Evaluating the Impact of Biochar on Soil Fertility and Crop Productivity through Farmer Participatory Research and a Student Internship Program
During the second year of project, we continued field experiments to assess the effect of biochar on crop yields and soil fertility on six Indiana vegetable farms. We also continued to use a collaborative participatory research approach to co-manage the experiment with farmers and a structured student internship program in which the interns managed research plots, collected data, and assisted with key farm operations. Six new undergraduate students participated in our 2016 summer internship program. Twelve students have participated during the last two years. Kale was grown from seed and then transplanted at each farm. Biochar increased kale biomass on one farm, reduced biomass on one farm, and did not affect kale biomass on four farms. 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 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. Similarly, the farmers indicated that they considered their intern to be an asset to their farm and remained very interested in serving as a mentor for student interns. The use of a participatory research approach, coupled with a structured research internship, appears to have potential to increase farmer interest in and understanding of research and to increase the understanding of students of farm life and farm management.
Our primary objectives for 2016 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 two meetings during 2016. The first meeting, which was held before the start of the 2016 field season, was attended by the farmers and interns and 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 second meeting held in October 2016 and included farmers, interns, and members of the Purdue team. During the second meeting, we discussed the field season and reviewed analyses of both the field experiment and farmer and student questionnaires related to the internship. We also collectively identified a crop (tomatoes) for the 2017 field season.
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 and planted potatoes in spring 2015. Kale was grown from seed at each farm in spring 2016 and then transplanted. Chicken manure was incorporated into the soil before transplanting the kale. The plots were managed, primarily by the interns, during the growing season to reflect best management practices identified by the farmers and kale plants were harvested at maturity. Biochar increased kale biomass on one farm, reduced biomass on one farm, and did not affect kale biomass on four farms.
Internship program. Six interns (one intern for each farm) were selected from a pool of applicants in early 2016. All of the interns were currently enrolled undergraduates but were enrolled in six different universities (only 1 student was 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 5 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 farmers also completed questionnaires at the end of the growing season. 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 2016, 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 second 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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