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On-farm science

There’s undeniable value in collaborative on-farm research, with gains for both growers and researchers

A field on the Van Arkel farm being readied for next year’s Living Labs (AAFC) trials.
Laurent "Woody" Van Arkel. photo: Supplied

Laurent “Woody” Van Arkel won’t deny it — he wants to know more about his soils, his crops and the interactions with fertilizers and manure and cover crops. And he tries hard to keep learning, working not only with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) but also with a master’s student who conducted research on his farm and as a member of the Ontario Soil Network.

In 2021, Van Arkel will be working with Living Labs Ontario, a research initiative organized by Agri-Food and Agriculture Canada (AAFC).

For Van Arkel, his farm becomes a classroom of sorts, teaching him more about his crops and soils while offering the researchers the opportunity to assess their ideas and gather results in real time.

The effort doesn’t come without its share of challenges, and Van Arkel acknowledges that what he does on his land isn’t something that every farmer is willing to try. Yet the value of the information is hard to dispute. He points to a two-year project to determine the effects of different cover crops in combination with manure applications and side-dressed nitrogen, and whether the N would carry forward to the corn crop the following year.

The project ran for two years — 2017 and 2018 — and it examined four cover crop treatments: zero cover, a single species, four species and a 12-species blend, with and without manure and with and without side-dressed N. Cameron Ogilvie, now the knowledge mobilization co-ordinator with Soils at Guelph, was the master’s student who helped set up and monitor the research project.

Although Van Arkel concedes the study may have created more questions than it answered, there was value to it.

“It was something that I’d been doing but couldn’t quantify whether it was working,” he says, adding that the plot was nearly four acres once it was completed. “I probably wasn’t getting the results from the manure and cover crops that I thought I was. But talking it over with Cameron, we also had issues with some of the cover crops and in particular, rye. Keeping rye through until spring and planting corn was creating a yield drag.”

An overhead photo of the trial plots conducted in 2017 and 2018 on Laurent Van Arkel’s farm. photo: Courtesy Cameron Ogilvie, Soils at Guelph

For the four-species blend, they started with rye (a cool-season cover), then added millet (a warm-season species), radish (cool) and sunflower (warm). That then also became the base for the 12-species blend.

“We saw no advantage in more species, as far as above-ground biomass, and there was no yield difference over a four-species blend,” says Van Arkel. “We did have a yield lag because the single species was a cereal rye and there may have been an allelopathic effect with the corn.”

Some might view that as a failure, but not Van Arkel. He may not have seen the results he hoped for yet he gained more from the conversation that started the process. He was with the Working Groups on Ontario Soils and met Dr. Ralph Martin from the University of Guelph, and during the course of lunch that day Martin mentioned he had three grad students working with him, one of whom was Ogilvie.

There’s also the opportunity for researchers to come to his farm. During the course of that two-year study, Van Arkel estimates there were 10 different researchers visiting the plot, providing a chance for him to chat with them, get to know what they’re looking at and ask them different questions on certain aspects. He also learned more about how research tries to eliminate variability and narrow the effect to one variable.

Deeper analysis

Just as valuable to Van Arkel was the opportunity to take the data and do some added extrapolation. He had three replications of side-dressed N after red clover, with the yield check showing he took a significant hit. Then he calculated the cost of side-dressing N, comparing the half- and full-rate with no yield difference and a yield difference with the zero rate.

“If I took that into account, I really didn’t lose any money,” says Van Arkel. “That surprised me when I sat down and looked at it from that angle, yet a lot of people are bushel-focused rather than net-focused.”

Van Arkel is naturally curious and will try “proof of concepts” in a field or with a crop, just to see how it works. He may not be able to measure it quantitatively but if he can get relatively good yields and success in doing it, maybe a researcher with AAFC or University of Guelph can confirm what’s happening.

Learning the true value of cover crops and manure and N applications created some surprising results for Van Arkel. photo: Supplied

“There’s always a chance that that two-acre strip is going to make me less money,” he concedes. “But to me, if I lose $20 or $30 off two acres, that’s $60 out of my pocket that could make me a lot more down the road knowing what’s going on.”

Another occasion where the value of research — to the researcher — was mentioned came during a discussion on the Living Labs project on Van Arkel’s farm. Some AAFC representatives expressed concern that the results from the farm-scale work might not be publishable. But Keith Reid, an AAFC researcher, countered that it’s not about writing a paper: these collaborative projects are about learning and understanding what’s happening on the farm, from a different angle that’s more applicable — for everyone.

