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Can you perform your own on-farm research? Yes you can

If anything, research is simply improving on the understanding of the world around you

It’s never been easy to be a farmer, but now it’s even more complicated. Just add up the risks: skyrocketing land and equipment prices, increasingly demanding consumers, tightening markets, unreliable weather, growing trade uncertainty…

Meanwhile, government agriculture research and extension dollars dwindle, leaving farmers more on their own to figure out how to respond to changing agronomic and business pressures.

Luckily, farmers, by nature or necessity, tend to be resilient and adaptable. That’s why tomorrow’s best farmers will be adding on-farm research to their regular to-do lists.

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“Yes, farmers can — and really they should — conduct research on their own farms,” says Catherine Tarasoff, a crop scientist and the author of the Guide to On-Farm Demonstration Research, a how-to manual for farmers released by the B.C. Forage Council.

“There’s a real misconception that research has to be complicated, meticulous and technical to be good; that it is overwhelmingly difficult or time-consuming. That isn’t the case at all,” Tarasoff says. “All you need to do to conduct a successful on-farm research project is to ask one question and then figure out a simple way to measure results to find an answer to that question. That’s it.”

While on-farm research is not as rigorously tested, replicated and analyzed as laboratory-style research, its results can still be applicable and useful to an individual farm. Country Guide sat down with Tarasoff to get a quick primer on how to conduct on-farm research in any farm type or scale.

Start with your goals

Let’s call a spade a spade: an on-farm research project will demand time and effort, but it can have a positive return on investment. To achieve that, you first need to identify your personal goals and priorities — the 10,000-foot reasons that shape your business.

“Goals are a simple summary of ‘why’ but do not get into any details surrounding ‘how,’” explains Tarasoff.

Divide a piece of paper into three columns. In the first, write a list of the general, biggest-picture improvements you’d like to see. In the second, write a list of your farm and personal priorities. In the third, write a list of your business resources, opportunities and limitations.

Then look at your first column and consider how well each improvement aligns with columns two and three. If you wrote down “maximize profits” in column one but column two’s highest priority is “improved work-life balance,” your farm will gain no value from a project that tests a time-sucking intensive-management technique. However, it might gain value from a project that tests nitrogen efficiency.

Each on-farm research project should be designed to address a single goal. All businesses are built around multiple priorities, but an on-farm research project’s success hinges on it being simple, low-cost and manageable, and on its answers being clear and obvious. If your goal is to make more money, don’t muddy it and reduce your chance of success by also trying to include sustainability or other take-aways within the same project.

Farm plot trials may need to be larger than commercial trials, and cover a large enough representative area that can be managed using farm-scale machinery.
photo: Supplied

“You do not need to answer everything in one research effort,” says Tarasoff. “Don’t get overwhelmed. Small and precise does not mean insignificant. Results are powerful and informative, even if your question was small — probably especially if your question was small.”

Once you have determined your goal, drill down into objectives. For example, if your priority is to improve environmental sustainability, an objective might be to reduce fertilizer usage by X per cent.

Start making your plan

Once you have identified a specific goal, it’s time to create a road map.

While most farmers prefer “productive” work and find the planning stage of a research project onerous and slow, it’s important to take the time at your kitchen table to detail the specifics of your project.

Start by brainstorming a list of questions. For example, if your goal is to increase profits and your objectives are to decrease fertilizer use and increase yields, you might ask:

  • What are ideal varieties for my specific soil type?
  • What fertilizer rates do I need for optimal production?
  • Will new variety X offer better returns?

Look at your list and identify which question, if answered, would offer the greatest return. Then, consider whether those questions need complicated or simple testing. Remember, simplicity is key.

“A concise, focused experiment that looks to answer a yes/no or an A versus B question is the most likely to be successful,” says Tarasoff.

“You don’t need to measure everything. If you’re interested in yield, don’t measure soil microbes. Focus only on what you need to determine to answer your specific question.”

Then, carefully analyze the “how” of your experiment. A project’s success hinges on choosing a design that will work, not just in theory but in the practical reality of your farm business.

“You may come up with the perfect question and the ideal way of measuring for that question, but if the measurements need to be taken at your busiest time of year, your design may not be realistic,” says Tarasoff.

