August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA3
On-Farm Tests as a Tool for Extension Programming
Farmer-implemented on-farm tests can be very effective for addressing agricultural Extension priorities. Creation of an on-farm test committee has proven successful in promoting the use of on-farm testing by farmers. The use of valid experimental designs in on-farm tests produces a multitude of benefits to farmers, agricultural communities, and society.
Identification of local problems and information dissemination regarding new practices is a high priority in county Extension programs. This often involves testing of research findings for use and adaptation by farmers. Extension educators also seek to become constructively engaged in local community challenges including agriculture issues. Extension educators provide leadership training and subject matter expertise to assist clients in meeting the challenges of the marketplace, the communities they live in, and society in general. This article describes how Nez Perce County, Idaho, Cooperative Extension has used grower-driven on-farm testing to further these goals.
The term on-farm research refers to experimentation on farms that range from researcher-directed experiments to farmers conducting experiments completely on their own. On-farm tests have a high level of farmer involvement because the farmers help decide what to test and perform most or all of the work. The goal of on-farm testing is to evaluate the performance and potential application of a particular farming practice using a valid experiment. It is not done to determine cause/effect relationships. The farmer may or may not receive help from the Extension educator or university researcher in gathering data. Often farmers receive only minimal help such as designing the test, locating portable weighing equipment for harvest, and interpreting the results.
On-farm testing differs from the typical methods farmers have used to experiment in the past. On-farm testing makes use of statistically valid experimental designs, including true replication and randomization. This improvement has had a significant impact on the outcome of farmer conducted research. Farmers are achieving a much higher degree of trust in their experimental results, and find it easier to interest others in their ideas. Only a few acres are needed to produce an accurate comparison between a new practice and the grower's normal practice. As a result, on-farm tests reduce the risk of trying new farming techniques.
Committee Approach to Coordinating On-Farm Testing
The Nez Perce county on-farm test program uses a committee structure for involving and educating farmers. An informal committee of farmers is formed by the Extension educator. Industry representatives, agency personnel, and researchers are welcome, but farmers form the committee's core. An invitation to attend committee meetings is sent to the agricultural community through Extension newsletters. Special invitations are given to farmers who have expressed an interest in tests, or who have asked questions that could be answered through on-farm testing. The Extension educator helps select a chairman, call meetings, mail meeting minutes, and perform other procedural and promotional tasks. The farmers, however, choose the on-farm tests they would like to conduct. In this way, Extension becomes partners with their clientele. This approach may require new skills and perspectives on the part of some Extension educators.
Often, several farmers will want to work on the same subject. This may lead to many farmers performing the same test at different sites, or cooperation in putting treatments in place at one site. Singular efforts by farmers interested in testing particular practices also are encouraged and supported by the committee.
The major motivation for growers to participate in the on-farm testing committee is the opportunity to discuss ideas with others and to gain technical and peer support for their on-farm tests. The technical support Extension workers bring to the committee (e.g., valid designs, weighing equipment, and data interpretation) are a great encouragement to innovators and early adopters. Other farmers may become involved with the on-farm test committee because of the new information generated by the innovator/early adopters in the group. Experimentation using replicated plots is a new concept to most farmers, but a supportive committee and county educator can encourage a reluctant farmer to begin testing ideas or to join others in a multi-farm test.
The committee structure tends to increase the number of tests that are successfully completed. In addition to highlighting success stories, the committee can be a forum for discussion of negative results and problems. The committee provides a framework for commitment through deadlines for decision making, times to meet in the field for plot layout, and other scheduling that helps ensure implementation of the committee's goals.
The Extension educator's role is to provide an educational forum, promotion, and facilitation. He or she provides expertise in experimental design, layout, and data collection. The Extension educator is critical to interpretation and dissemination of results, as he or she is a liaison between farmers, researchers, Extension specialists, and agriculture industry representatives. The educator also can publicize the farmers' proactive efforts within the non-farm community.
One issue that has been investigated through the Nez Perce County on-farm test committee is the farm program requirement for increased surface crop residue levels. Several tests of alternative residue management practices were performed by farmers with the help of Extension educators and specialists. The Natural Resources Conservation Service participated in some of the tests, creating an opportunity for discussion of practical residue management options. Test results have shown that tillage operations can be reduced and surface crop residue increased without reducing yield.
Another successful committee effort was a series of tests on reducing herbicide rates. One farmer claimed that he was able to significantly reduce his normal herbicide rates without a noticeable reduction in weed control. Other farmers wanted to know if this could be done on their own farms. Through the on-farm test committee, six different reduced herbicide tests have been conducted by four growers over the last three years. The tests have demonstrated that some growers may be able to reduce herbicide rates without significantly affecting weed control or crop yield. This effort is producing positive publicity for the farmers, and they consider this an important benefit. Other tests have involved fungicides, foliar nutrients, seed treatments, variety comparisons, fertility requirements of new crops, and tillage in the dark to reduce weed germination.
Using on-farm testing as a tool for Extension needs assessment, and program planning and delivery has many benefits. Because farmers control the agenda, issues relevant to their concerns are addressed. Networking among farmers is a natural outcome of discussing test results and ideas for future tests. The tests foster cooperation among farmers, educators, specialists, researchers, and industry on subjects of mutual interest. On-farm tests are a low risk, high return method for a farmer to experiment with a new practice or innovative idea. This encourages adaptation and adoption of new practices, and provides local, site specific information on performance of the practice. Field tours of on-farm tests are excellent opportunities for interactive information sharing and discussion among farmers, Extension workers, agency, agriculture industry, researchers, and the public. In addition, growers can demonstrate their interest in proactive problem solving for farm/society challenges. Participation in the committee, farm tours, and educational programs also helps develop farmers' leadership skills.
On-farm testing is an excellent complement to existing Extension programs. It can serve to increase the relevance and breadth of an Extension program in a time of dwindling program resources. On-farm testing is valuable to both growers and Extension workers because it can produce reliable information that enables more effective decisions in a changing world.
For more information concerning this project, please contact Stephen Guy, Extension Crop Management Specialist, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID, Internet address: email@example.com, and refer to: WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences Paper No. 9502-08.
Stewart Wuest was formerly the STEEP II On-Farm Testing Coordinator for the University of Idaho and Washington State University, located in Pullman, Washington.