Evaluating the Impact of Biochar on Soil Fertility and Crop Productivity through Farmer Participatory Research and a Student Internship Program
During the first year of project, we initiated field experiments to asses the effect of biochar on crop yields and soil fertility on six Indiana vegetable farms. Six undergraduate students participated in our summer internship program. Biochar increased potato yields on only one of the six farms. However, 2015 was an unusually wet year and flooding was reported on several of the farms, limiting our ability to draw clear conclusions about the effect of biochar. The internship program was very favorably reviewed by both the farmers and the interns. The students credited the internship for increasing their knowledge of farm budgets, marketing, pest management, and biochar. Results from the first year suggest that combining a research internship program with farmer-driven research has great potential to increase the interest of farmers and students in agricultural research and to produce students with a much greater understanding and appreciation of farming.
Our primary objectives for 2015 were to 1) conduct planning and training meetings with the farmers and interns, 2) assess the effect of biochar on crop yields on six Indiana vegetable farms, and 3) deliver and analyze a structured on-farm internship program to six undergraduate students.
Planning and training meetings. We held three meetings during 2015. During the first meeting, which was attended by the six participating farmers, the Purdue team provided information on biochar and on experimental design. The farmers and Purdue team collectively identified a crop (potatoes), determined a plan to incorporate the biochar and fertilizer, and agreed on plot dimensions and data collection. A second meeting was held before the start of the 2015 field season and included the farmers, interns, and the Purdue team. This meeting focused primarily on expectations for the student internship, although experimental protocols were discussed. Codes of conduct for both farmers and the interns were discussed and signed. The final meeting for 2015 was held in October 2015 and included farmers, interns, and members of the Purdue team. During the final meeting, we discussed the field season, reviewed analyses of both the field experiment and farmer and student questionnaires related to the internship. This meeting provided an opportunity for us to identify areas that needed to be improved for 2016.
Field experiments. We incorporated biochar, produced from a pine feedstock, into the soil at six Indiana farms at rates equivalent to 0, 10 and 20 tons/hectare. Chicken manure was also incorporated into the soil and potatoes (the same variety was planted on all farms) were planted. The plots were managed, primarily by the interns, during the growing season to reflect best management practices identified by the farmers and potatoes were harvested at maturity. Biochar did not significantly affect potato yields on five of the six farms in 2015. Potato yields were greater in plots that received the highest rate of biochar than in plots that received no biochar on one farm. However, 2015 was an exceptionally wet year and yields on that farm were particularly low.
Internship program. Six interns (one intern for each farm) were selected from a pool of applicants in early 2015. All of the interns were currently enrolled undergraduates but were enrolled in four different universities (only 3 students were enrolled at Purdue University). The interns were interviewed by the farmers before being admitted into the program. They worked approximately 20 hours per week on their internships and participated in six online meetings with the Purdue team during the summer. The interns completed questionnaires before and at the end of their internships. They indicated that their experience increased their understanding of farm budgets, marketing, pest and soil management, and of how biochar affects crops and soils. They indicated that their experience increased their interest in participating in research generally and in on-farm research specifically. All of the interns indicated that their overall experience was very positive. The interns recommended that we provide more information on data collection protocols at the start of the field season and spend more time during the online meetings discussing activities at each of the farms.
The farmers also completed pre and post questionnaires. They indicated that their experience increased their understanding of experimental design and their interest in working on research projects with other farmers and with university researchers. They considered their intern to be an asset to their farm and remained very interested in serving as a mentor for student interns. However, the farmers indicated that they were not yet confident that they could design their own research experiment and did not believe that the project had increased their understanding of how biochar affects crops or soils. The farmers also indicated that they would like to see clearer instructions for interns on data collection.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
During 2015, we successfully completed an on-farm participatory research program on biochar and a summer internship program in which the interns contributed to the research project and learned about farm management. We substantially increased the understanding of our interns about several aspects of farm management as well as about biochar. We also increased the interest of our interns and participating farmers in on-farm research.
We received valuable feedback from the interns and farmers that will allow us to refine both our fieldwork and the summer internship. Cumulatively, data from the first year suggests that combining a research internship program with farmer-driven research has great potential to increase the interest of farmers and students in agricultural research and to produce students with a much greater understanding and appreciation of farming.
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