The Middle Border On-Farm Research and Information Network
1) Disseminate information on Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) techniques to farmers
of the Middle Border Region through workshops and farm tours.
2) Develop more self sufficient farmer-to-farmer, on-farm research networks to conduct and
promote the widespread adoption of LISA practices.
3) Refine the documentation and methodology for participatory on-farm research.
4) Integrate information generated from the Consortium’s participatory on-farm research
experience into mainstream publications, and University/Extension information dissemination
5) Publish books, reports, and video tapes on low-input sustainable practices for distribution to
farmers of the Middle Border.
The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, the Kansas Rural Center and the
Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project formed a partnership in 1988 to conduct on-farm
demonstrations, carry out research and disseminate information about low-input/sustainable
agriculture practices to farmers in the “Middle Border” of the United States. (For the purposes
of this project, the “Middle Border” is defined as southwestern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota,
Nebraska and northeast Kansas). This consortium developed farmer-to-farmer information
exchange networks and established more than 100 LISA on-farm demonstrations and 14
replicated trials in the Middle Border region. Each organization in the Consortium cooperated in
the sharing of LISA on-farm research and demonstration methodologies and in the development
of working relationships with University and Extension researchers. The Consortium carried out
interstate on-farm research projects and cooperated in the organizing of LISA workshops and
on-farm tours. As a result of this project numerous newsletters, pamphlets, handbooks, and video
tapes were created for distribution to the farmers of the Middle Border.
Over the period of three years, the member organizations of the Consortium sponsored 158
workshops and 71 farm tours, which attracted more than 5,000 farmers, university researchers
and the general public. The workshops featured presentations by some of the leading sustainable
researchers and practitioners as well as extension agents, local farm panels and small
farmer-to-farmer group discussions. The field days and farm tours gave farmers a first-hand look
at sustainable practices on neighboring farms. The exchange of knowledge and ideas generated
by these organized farmer-to-farmer visits was extremely effective in conveying usable
information. As a result, it is estimated that at least 1,000 farmers in the Middle Border region
have begun experimenting with the application of LISA techniques.
Since 1989, the farmer-based organizations comprising the network have steadily increased their
membership and organizational staying power. For example, in the fall of 1988 there were only
55 members of the Western Minnesota Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association; three
years later there were 168 in the Western Chapter, and over 450 members statewide. Nebraska
Sustainable Agriculture Society saw a rise in membership from 92 to 350. These organizations
have established active, democratically elected boards of directors, and have improved their
knowledge of what it takes to run an organization, sponsor on-farm research and demonstration,
and publicize these efforts to the broader public.
Additionally, a measurable improvement occurred in the way the Consortium’s member
organizations conduct on-farm research and demonstrations. The experiences of the project’s
first year pointed to a need to standardize methodology, trial record forms, and reporting
procedures. In 1990, 84 farmers established 40 randomized replicated research plots and 64
demonstrations with guidance and assistance of Consortium staff. This many research plots
proved to be too much to handle. The Consortium’s experience showed that only a small
percentage of farmers were willing and able to conform to the exacting requirements necessary
for conducting replicated trials.
The focus in 1991 shifted to fewer projects and focused more on demonstrations than replicated
trials. A total of nine replicated trials were conducted in 1991, with 60 demonstrations. It is
expected that in the future, Consortium member organizations will continue to focus more on
demonstrations, as they are more doable, cost effective, and more accessible as an educational
tool for transferring LISA practices and methods to other farmers in the neighborhood.
Potential Contributions and Practical Applications:
If the types of LISA practices researched and demonstrated by the Consortium were to be widely
adopted by farmers throughout the region, the very face of agriculture in the Midwest would
change. There would be far more land in pasture being rotationally grazed, therefore reducing
soil erosion and groundwater contamination from row crops. More farmers would be relying on
crop rotations, interseeded legumes, and alternative sources of manure and composting rather
than purchased nitrogen. Herbicides would be used as a last resort, rather than a first line of
defense against weeds. The need for insecticides would be reduced greatly, by the promotion of
natural pest predators. All this would have a profound, positive effect on environmental quality
and wildlife habitat for the region. In social and economic terms, it would mean that farm
suppliers would make less money, but most farmers employing these practices would have a
higher net return from their farming operation.