The power of whole farm co-design

A research project brings farmers together to share results and discuss what works and what doesn’t

Organic soybeans are used in Japan for natto, a traditional fermented food often served with rice, soy sauce, mustard and bunching onion.

Let’s say you’re a soybean producer in Manitoba. You’re growing conventional varieties and doing well — selling into a ready market, getting a decent price.

Then one day in the coffee shop you overhear a guy talk about the price he’s getting for organic soybeans — pretty much double what you’re getting — and you start wondering if it’s worth making the switch. Maybe. But where on Earth do you even start?

Growing anything successfully starts with having a solid knowledge base to draw from, and when we’re talking about something as niche as organic soybeans, that can be hard to find.

Enter Michelle Carkner and Joanne Thiessen Martens, both research associates with the Natural Systems Agriculture Lab at the University of Manitoba. They designed a two-year research project with two goals in mind. First, evaluate non-GM soybean variety performance under various Manitoba growing conditions and develop reliable, region-centric production advice for organic soybeans. Second, design an efficient, effective way to deliver that production knowledge to farmers wanting to grow the crop.

Stripped to its core, their project is about knowledge discovery and knowledge transfer, both key features in most agricultural research. The novel approach Carkner and Thiessen Martens took to the tech transfer component of their work, known as whole farm co-design, is what caused Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) to take an interest and contribute some funding.

How research makes the journey from theory to practice can be challenging, so finding better ways to do it might just help other research areas too.

Why organic soybeans?

“There are more and more soybeans being grown across the Prairies, and there’s a big demand for organic soybeans,” says Carkner, who led the agronomic side of the research project.

Indeed, Manitoba farmers seeded 2.3 million acres to soybeans in 2017, a 40 per cent increase over 2016, with less than one per cent of that in organic production. Yet there’s a huge and lucrative market, particularly in Japan, for organic food-grade soybeans — lucrative enough to make up for the typical yield difference between organic and conventional production.

It’s a great situation for farmers looking for good income opportunities, which circles back to the question of where they start in terms of production knowledge.

Carkner and Thiessen Martens approached organic and conventional growers with the idea of having them work both with U of M researchers and with each other to build that knowledge base through on-farm experimentation and information sharing.

“We had organic farmers who wanted to add soybeans to their farms, but they hadn’t grown soybeans before, and we had farmers who had grown conventional soybeans, but wanted to transition to organic production,” explains Thiessen Martens, who ran the knowledge transfer side of the project. “That combination of different types of knowledge was very powerful.”

Eight farmers, both organic and conventional, signed up to participate in the first year of the project, with four more joining in the second year. A dozen non-GM soybean varieties were trialed on 10 field sites using organic production methods. This was mostly done on the farms themselves, says Carkner, with two site-years of work also conducted on the U of M’s research farm in Carman.

“We managed the sites the way we would any farm,” says Carkner, adding that each represented different soil types, weed pressures, environmental conditions and so on.

At the same time, Thiessen Martens was organizing farm visits, workshops and group meetings with the participants. “We wanted to do this in a way that wasn’t just us trumpeting our results,” she says. “Organic farms, in particular, have so much variability because there are not as many tools they can use to even out the problems all farmers deal with. So we wanted to involve farmers more directly as part of the extension process.”

Researchers went to individual farms at the beginning of the project to get a sense of the physical situation, from soil type, past rotations and equipment to the grower’s past experience with soybeans and/or organic production generally.

Then, over the course of the next two years, participants conducted field experiments growing organic soybeans and shared their experiences, ideas, successes and failures to come up with organic soybean production plans that would work.

The process is called “whole farm co-design,” says Thiessen Martens. “Farmers work together to create a plan they can embrace and implement on their own farms without having to reinvent everything.” A major part of co-design is that once you try something you share the outcome for discussion and assessment for the benefit of all.

There was a lot of talk around spring tillage, for example, because if tillage is the only way you can control weeds, when and how this is done, and the potential impact on yield are hugely important. “One participant tilled one part of his field a second time before seeding and left the other one alone,” recalls Thiessen Martens. “The whole field looked clean, but the difference in weed pressure on yield was significant.”

Carkner says they learned a lot about growing non-GM soybeans in an organic system. “There was some research going in as to how early maturing soybeans had better tolerance to weed pressure than later maturing ones,” she says. “But we wanted to know what other traits would do well in an organic system, like tall or bushy characteristics.”

Among the more significant findings was that the growing environment had a greater impact on yield than variety choice. Managing nitrogen levels is not as straightforward in organic production, either — too high and you help the weeds more than the crop.

While the main goal of this project was to help producers transition to organic soybean production, both Carkner and Thiessen Martens see value in the co-design approach as a tech transfer tool. By putting farmers and farm experience right at the centre of the research, and giving producers more opportunities to talk about what they’re learning, both to each other and to researchers, it helps make the research more relevant and adaptable at the individual farm level. It also helps researchers more quickly see what’s working and what’s not.

“I’ve always found it interesting how farmers will ask for a recommendation and how they take that and change it for their own situation,” says Thiessen Martens. “That’s part of what made us think of this approach to the research.

“I think in the knowledge transfer process we all have something to contribute,” she says. “As researchers, we need to recognize that farmers need to adapt our results to their farms, and this is one way that they don’t have to figure it out on their own.”

WGRF is a farmer-funded and directed non-profit organization investing in agricultural research that benefits producers in Western Canada. For over 30 years the WGRF board has given producers a voice in agricultural research funding decisions. WGRF manages an endowment fund and the wheat and barley variety development check-off funds, investing over $14 million annually into variety development and field crop research. WGRF brings the research spending power of all farmers in Western Canada together, maximizing the returns they see from crop research.

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