect staffing changes in the project. Instead of emphasizing knowledge transfer through informal networking, we instead focused on actively promoting farmers who had developed successful legume management schemes and innovations on their farms in formal venues as workshop presenters and by highlighting their practices in The Natural Farmer special issue on biological nitrogen fixation and managing legume cover crops. In addition to the stories documenting these successful farmer-developed examples, six growers who collaborated with the on-farm research presented information on how they manage legume cover crops to 108 peers and farmer educators in three workshops that we organized. Two of these growers had very little experience in sharing their innovations previously. Our non-quantitative assessment of farmer educators who attended the workshops indicates that at least five are using the information from our workshops and we have received unsolicited communication from educators who are using The Natural Farmer special issue their education efforts. In summary, our performance target of training the trainers was achieved through a different means than originally planned and we achieved significant transfer of farmer knowledge through more formalized farmer-to-farmer channels.