A Balanced Partnership: Considerations for Farmers Participating in On-Farm Research Trials
A few years ago, I was cultivating broccoli on a hot summer day, and found myself cursing as I hopped on and off the Farmall tractor to remove and replace dozens of brightly colored flags. They were there to mark plots for an on-farm research project that our farm was hosting to study a newly arrived and troublesome pest called Swede Midge. At some point on that afternoon, my frustration peaked, and I briefly let the tractor cruise without getting off to move flags. With a mix of righteous satisfaction and shame, I watched as the florescent flags twisted around the cultivating shank below me. At the time, my immediate goal of killing weeds somehow superseded the importance of a scientific study. And so, into the soil the flags went.
Fast forward a few years: in my new role conducting research for University of Vermont Extension, I am the one sticking colored flags all over farmers’ fields and asking them to fertilize here but not there, and to plant corn here but not there, and asking, please can you send me your field records. When I arrive at a farm on the first sunny day after a week of rain, I quickly and humbly realize that they have a lot of things on their minds other than my little research project. However, the farmers I am working with are willing and generous with their time, knowledge, land, and equipment. Even more importantly, they are enthusiastic about the research questions that my project is addressing, and even though they have many pressing and immediate concerns, they patiently support the project.
A wonderful but carefully balanced partnership takes place with on-farm research: many farmers have questions they would like answered so that they may farm better, but they usually don’t have the time in their busy season to fully address these questions. However, researchers can run a rigorous study in a real-farm context, while the farmer helps to support the investigation.
My own farm has been fortunate to collaborate with researchers from the University of Vermont Entomology Research Laboratory on a three-year hoophouse aphid study. This project has been a huge benefit to our farm; researcher Cheryl Frank Sullivan comes to our farm every two weeks, monitors aphid populations, recommends preventive measures, orders the appropriate beneficial insects, and keeps us motivated to take better overall care of our crop. Similarly successful is an ongoing project in Vermont to monitor populations of a pest called leek moth, which affects crops in the onion family. The pest has been documented in Ontario, Canada since 1993, and arrived in New York state in 2009, and into parts of Vermont soon thereafter. Fortunately, Scott Lewins and Vic Izzo, researchers in the UVM Agroecology and Livelihoods Collective (ALC), initiated the Vermont Entomology and Participatory Research Team (VEPART); they have been hard at work to identify where in Vermont the moths are geographically, the timing of the moth’s life cycle, and the best ways to control the pest. Their project involves coordinating with dozens of growers around the state to trap and count leek moths on a weekly basis. Because the leek moth is a very real threat to Allium crops, growers are committed and willing to help collect traps.
However, as a grower, it is all too easy to say “yes” to research projects, only to later realize that a project just isn’t a good fit for your farm. The relationship must be beneficial to both you and the researcher, with minimal demands on your time but a solid commitment to fulfill the research expectations. With this in mind, here are a few guidelines to help you evaluate whether a research project is well suited to your farm:
- Does this research study align with your current crop plan? For instance, just because you are curious about a crop or a problem, doesn’t mean it will work for your farm. Best to only commit to a project that aligns with your existing crop plan.
- Is there a written agreement detailing expectations, compensation (if any), and what the researcher plans to follow through on? In all cases, a formal agreement should be signed to cover expected activities, and make provisions for any unexpected issues.
- Are you realistic about your abilities to follow through with your commitment to the project? Better to say no before a project begins than to later realize that you just don’t have the capacity to host a project.
- Be realistic about the costs of a project, and be up front with the researcher if you think you need extra funding or materials to make it happen. Most research projects are grant funded, and the efforts or materials of the farmer might be something the grant could cover. Don’t absorb extra costs without at least discussing this with the researcher first.
- Think through the realistic hassle of having someone coming and going from your farm on a regular basis. Will they be driving through your fields and potentially running over irrigation pipe or harvest totes? Or getting stuck in the mud and needing a tow? Or needing to open and close gates? Think about orienting a researcher to your farm the same way you would introduce a new employee.
- Do I enjoy my relationship with the researcher? Think about how will feel on a crazy sweaty day in July when someone with a challenging personality shows up on your farm needing a little attention. Can you handle this little bit of extra stress?
- Do I believe in the objective of the research? Choose your cause! You are most likely to follow through on a project if you really believe that it is a valuable subject matter.
Finally, don’t be intimidated to participate in a project. Consider it a way to stoke your intellect and contribute to a greater cause. Just remember: no matter how frustrated you get, don’t cultivate in the little flags because eventually, you’ll have to pick them up one way or another.