Training in Alternative Research Strategies for Sustainable Farming Systems
This training program on “Alternative Research Strategies for Sustainable Farming Systems” is an optional training program for interested agricultural extension agents in North Carolina who wanted to incorporate sustainable agriculture and participatory on-farm research methods into their agriculture extension approach. Initially there were 19 agricultural extension agents who volunteered to participate in the training program as trainees. There were six instructors, of which two were the primary coordinators providing the training and organizing all of the workshops for the agents and growers. At each of the three two-day training workshops held there were speakers who provided instruction, information and who shared experiences on research methods and on-farm trials. The goals for this training program were to:
•Increase farmer-driven on-farm research
•Provide tools to agents
•Teach viability and importance for on-farm research
•Increase understanding of sustainability
•Define where on-farm research fits into research extension
•Demonstrate impact of on-farm research on decision-making
In this “train the trainers program” agents acquired the tools and support to conduct a farmer-driven on-farm research project that address sustainable agricultural practices. Participants learned how to plan, design, implement and evaluate farmer-initiated projects. With instructor assistance and a division of responsibilities with their collaborators, agents learned how participatory on-farm research projects complement and enhance traditional research and extension programs and activities. Through assigned readings and classroom discussions participants increased their awareness of environmental, economic and social sustainability issues and concerns in their communities. Agents are in a position to share the results of their research and to begin training others in this on-farm research approach
• Participants will learn how to plan, design implement and evaluate locally relevant, farmer-initiated, participatory on-farm research projects that address sustainable agricultural practices, issues and concerns in their communities.
• Participants will learn how participatory, on-farm research projects complement and enhance traditional research and extension programs and activities.
• Participants will increase their awareness of environmental, economic and social sustainability issues.
• Participants will learn how on-farm research projects impact decision-making and management at the farmstead level and regionally.
• Participant teams (agent/farmer) will implement an on-farm test that makes credible comparisons of sustainable agriculture practices.
• Agents, farmers, and other participants, working individually or in teams, will train other interested farmers to conduct on-farm research. The training will take place at their farms, and on-farm research sites.
• Participants will share the results of their research projects and observations about experimental methods with producers who wish to adopt demonstrated practices or experiment using demonstrated methods.
• Farmer-participants will meet to share information from, experience with, and feedback on the on-farm research training process. At these farmer-to-farmer sessions participants will evaluate potential social, economic and environmental consequences of the implementation of sustainable on-farm research project results and methods.
Each of the workshops was structured with an agenda, objectives and outcomes for the participants. Each of the activities built in time for discussions, questions and answers among the participants and instructors. Outcomes from the workshops were an email list-serve for participants to communicate with one another about their projects and develop future collaborations among agents in their respective counties and across counties. Workshops were held in three different regions of North Carolina. The multiple site selection made driving equitable among farmers and extension agents participating in the training program who were from eastern, central and western counties of the state.
In summary, the three workshops provided participating agents with the necessary background and the steps to work with their collaborators on a participatory on-farm research project. One of the overall messages communicated was for agents to listen to the farmer(s) with whom they work and to facilitate in designing a research project that answers the farmer’s questions. This type of “participatory” research is one that is supposed to be a 50-50 workload with shared responsibilities in carrying out the project, gathering the data during the growing season over a several year period.
The next step in the training process was to introduce an abbreviated version of participatory on-farm research model to the agents and their cooperating farmers – collaborators. Workshops were organized and held in different regions of the state for agents to more easily invite their collaborators.
At these workshops farmers and agents were instructed on the principles of participatory on-farm method of research. This was the beginning of training for “training the trainers.” At this first meeting in Williamston on January 4th there were 15 people, balanced turn out of agents and their collaborators. The third meeting was held in Asheville January 12th. Twenty-two people attended this workshop for the western region of North Carolina. Agents and farmers as well as farmworkers attended this 3rd workshop, another good turn out of agents and their collaborators. There were farmworkers whose employers were interested in being trained in on-farm research. Since the farmworkers would be doing a lot of the actual on-farm work they were part of the training and discussion sessions.
A short survey was given to the collaborators participating in the on-farm projects at the first and third meetings. From these eleven collaborators the average years of farming experience was nearly 20 years. Nine of these 11 collaborators (82 %) were aware of the training the trainer program and 91% agreed to participate in future meetings. When asked who came up with the experiment idea, 36% of the farmers said it was their idea, while 45% said it was that of the agents. The sample is much too small to speak of trends, but the information is useful to see what was the perception is among the collaborators for these on-farm research projects.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
By the time the classes and field season was completed ten agents were able to attend the final class and report on their projects to fellow agents and instructors. An informal presentation style was used, creating a relaxed environment for agents to ask questions about the process and research outcomes. Two examples highlight the participatory experience shared by the agents and their collaborators.
According to an agent who collaborated with several tree farmers, they had nineteen test plots and 2500 trees (Christmas trees). The trees set aside for this project were provided by the farmers – a level the farmers were comfortable with in experimenting. From this experience the agent, farmers and farmworkers learned about treatments and systematic data collection for weed suppression. This project was a farmer driven project. The agent indicated that “the participating farmers have more questions they want to ask they are willing to remain as a group.”
Another agent recounted his experience among cotton producers who were interested in yield differences between strip till and conventional practices. From the agents report of the research procedures it was clear that the concept of randomization remained a bit confusing. As a result, the experiment was performed alternating every other row with one of two treatments. The discussion that ensued on randomization lasted 30 minutes with more questions being asked and answered by agents and instructors, an excellent session and good feedback provided.
Instructors spent a considerable amount of time with agents and collaborators on how to set up a randomized test plot. From their responses it is clear that setting up randomized test plots is not a familiar way for them to work, let a lone work with farmers who want to engage in their own on-farm experiments. The agents agreed (100%) this approach depends on detailed record keeping.
There is some reservation about doing an on-farm research design with randomize test plots. The variety of comments made highlights agents’ reservations. Some of their comments have to do with time needed to do this type of study, while others felt they were imposing on the farmer to set up their fields this way and follow through with data collection throughout the growing season. In addition more time was needed for data entry and analysis. Others commented that it was a good way to set up a test, get data, but questioned if that was the bottom line.
All of the agents said they have plans for future on-farm participatory research. A few offered comments as to what their research would focus on (i.e., rotational grazing, soils, forage production, continue with the same research design to have a second year of data, identify new materials for insect control. Only three agents thought their experience and interaction with their collaborators was sufficient. The remaining seven agents thought that in the future their assistance would be required or that of a specialist depending on the research topic. The data indicate that six of the agents feel that more contact is needed as well as into the future; the remaining agents claimed they had sufficient contact. However, it is remains unclear for all of the agents what form their future research would take.
From their experiences 90% of the agents feel they are confident in the results they obtained from the data collection experience. There was one agent, however, who commented he has the data, but does not know how to write them up. Another commented he has data, but is not sure others will be interested in them.
In terms of ownership of the data we asked agents to comment on proprietary issues. All of the agents agreed that they are not owners of the information because the data and results are important to all. One agent commented that on-farm test should be shared with all people that want the information while another commented that some growers feel the information should stay in the state. The agents thought the information should just stay in the county. As such, the agents agreed on-farm research should be shared. As on agent commented ‘if it is not shared, then what’s the point of doing it?” Another echoed saying “yes, that is what we are supposed to do!”
Not all of the agents have a clear plan for how they are going to pass on the information learned from their on-farm research projects. A few means of dissemination mentioned include: presentations at conferences, farm tours, working with other producers, and reporting in newsletters.