Participatory Research and Education Network for Sustainable Agriculture in Illinois
Farmers in Illinois are searching for new practices and technologies that are economically viable
and environmentally sound, and that can be integrated into current farming systems with
minimum risk. Practices and technologies that are developed and shared in on-farm
demonstrations are more likely to be accepted by the farming community, a process which
involves establishing a network between farmers and researchers.
1) Develop economically competitive and sustainable farming systems.
2) Facilitate the adoption of sustainable technologies and practices by Illinois farmers.
3) Develop the methodology and capacity for scientifically valid on-farm experiments and
A network was established among three farmer-managed, community-based sustainable
agriculture organizations in Illinois and the University of Illinois (UI), with the purpose of
conducting on-farm participatory research and education projects that evaluate and promote
low-input sustainable farming practices. Educational projects providing practical, easily
interpreted information were designed by participants. Educational meetings, demonstrations and
field tours were planned and conducted, involving farmers, the UI Cooperative Extension
Service, the Soil Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the media, and
agri-businesses in the community.
On-farm research projects were designed by farmers in cooperation with university research
scientists and later, with an on-farm research coordinator. Field studies were quantitatively
evaluated using formal statistical procedures. The experimental design primarily used for the
on-farm research was based on the paired-comparison, strip-plot model promoted by the Practical
Farmers of Iowa. All treatments tested in on-farm research field trials were randomized and
Generally, findings indicated no significant corn yield differences due to nitrogen applied at
lower-than-recommended rates until rates fell below 50-75 percent of recommended rates. In
1992-93, herbicide rate studies showed no significant yield effect when herbicides were applied
at sometimes half the recommended rate. Reduced herbicide rates increased per acre profitability
where yields were unaffected. Other studies showed no corn yield benefit obtained from aeration
tillage. There were significant soybean yield increases due to aeration tillage in 1993. Cover
crops seemed to make little difference in corn yields, but other factors that may be effected by
cover crops, such as soil tilth, were not rigorously measured.
The Formation of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network in 1992 has resulted in extensive
dialogue between farmers, University of Illinois researchers, and other agriculture institutions
and organizations, strengthening the concepts and ideals inherent to sustainable agriculture
system within Illinois. Numerous on-farm research projects were conducted as a direct result of
the formation of the Network. Various field days, conferences, and educational events were
sponsored, and publications were produced through the efforts of the Network, providing a
unique forum for exchange of knowledge and ideas within the Illinois agriculture industry. Since
the Network’s inception, the dialogue between groups on the future of Illinois agriculture has
been raised to a higher level.
Much of the on-farm research tested reduced amounts, or the complete elimination, of a variety
of inputs or activities such as tillage. As would be expected, reducing applied rates, or
eliminating an input or activity altogether, resulted in lower production costs. What was
interesting is the effect of lower inputs on the net return. In 1992 for example, lower costs
resulted in higher net returns 53 percent of the time. In these cases yields were either unchanged
or increased with reduced inputs. Net returns decreased with decreasing variable costs 33 percent
of the time. Net returns were unchanged 14 percent of the time in 1992. In seven of the 1992
projects there was no clear correlation between costs and net returns, negative or positive. In
1993 lower variable costs resulted in higher net returns 50 percent of the time and lower net
returns 47 percent of the time. Three percent of the time the returns were not effected by lower
Practical Applications and Direct Impact:
Through extensive nitrogen rate studies conducted over several years at many locations, farmers
are discovering profitable yields can be obtained at lower-than-recommended nitrogen rates.
Farmers have reported lowering nitrogen rates in corn across the farm by up to 50 percent as a
result of what was observed from on-farm research. It can only be assumed that farmers are
taking what they are learning via their on-farm research and applying it to their decision-making