“Can I …?”, “What about …?”: Farmers Improving Their and Other Farms through Research

The season for field days, crop walks, twilight tours, tailgate chats, blog posts, phone calls from the field, and other ways to share and receive input is underway, and the goal is always the same – learn, and improve farm operations in some way. On-farm research contributes much to that learning and improvement process. That message has been driven home to my team and me many times through our years of working closely with vegetable growers in designing, completing, and summarizing and sharing findings from on-farm research they and we completed. The same message was also highlighted in a recent conversation among farmers, researchers, and educators (view/listen at https://www.youtube.com/@OSU-organic).

For background, the OSU Organic Food and Farming and Education and Research Program (https://offer.osu.edu/home) hosts monthly online discussions focused on recent, on-going, or future research pertinent to Ohio organic production. Participants include farmers, researchers, and educators and many comments also inform and are informed by experiences with conventional production. Recordings of the meetings are available at the YouTube channel URL above.

The conversation on July 7 featured a presentation by Stefan Gailans from Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). Stefan leads PFI’s Cooperators’ Program (https://practicalfarmers.org/programs/farmer-led-research/cooperators-program/), where he helps farmers turn their research ideas into relevant and shareable knowledge. Information from Stefan’s presentation is below but taking in the entire presentation and follow-up discussion is encouraged (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpVAdWGG0w0).

1. PFI (https://practicalfarmers.org/), OEFFA (https://grow.oeffa.org/), and OPGMA (https://www.opgma.org/) have similar goals.

2. The PFI Cooperators’ Program helps farmers learn from each other through farmer-led on-farm investigation and information sharing.

3. The PFI Cooperators’ Program is a community of curious, creative farmers including scientific methods in how they improve their farms. Their investigations (e.g., paired trials) inform their decisions. The process involves putting ideas and farm practices to the test using simple but effective scientific methods. Intentional observation focused on what the farmer is keen to learn about and important to them is the foundation of the process.

4. Many questions are often straightforward “A versus B” or “yes versus no” types. Investigating them often leads to a-ha moments and other more complicated questions. A-ha moments can also reveal that some (new) practices reduce other costs, providing indirect but real benefits.

5. Asking “Can I …?” or “What about …?” and completing an investigation relies on curiosity, creativity, and commitment because extra work is required. Farmers receive a small stipend through program sponsors.

6. Farmer participants can discover that on-farm research helps them “train their eye” and look for or pay attention to other things then ask questions about them. They also become better able to evaluate other peoples’ research and its findings, allowing them to select and use information from industry, university, and other sources more effectively.

Comment from a PFI Cooperators’ Program participant.

7. The program is not all about only the investigations. Much effort is also put in to ensuring that lessons and findings reach other farmers through programs, publications, and YouTube videos offered on an ongoing basis.

8. About the 2022 research program –

(a) seventy-five trials were led by forty-five farmers.

(b) Most farmers had at least eleven years of farming experience and most of them took part primarily to improve their production.

(c) 88% of trials spurred new ideas or other observations. Seventy-six percent of participants reported a moderate to very large change in knowledge after completing a trial. Fifty-four percent of participants reported they will make a change on their farm following their trial but 22% said they would not make a change. Both outcomes are productive because they represent learning and increased confidence in decision-making.

It is never too late or early to start investigating a question important to you using on-farm research. If needed, consider connecting with another farmer, member of industry, or research-extension person familiar with the process.

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