It was a cold, mid-April morning near Redvers in the south-east corner of a decidedly un-spring-like Saskatchewan, and the flat fields all around us were still blanketed in white. Between the snow and the clouds, you could hardly tell where the sky ended and the earth began.
I had arranged to meet research manager Lana Shaw at the South East Research Farm for some photos, and although she had expected to have the seeding equipment out by now, we made do with the bleak landscape. After the photos, we stood outside, talking about research funding in the finger-numbing cold.
It was hard to believe that within two months Shaw and her team will be finished seeding the various plots they’ve planned for the summer. Most of those trials will be fairly conventional agronomy research, the types of tests farmers are used to seeing at any regional research farm.
But at Redvers, nearly 20 per cent of the trials are focused on intercropping.
Why intercropping? Because individual farmers have ponied up the funds to pay for the research.
Call it crowdfunding, research-style.
- Read more: The funding crunch in agricultural research
Intercropping involves growing two or more different crop types in the same field in the same season. In Saskatchewan, a few examples of pairings include flax and chickpea, mustard and lentils, and canola with maple peas.
Farmers who intercrop generally harvest both crops in the fall, separating the seed after harvest. Sometimes the goal is over-yielding — to reap more total yield from the intercrop than would be possible from a mono-crop. Or it might be to cut input costs, reduce disease, improve harvestability, or hasten maturity, depending on the pairing.
While intercropping might sound a little unconventional, Shaw says producer interest has hit the temperature of a house on fire.
The Saskatchewan government estimates there were more than 40,000 acres of intercrops in 2017, and Sask Crop Insurance is also offering insurance for intercrops for the first time in 2018.
Yet despite growing interest, ag research funders said “no” to money for intercrop research at Redvers this year.
Saskatchewan’s Agri-ARM network
Redvers is one of eight sites in Saskatchewan’s Agri-ARM, a network of producer-driven applied research sites (ARM stands for Applied Research Management).The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture provides core funding for each site. Some sites also have Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) staff, due to close ties to AAFC. However, the bulk of their dollars comes from project-based funding from commodity groups, government, and industry.
These Agri-ARM sites are independently managed although they do collaborate to produce data that is valuable across several regions in Saskatchewan, yet is also relevant to local conditions. Examples of recently completed Agri-ARM projects include seed-applied micronutrients in wheat, seeding and fungicide rates in peas and lentils, and fusarium head blight management in durum.
Part of Agri-ARM’s mandate is to test new farming practices and technology. That means intercropping, but as you’ve just read, the research project got turned down for funding.
- Read more: Is there a tipping point on intercropping?
Necessity is the mother of invention, Shaw says, so she turned to Twitter to crowdsource cash for the orphaned flax/chickpea intercrop trial. Tagging the campaign #AdoptAPlot, she quickly raised nearly $13,000 from farmers, agronomists, and industry, covering the costs of the Redvers trial. Donors ponied up anywhere from $200 to $1,200 each.
Colin Rosengren farms in south-eastern Saskatchewan and has been intercropping for 14 years. These days only barley and durum are grown solo on the Rosengren farm. The balance, which is 60 per cent or more of his acres, is intercropped. The biggest driver, he says, is better net returns through higher yields and lower costs.
“We see 20 per cent to 50 per cent over-yielding, depending on the different crops,” Rosengren says. Adding pulses to the intercrops lowers nitrogen requirements. Growing flax with chickpeas cuts fungicide use dramatically on their farm, and also creates better quality crops, he says.
Rosengren is one of the #AdoptAPlot supporters. He sees similarities between the way Shaw crowdfunded her research and how farmers picked up intercropping. “It was a ‘desperation breeds innovation’ type of thing.”
“For whatever reason the research directors and funding agencies… seem to have put their noses up at intercropping stuff,” Rosengren says. But Shaw saw a need to do this research and work with growers, he says, so “she got innovative.”
Rosengren’s practice of intercropping chickpeas and flax partly inspired Shaw’s interest in the subject. In 2012, she secured funding through a Growing Forward program to run simple trials to evaluate that intercrop at Redvers.
Bill May, an AAFC researcher, ran similar trials at Indian Head. And finally researchers tried the same pairing for one year each at Outlook, Scott and Swift Current.
Redvers and Indian Head yielded promising results in 2012 through 2015, Shaw says. A Saskatchewan government article notes the Redvers and Indian Head trials found a 34 per cent ascochyta reduction in the intercropped chickpeas and fewer green seeds in the intercropped flax. Other benefits included more uniform maturity, shortened maturity, and less lodging.
Intercropping chickpeas and flax bumps profits by about $200 per acre because of reduced fungicide use and increased value from the flax, Shaw says, and she now estimates there are about 8,500 more acres being intercropped (besides Rosengren’s farm) due to the chickpea/flax trials.
“A clear chain of technology transfer can be drawn between the Redvers trials and the adoption of this new technique for chickpea production,” says Shaw.
So Shaw and her colleagues wrote larger funding proposals for intercropping research. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of Saskatchewan planned to partner with the South East Research Farm (which itself is part of a network of producer-run research organizations located through Saskatchewan). But several agencies rejected those proposals.
Shaw then went begging to Saskatchewan Pulse, which agreed to fund two years of preliminary intercropping trials at Redvers and Indian Head. That funding allowed researchers to study factors such as seeding rates.
In total, Sask Pulse and Growing Forward invested $80,000 in these intercropping trials. Shaw and her colleagues then got to work again on funding proposals.
And they hit another wall, leaving them with no funding for the chickpea/flax project in 2018.
“William May was still determined to continue this project at Indian Head,” says Shaw. And Michelle Hubbard, the new AAFC plant pathologist in Swift Current, was interested in studying the disease implications, she adds.
Shaw was pressed “to find a way to turn the producer interest into project dollars,” she says. While driving home from a presentation one night, she was thinking about setting up a Patreon account to do some online fundraising for her intercropping trials.
“Since I like asking my Twitter followers questions, I asked them that evening in a Twitter poll if they would support #AdoptAPlot from my trial that has 64 plots and about 64 people replied yes or possibly,” she says.
The #AdoptAPlot chickpea/flax trial is a continuation of the 2017 trials funded by Sask Pulse. That year, Shaw and May collected data on several agronomic factors including yield, maturity, lodging, emergence, and grain quality. The trial includes three different factors:
- Flax seeding rate (0, 10, 20 and 40 lb./ac.).
- With and without added nitrogen fertilizer.
- Mixed vs. alternate rows of chickpea and flax.
Each plot at Redvers cost $200 to sponsor, says Shaw. A per-plot cost of $200 seemed reasonable for farmers to commit. Plus it makes more sense to people if they are buying something specific, she adds.
Rather than using an online system to collect payments, Shaw sent sponsors invoices and they mailed her cheques. While it’s more paperwork-intensive, it’s a “more comfortable and familiar process,” she says.
Shaw sent details on the trial design and protocol to those sponsors who wanted it. Supporters will receive a mass email twice a month with updates, observations, and pictures.
Once the results have been tallied, sponsors will also receive them by email. Shaw will make the data available to other producers later.
“I said the trial would only go ahead and we would only cash the cheques if there was enough funding for it to go ahead,” says Shaw. She raised enough funds to cover all 64 plots at Redvers. At the time this article was written, Shaw was also crowdsourcing funds for an intercropping trial at Swift Current.