Figure out the details

Be realistic about what the proposed project will require, and then be pragmatic about whether your farm can comfortably carry that outlay. If a project uncomfortably stretches your resources, consider trying to achieve that goal via a different, less investment-heavy angle. Remember: simple is better.

“A good on-farm research project should require no specialized equipment beyond minor things like a kitchen scale or paper bags,” says Tarasoff.

In this stage, you need to draw maps, consider details, and get ultra-specific in your planning. Focus on designing your project to minimize outside factors that could skew your results. If your project is to optimize fertilizer rates, for example, choose an average representative location for your farm.

Tarasoff also recommends these steps:

1. Consider access and any features within the proposed project area.
2. Consider long-term operations: could this project affect long-term use of the proposed test site?
3. Identify and then plan to avoid edges, anomalies, and travel-through areas.
4. Ensure there is room for equipment.
5. Go fairly big: in order to ensure natural variation is averaged out, test over a decently large area. A forage producer, for example, should test a swath about 500 feet long. A fruit producer should test multiple trees.

Now, map it. Working to scale, identify all reference features including which areas to avoid. Think through how you will delineate the edges of your test plot: your results will only be as good as the data you put in.

Ideally (and depending on the project), plan for two passes of any equipment to ensure any equipment inconsistences are taken into account.

Roll it out!

Be ready for pitfalls, roadblocks and unexpected research turns. As Tarasoff says, the only certainty in research is uncertainty. In order to maximize the value of your efforts, be ready to make changes and adjustments on the fly. This may require modifying your research question and/or analyzing or adjusting your measurements should a variable appear.

“In research, things always go sideways. If you don’t have a good idea of exactly why you’re doing it, it’s hard to salvage. If you have a good plan, it’s easier to get some value even when your project doesn’t go the way you planned,” says Tarasoff. “Don’t worry about what could have been. Do what you can to capture value with what you’ve got.”

Collect your data

If you apply a treatment to a significant area, testing the whole population’s response would be impossible. For example, if you apply one rate of fertilizer to half a field of alfalfa and another rate to the other half, sampling every plant’s response would take forever. Instead, you need to sample enough plants and the right plants to get a true representation of the total population.

“It is a really hard thing to choose an accurate sample,” says Tarasoff. “The challenge is stopping your brain from looking for the result you expect. Your eyes will find what your mind wants them to. Don’t look for the best, healthiest plants or avoid the ones that don’t fit your notion of how the experiment was supposed to turn out.”

Instead, she recommends finding a technique that forces you to take a completely random sample. If sampling a wheat field, for example, she suggests using a hula hoop to outline a sample area and then collecting every plant inside that hoop.

Remember that variability exists everywhere. Depending on the project, farmers may have the option to avoid patches/sites that are particularly variable. As Tarasoff says, “Why introduce high levels of variability if you can avoid them?”

“To minimize the impact of variability on your final results, sample enough of the population to dilute outlier data, repeat the experiment as often as possible (repetition confirms and builds confidence in the results), and — most importantly — design your project to offer strong enough results that subtle variability doesn’t matter,” says Tarasoff.

Analyze your results

You made your plan; you carried it out; now you have a collection of raw data. So far, so good. But you’re not home-free yet. Don’t guess or base your answers on a quick visual estimate. Instead, actively analyze those results to determine how much of an impact your tested treatment makes. In many cases, analysis is as simple as inputting numbers into a spreadsheet. Let the numbers speak for themselves.

What if there is no difference in your research results? For example, if you test two fertilizers and see no yield difference at all, are your efforts of no value? “There’s always a difference!” says Tarasoff. “It might not be the difference you expected, but there’s always a difference. Sometimes you just have to look at the answers differently.” For example, maybe the difference comes down to price, ease of use, or timing: factors that provide unintended benefits.

Put that research to work!

While research has long been considered a complicated task only achievable by scientists, research is actually anything that improves one’s understanding of the world around you.

“Think of a little kid, lying in the grass and looking through a magnifying glass at an insect,” says Tarasoff. Once he knows, from hands-on experience, that the bug he’s looking at has six legs, he’ll never make the mistake of thinking it might just have four. That’s research, and it’s just as authentic and valuable a form of research as anything conducted in a lab.”

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