Gladly on board

The value of such on-farm research is a considerable advantage to Cameron Ogilvie, for all of the reasons that Van Arkel cites, and also for some of the intangibles that come out of collaboration. For one, after the field work was done, he regularly had the chance to have dinner with Van Arkel and his wife Catherine, which helped him gain insight into some of Van Arkel’s goals.

Cameron Ogilvie. photo: Supplied

“There’s definitely value for researchers getting into the field — and getting their hands dirty — and seeing the realistic conditions that farmers are working under,” says Ogilvie. “They’re also getting a better picture of the questions that farmers are asking.”

He adds that research breaks down the parts of a system and then isolates and measures the impact of each part of that system on a potential outcome. Known as a reductionistic approach, it differs from the systems approach that many farmers are interested in.

“Researchers are really good at doing that, and those reductionistic answers aren’t always what farmers are looking for because they care about the whole, not just the individual component,” explains Ogilvie. “That’s why there’s a big benefit to farmers and researchers collaborating, bringing that research skill set to systems instead of reducing it down to more manageable pieces where we can isolate the effect of one variable.”

The key, he adds, is to see research as a tool for learning, not to prove practices being used as “right” or “wrong.” Research often exposes biases and if a grower looks for research to prove they’re right on a particular practice, they may be disappointed.

That’s one reason why a grower might reject the opportunity to engage in on-farm research, the others being the time commitment, maintaining the plots according to procedures, and the potential impact on yield.

“Many farmers are looking at how a given practice affects their business base or their cost of production,” says Ogilvie. “If that’s their primary value, then research that doesn’t address that won’t be as relevant to what that farmer is interested in.”

A well laid-out research project can be a considerable demand on a farmer, especially if it involves replication and randomization. The former reduces variability while the latter reduces bias. Yet in order to replicate and randomize, it means setting out the trial and then maintaining it throughout the year. In the hectic pace of a growing season, that can cause some significant headaches to the grower, who may be thinking of herbicide applications instead of tending to a fertility project.

“When farmers are working on tight schedules and spraying and trying to avoid the rain that’s coming later in the week, it can really conflict with the other goals,” Ogilvie acknowledges. But dedication is essential. “One small error can mean that you lose all of the data you were hoping to get.”

Another key discussion point is to determine the goal for the grower. Some may not want to be early adopters, or to push the learning envelope. They may be more focused on a doing the best possible job with what they already know.

Ogilvie doesn’t question those reluctant to engage in on-farm research. It isn’t just the land, the logistics or any impact on yield; there’s also a psychological impact of change.

“This is the thing about opening yourself up to learning,” he says. “It’s an emotionally draining process that takes mental and physical energy to explore new things. Each farmer is going to make a value judgement on what information they need to be more successful.”

It’s less about the type of research and more about the farmer and the questions they’re asking. That’s another reason why on-farm research is valuable; it’s getting to the questions farmers need answered.

Ogilvie believes it’s part of a shift that’s taking place in agricultural extension: less pushing research out to farmers and instead, engaging with them — listening to questions that are foremost on their minds. People are beginning to see the benefits of collaborative research and realize farmers have expert or tacit knowledge, levelling the playing field between researchers and practitioners.

A model to grow by

It’s a worthwhile model to follow that got kickstarted in Iowa 35 years ago with the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). In 1985, a group of like-minded growers banded together to address key ecological issues facing growers in the state. Their three decades of success in combining input from researchers plus farmers has provided a template for others, including the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO).

Stefan Gailans is the research and field crops director with PFI and echoes many of the points made by Van Arkel and Ogilvie. He especially likes the sense of community that results from the open approach between participants.

Stefan Gailans. photo: Supplied

“People meet new people and questions are asked in some ways that someone wouldn’t have thought of previously or wouldn’t have thought to ask, let alone ask in a certain way,” says Gailans. “It’s a two-way street that builds community, where if you’re a researcher lacking questions or ideas or looking for new things, farmers are out there on the front line, seeing new things and having new ideas all the time.”

The impact in Iowa is something to emulate: Gailans says PFI usually has 50 active participants every year with growers who are doing an experiment on their farm. Overall, there are 100 or more who are part of that research community, where some growers participate for a year or for the length of a project, then opt out for a year and return the next.

“I’ve been talking with growers and one of them told me, ‘I do trials just so I can be part of this meeting and part of this group,’” says Gailans.

Gailans understands that growers may be reluctant to participate because of the “drive to survive” that exists in the farming sector. Some are pushed for time, of course, and others are put off by the idea of adding complexity to their already complicated job.

“It does take extra effort to abide by the research design and keep good records,” Gailans agrees. “Sometimes things get crazy during the year … we need commitment in order to make these things work.”

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