Enhancing Adoption of Sustainable Agriculture Practices via Farmer-Driven Research
1) Establish a farmer-driven design team to evaluate organic field crop systems at Michigan State University (MSU)/Kellogg Biological Station (KBS),
2) Establish a team to design low-input field crop systems for southwest Michigan,
3) Evaluate the feasibility of growing organic corn without animal manure,
4) Disseminate information and facilitate distance learning with electronic communications technology, and
5) Host a statewide Farmer-to-Farmer program focusing on cover crops at MSU/KBS and three other regional alternative agriculture programs.
Our methodology has been to involve farmers directly in research decision-making processes and extension activities. Project goals are to develop a research agenda that directly addresses farmer needs, encourages collaboration among farmers and researchers, and provides a forum where farmers can learn from other farmers.
Farmers, researchers and Extension personnel were invited to participate in two research design teams. In the winters of 1998 and 1999 we held three meetings, each with the organic and low-input design teams. We also had field days in August of 1998 and 1999 in which the two teams met jointly. Farmers were compensated with an honoraria of $200 plus mileage for each meeting. University and Extension personnel covered their own expenses.
At these meetings we discussed the farmers’ greatest perceived research needs. The dominant topics that emerged in both the low-input and organic team discussions were weed management from a whole-systems perspective, soil quality and a whole-system approach to research. To address some of these issues, the design teams developed the protocols for a cropping system comparison to investigate changes during transition to organic and low-input field crop systems. The KBS Cover Crops Program had established a cropping system study in 1995 comparing a cash grain rotation with conventional levels of chemical inputs to a low-input system that included cover crops and reduced herbicide levels. In 1998 we began transition of the conventional system to low-input and the low-input system to organic. We are measuring aspects of soil quality and soil biology, including wet aggregate stability, water infiltration, bulk density, particulate organic matter, soil microarthropods and earthworms, as well as changes in the weed community over time. We will also assess the economic viability of the rotations, including input, labor and energy costs.
In addition to the rotation study, we have three plots (8 acres) in transition to organic. We have submitted our application to the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA). Our operation has been inspected twice and certification is pending.
Kellogg Biological Station hosted a statewide Farmer-to-Farmer program on February 19, 1998, entitled, “Can you use cover crops? Straight talk from the farm down the road.” Four farmers spoke to an audience of farmers about their farming systems. The last part of the program was a discussion of how the farmer participants like to receive information. They stressed the importance of learning from each other and seeing new practices on farms.
In a collaborative effort with another SARE PDP project, we hosted a ‘train-the-trainer’ program in Michigan Field Crop Ecology for seven Natural Resources Conversation Service (NRCS), nine MSUE and two Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) employees. The participants of this program planned four one-day regional Michigan Field Crop Ecology programs that took place in January 1999. There were 213 participants, including 92 agency employees. The intent of these programs is to initiate study circles and farmer networks across the state in which interested farmers and agency personnel can learn from each other about an ecological approach to agriculture. We are encouraging participants in the ‘train-the-trainer’ program to take the lead in organizing study circles, and we intend to promote this in a continuation of this project.
We recognize a need to develop a better forum for farmers to discuss their research and information needs. In the next phase of the project we will organize study circles in southwest Michigan to discuss the needs of sustainable farms and communities and find ways to make those needs a more prominent part of the land grant university research agenda.
Another objective of our SARE preproposal is to continue the research component of this project. We have engaged a group of farmers in our research design team to establish a cropping system comparison. We designed the project on the premise that it would become a long-term study and we think it is critical to continue this sort of research.