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Aiming for better, faster farm improvement

This P.E.I. project is pioneering a new way of helping farmers and researchers work together instead of apart

Farming on Prince Edward Island is unlike farming anywhere else in Canada. Rolling hills, a moderate climate and sandy red soil provide unique opportunities for farmers, but also challenges for the environment. Now there’s a collaborative effort to help the island’s agri-food sector generate innovative solutions to issues such as climate change and water contamination as well as soil health and biodiversity. It’s providing a unique learning experience for growers, researchers and other industry stakeholders.

The Living Laboratories Initiative is a federal project funded and organized by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), with the goal of running four-year studies in four different regions across the country. User-centred innovation to help producers and local landowners is a core principle, as are private-public partnerships and real-life experiments where working farms become “incubators” for innovation. The project is in its second year and has advanced due to the co-operation of growers and researchers.

The lead organization for the initiative is the East Prince Agri-Environment Association (EPAA), a grassroots organization made up of 15 farm families in the East Prince area of P.E.I. It’s mainly a potato-growing district but also boasts farms with carrots, turnips and other root vegetables, along with several dairy operations. The group’s main focus is to address soil health and environmental conditions in the Dunk River watershed area, in partnership with researchers across multiple disciplines.

“We formed as a group in 2014 after harvest to better understand some of the concerns that we hear publicly about farming and impacts on the environment,” says EPAA executive director Andrea McKenna. “We started from the premise that before we can talk about these concerns, we need to have a solid understanding ourselves about the possible impacts.”

Their first call was to AAFC in Charlottetown, asking for a scan of research literature, but the response was an offer to connect them directly to researchers. They met regularly through that winter, taking turns as hosts for different researchers to sit with the group and listen and learn. Researchers from AAFC-Fredericton and universities also took part.

“The more questions we asked, the more experts we sourced to answer our questions and talk about research that’s already been done or was being proposed,” McKenna says. “We initiated an environment for two-way conversations and with that, we were able to ask questions and researchers were able to gather data from us. We also started to see them make changes to their research goals based on what they were hearing directly from producers.”

From those initial exchanges, growers and researchers began examining farming practices and their potential impacts on the local environment, applying better management practices when needed.

Attracting attention

“Then Living Labs came on the scene in 2017, when a team from Ottawa came to P.E.I. to introduce a new agriculture research initiative,” McKenna says. “They talked to a group of stakeholders that had assembled in Charlottetown, and I was part of that meeting. They talked about what the Living Lab concept is and I described what we as a group have been doing, and we thought we were a great fit to lead a consortium of partners for the Living Lab project in the Atlantic.”

For Scott Anderson, site co-ordinator at AAFC-Charlottetown, it was a surprise to receive the call from Ottawa that the Atlantic project would be the vanguard for the initiative. He thought Ontario and Quebec would be at the forefront. However, the national steering committee was so impressed with the level of collaboration within the collective group that the decision was made to start in P.E.I.

“I’d like to give ourselves a pat on the back for having those linkages and those partnerships already in place,” Anderson says. “We’re a small place — a small sandbox — and we have to work well together.”

Thanks to previous collaboration between producers and researchers, Anderson says they were able to expedite the first-year organizing phase and begin field trials immediately.

The Living Labs East Prairies project is the second program to be rolled out. Living Lab Quebec officially launched on December 1, 2020, and plans are underway to have Living Labs Ontario soon.

Living Lab Atlantic’s first-year results are not yet available but Anderson believes there’s less urgency for collated data. Growers want to see trends or directions and they’re willing to listen to researchers explain the layouts and results of their research work.

“But when they do get a chance to speak, the things they talk about centre on ‘Show me the data’ and ‘We want one-on-one consultation time with your researchers — on my farm,’” Anderson says. “It’s a bit of a shift here for the science crew where they work for three or four years gathering data, then write their papers, but these producers aren’t going to let them wait that long.”

McKenna agrees that growers want real-time applicable practices that protect the environment while also maintaining or improving yields. She’s thankful for the collaborative approach, noting the project isn’t just made up of farmers and researchers. There are 14 different partners, and each plays a crucial role. They want to evaluate the entire spectrum, including the environment, local habitats, yields, and disease and weed challenges. They also evaluate socio-economic impacts.

“We have universities at the table, we have the watershed groups from the P.E.I. Watersheds Alliance,” McKenna says. “Two groups in particular who provide a lot of human resources for the project are the Souris and Area Wildlife Federation and the Kensington North Watersheds Association. These groups conduct tests of what’s happening in the streams and rivers surrounding us and they answer our questions about the impacts on the greater ecosystem.”

Finding value

With the launch of new seed and chemical products or a new piece of equipment, growers often wonder about their economics. How much will they cost and what will be the benefits?

Anderson says growers and researchers share that curiosity. They want to work co-operatively and be able to see things from each other’s perspective.

“The standard answer we get is that they believe in the end goal of the project, and they say, ‘If we can prove some of these things, that’s worth more for me,’” Anderson says. “They see the long-term value of the goals we’re looking for now and also that partnership for the future. The producers we work with are innovative and care about the impact they have on the environment.”

The project has also attracted the attention of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network and a similar initiative with Idaho producers. McKenna is pleased to see that connection and praises the efforts of researchers in working collaboratively with growers.

“The trust is being built between researchers and farmers, and that two-way dialogue lends itself to earlier adaptations in the field, which has been a positive experience so far. We’re really looking forward to years three and four, and seeing some of the results and making those changes. We won’t be making them blindly but with the right expertise and support around the producers.”

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Ralph Pearce

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