Developing On-Farm Research Expertise Among Farmers in Vermont

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2008: $9,997.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Wendy Sue Harper
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn


  • Education and Training: general education and training

    Proposal abstract:

    In 2002 and 2006, NOFA-VT conducted a survey of organic farmers to determine their technical assistance needs. In 2002, when asked which research activity would be most helpful for NOFA-VT to engage in, the response was “Collecting information from experienced farmers about solutions they have tried.” The 2006 survey found that a majority of the respondents (86%) indicated that “Helping farmers develop and fund on-farm research” was the highest priority technical assistance need. Most farmers lack the expertise to conduct on-farm research, and need assistance to identify their research priorities, design research that will answer the target question(s), collect data and analyze data. Although there has been a slight increase in the amount of private and federal funds available for organic research in recent years, reviews by the Organic Farming Research Foundation found that less than .1% of federal agricultural research was focused explicitly on organic farming and that only .7% of the research land available at Land Grant universities was used for organic farming research. There are few Cooperative Extension personnel with knowledge of organic or sustainable production practices, and when they retire or leave, they are often not replaced. And although University based researchers have an interest in meeting the research needs of farmers, there is not a process in place for 1) farmers to identify their research needs and 2) a communication network among farmers and other agricultural professionals to share research priorities. In Vermont, organic farming has grown, in part, due to the support network among organic producers. Farmer learning has been informal, anecdotal, and through trial and error. Based on our needs assessment, the farmers indicating the greatest demand for technical assistance are intermediate growers (those farming for 5-10 years) and advanced commercial growers. These farmers seek farm-specific solutions to the problems that they encounter on their farms to improve their production practices and increase their capacity to meet the growth in demand for locally produced fruits and vegetables. To meet the growing year-round demand for local, organic fruits and vegetables, Vermont farmers need to have a much more coordinated supply strategy. This will involve, among other things, research to identify the crops and varieties that can best be produced in Vermont, identification of processing opportunities for value-added marketing, and storage and distribution analysis. This project will help farmers improve their production skills, and, as a result, increase their capacity to meet the growing market demand and improve the viability of their farms.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The purpose of this project is to work directly with organic and sustainable fruit and vegetable producers in Vermont to develop their expertise to do on-farm research, improve their production skills and increase the viability of their farms.

    The literature supports on-farm research as an effective way to gain site-specific data with relevance for farmers. Most SARE projects have tried to improve on-farm research through better training of extension personnel and farm educators or through collaboration with farmers, thus, making on-farm research more effective. However, few projects have been conducted to help farmers develop their own on-farm research.

    Boyhan (2003; LS02-142) wanted farmers’ input to clarify organic research needs in the horticultural industry in the Southeastern US to strengthen organic production by identifying, prioritizing, and organizing teams that could communicate farmers’ needs more effectively to researchers. Likewise, Kersbergen and Wilner (2007; ENE03-080) and Everts (2002; ENE98-046) provided training to extension educators/specialists and other farmer-educators on how to work collaboratively with farmers to generate, design, and implement research projects using workshops, on-farm research projects, and communication tools. However, Mutch (2000; LNC97-112), Baltensperger (2002; LNC97-104), Hornbaker (1995; LNC91-040), and Jost (1997; LNC95-083) collaborated with farmers in a more participatory way. Farmers help decide research priorities or help design research projects or crop trial through farmer steering committees, farmer exchanges, or by individual farmer cooperators.

    Several projects did train farmers to conduct research trials to specifically save, breed and produce seeds. Russell (2006; LNC03-223) focused on training farmers modern corn breeding techniques to meet their needs for corn varieties in their alternative farming systems. Kleese’s and Rakita’s (2006; LS03-156) and Kaufman’s and Lawn’s (2006; LNE02-160) projects trained farmers to evaluate plants for breeding, save seeds, and produce seeds for their own use or for sale.

    The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program recognized a need, and thus, developed materials to help farmers conduct on-farm research. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (2002) publication, which describes to farmers how to do research on their farms, has many resources listed for farmers to establish their own research trials.

    No project was found that had the following characteristics: 1) a farmer-to-farmer exchange used to help farmers clarify their own research priorities, incorporating advice from expert farmers on how they have done on-farm research as part of their farming operation, 2) on-farm research conducted by farmers and used as models for on-farm demonstrations, 3) a core group of farmers developed who understand how to conduct on-farm research as mentors for other growers, and 4) a research partnership developed among farmers and researchers.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.