Comparing Farming Systems with Different Strategies and Input Levels: A Research/Education Program with Replicated Micro-Farms
This project was designed to design and implement a one-year undergraduate sustainable agriculture internship in comparative farming systems with hands-on experience for students in planning and managing a small-scale farm. Students learned how to compare the productivity, economics, energy use and environmental impacts of different farming systems for eastern Nebraska. The farms were located for maximum visibility, and the range of enterprises brought a number of faculty and farmers together to work with the students.
Five micro-farms ranging from 11 to 20 acres were established by students at the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center (ARDC). The micro-farms had different systems: conventional corn/soybean rotation; diversified conventional crop rotation; agroforestry with row crops and woody perennials; organic row-crop rotation; and forage-based beef production. The project was integrated with the forestry research infrastructure to share resources. Two full-time farmers in the area served as mentors and provided reality checks as they helped in the classroom, reviewed micro-farm plans and hosted interns. The first class of four students completed the spring and summer terms of their internships. A spring term curriculum was developed consisting of general readings and discussions of sustainability combined with instruction in specific agronomic techniques and development of micro-farm management plans. In addition to micro-farm operations and working with the mentors, summer term activities included participation in research at ARDC and tours of the Land Institute. Two students completed the fall curriculum focused on synthesis of farm data and evaluation of the relative performance. The second year had seven students through the spring and summer season, and two of them completed the fall semester.
An economic model was developed to extrapolate micro-farm operations and management decisions to full-size analogs. A rule-based model linked to published data on time requirements and costs of field operations and inputs was developed to translate micro-farm operations into the economics of the analog farms. A second model linking micro-farm operations and inputs to energy use on full-size analog farms was completed by Richard Olson, who designed the curriculum and supervised the program. We produced a brochure describing the program, flyers summarizing decisions and included the micro-farms in farmer and faculty tours. Hands-on planning and implementation are essential to understanding and comparing farming systems. There was enthusiasm for field work and less for written exercises. Graduates of the program have gone on to consulting or graduate school. It was difficult to recruit students, and without the stipend we would not have attracted those who did participate. Time and energy were needed to develop curriculum and exercises; without full-time dedication of a grad student, the task would have been impossible. We did learn about student motivation and evaluating learning. North Central Region SARE 1997 Annual Report.