Tuber Talk Spud Smart Spring 2011

Tuber Talk

The Grower as Researcher: Making a Case for On-Farm Experiments

While we are closing in on another growing season, I wish to encourage growers to put this question somewhere on their long checklist of things to do this season, “Are there any specific areas of my growing operation that warrant the time to conduct on-farm research?”

Many farmers engage in on-farm experiments as part of their operational activities each season, but there are many who do not.

Last January, during Ag Connect Expo 2011 held in Atlanta, precision agriculture advocate Harold Reetz, of Reetz Agronomics, presented the topic, “Implementing an On-Farm Research Program.” According to Reetz, “Every farmer ought to have an area set aside where he’s testing new things under his specific management conditions. We have a lot of new equipment, new products, new varieties that are coming online, and as we get to site-specific management and fine-tuning the management on your farm, you really have to evaluate each of those things on your farm under your local conditions to see if it fits and will improve your profits or your environmental impact.”

Michele Konschuh, a potato research scientist at Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, says government-funded research is decreasing because there are fewer researchers and funding is tight. Because government-sponsored research is decreasing there is more need to test new technologies and products through on-farm research programs.

According to Konschuh, a recent report by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute entitled “Canada’s Agri-Food Destination” states that government’s total expenditure on R&D (including agriculture) has fallen from 35 per cent to nine per cent since the 1970s, relative to all R&D funding in Canada. And after years of growth, business R&D has declined steadily by eight per cent since 2001.

This decline, in itself, should be enough reason for growers to seriously invest in the necessary know-how to engage in their own on-farm research activities. These activities can then be geared towards an understanding of cultivation issues as they apply to the grower’s specific and unique farming environment.

“The decreasing number of research scientists in agriculture and some provincial governments is a trend that will not change in future. Farmers must conduct their own research to generate credible local data. Otherwise, they are relying on data from locations that may have quite different growing conditions and soil types,” says Robert Coffin, an agronomist, researcher, independent consultant and private breeder based on Prince Edward Island.

On-farm research can’t replace the work done by professional researchers in various specialty fields. Farmers are not in the business of conducting research at this level, and most farmers are not trained to do so. But, with help and guidance, farmers can—and should—conduct trials and experiments on their own farms to verify the findings of scientists on certain crop-related issues, as they apply to their own farming environments. In some cases, farmers might discover novel solutions. They may even come to different conclusions. On-farm research activities should focus on issues likely to lead to information that will support farm decisions in areas where the farm manager is prepared to explore agronomic alternatives.

Start with a Question

What, then, lies at the heart of on-farm research? First, it is worth noting that all research starts with a question. Research can broadly be defined as the asking of a question, and the subsequent search for answers. Simplistic as this definition may be, it is the essence of what research is all about.

From this perspective, all farmers can, to some extent, be seen as “researchers” in their own way. To be a potato grower is to be constantly confronted with issues and situations that prompt questions and beg for answers. For example, should this piece of land be planted with potatoes this year? Which variety choices should be made? Why is the crop not bulking up on time? What is the reason for the upsurge in weed infestation this season? Does it make sense to apply a different fertilizer formulation? The list is never ending …

Farmers often turn to specialists, other growers, crop consultants, product representatives, and others to find answers to their crop- and cultivation-related questions. Often these are the only sources for sensible answers to questions on the performance of crop-related products, varieties, equipment, and so forth. But I want to make a case for more on-farm, hands-on research by growers themselves.

As the age-old saying goes, there are “tricks to every trade.” For advice on conducting on-farm research for growers, I turned to several Canadian potato researchers and extension specialists.

Define the Objective

Coffin immediately pointed out a very important part of any experiment is to clearly develop the objective, or goal, of the experiment. Once the objective has been established, a control or check plot must be put in place. “If you are conducting a fertilizer experiment you will need to have a non-fertilized check plot to see what yields were obtained in the absence of fertilizer. You would also need different rates of fertilizer for comparison,” says Coffin.

“Each variety of crop within a species may differ in its growth habit and response to different treatments,” he says. For example, each variety of potato may respond differently to varying types of soil or fertility conditions. It is risky to take data from one variety and use it to predict the performance of another variety.

Coffin notes that growers who are trying to develop an on-farm trial should discuss the proposed treatments with other growers and research personnel because they may be able to offer helpful hints, thus ensuring meaningful treatments/comparisons in the trial.

Konschuh envisions on-farm trials with new varieties, fertilizers and other agronomic treatments, desiccation, spacing, and so forth. “Fungicide and insecticide trials are a little tougher,” she says, “because they form part of a protection program and it is usually undesirable to leave a portion of the field unprotected.”

When conducting on-farm research, Konschuh encourages growers to consider the following:

  • Always leave a check strip—a portion of the field where you do what you usually do. This ensures that you can rule out weather or growing conditions as an explanation for any benefits/results you see.
  • Take several samples—although formal replication may not be feasible, it is best to take samples from a number of areas in the field to ensure that your results are not due to variability in the field. Repeat the same research project for multiple years—climate is never the same from year to year.
  • Try one thing at a time—this way you can attribute positive results to specific treatments or actions. You may be curious about several new things at once, but if you implement many new practices, it will be difficult to determine which ones were beneficial. It is often better to do several small experiments than one complicated one. Keep it simple, especially at first. Choose one or two simple hypotheses, or educated guesses of the outcomes or results, that will yield the greatest return of practical information.
  • Remain objective—the results may not turn out as you hoped or planned. Be prepared to accept and learn from negative results. Don’t ignore unexpected results. Sometimes an experiment will generate useful information outside your project parameters.

Powerful Tool

Farm research is a powerful decision-making tool for farmers, says Eugenia Banks, potato specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs. “The time and effort required to design, implement and analyse a sound farm research trial is worth the confidence that growers will have in the results,” she says.

According to Banks, selecting the site is important when conducting on-farm research trials. Growers should select a site with the soil type, irrigation system and cultural practices present on the farm as a whole as well as the larger production area. This will ensure that research results are relevant and can be applied to that particular production area. She also recommends staying uniform—treat all plots exactly the same, with the exception of the treatments. If possible, locate your experiment in a field with uniform soil type.

The planning of an on-farm experiment is of great importance to obtain sensible results. Randomization and replication are crucial components of a well-designed on-farm research experiment, notes Banks. Randomization ensures that favouritism is not shown toward a specific treatment. Replication reduces the possibility that results are due to chance rather than the applied treatment. Growers should plan on enough field space to do more than one strip of each treatment being tested.

“Randomization and replication separate demonstration plots from on-farm research experiments, which can be used to make valid conclusions and ultimately wise business decisions,” says Banks.

Banks also notes a wide range of small-farm equipment is available (for example, planters and diggers) that facilitate the planting and harvesting of on-farm research trials. An investment in this specialized equipment would ease data gathering for growers as well as the practical aspects of executing research trials.

In the end, information gathered from on-farm research enhances growers’ current management practices. There is little doubt that on-farm research can be a powerful decision-making tool for potato producers.

Lukie Pieterse