February 23, 2017
As part of its ongoing commitment to helping farmers, ranchers, and educators to enhance on-farm sustainability and environmental stewardship, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has published a newly revised version of their bulletin: How to Conduct Research on Your Farm or Ranch. Digital copies are free online and available for download; you can also purchase a hardcopy here.
How to Conduct Research on Your Farm and Ranch provides an easy-to-use introductory guide to on-farm research, and is an excellent tool for farmers, educators, and researchers alike. This technical bulletin is especially beneficial for producers and educators who are considering submitting a project to the SARE Producer Grant program, but aren’t quite sure where to begin and how to develop a project proposal.
Rich Bennet, a producer quoted in SARE’s new resource, highlights the importance of engaging with research as a farmer:
“Through on-farm research…farmers gain insights into their own production system and how to produce for maximum profit, not yields.”
Establishing a SARE Experiment
The SARE technical bulletin provides an in-depth explanation into what is really meant by “on-farm research,” outlines the scientific method and experimental design process, provides a brief but detailed foray into statistical analysis, and features several real life examples of SARE research projects.
According to the bulletin, on-farm research is defined as “an experiment that isolates a single component on a farm and assesses the impacts if one or more factors are changed;” for example, experimenting with what happens to soil quality if a farmer switches from using a nitrogen-based fertilizer to a particular cover crop.
SARE also outlines some challenges that farmers and researchers should consider before taking on a year or multi-year long project. Producers should consider:
Once a producer or educator has addressed these four considerations, the experimental design process can begin. The first step of the design process is to pose a research question, the second step is to propose a hypothesis that could explain or answer this question. For instance, a research question can be as straightforward as – “Will a new tomato variety produce a higher yield than the standard tomato variety that I usually plant?” A potential hypothesis could then be: “Yes, when planted and managed in exactly the same way, the new tomato variety will yield the same as (or higher than) my current variety.”
The next step in the process is to choose your method of experimentation; the bulletin offers three examples of the most commonly used methodologies:
Statistical analyses must be attached to each of these methods for implementing research. The bulletin delves into detailed explanations of some basic, yet robust, statistical tests that can serve as a good introduction or refresher for potential researchers. It also emphasizes the benefits of involving a technical advisor(s) in the analysis process.
Finally, SARE’s revised on-farm research resource provides case studies to substantiate their research development and implementation process. From assessing the merits of a pasture-based grazing system in South Carolina, to analyzing the effects of skip-row corn planting on soil quality in Missouri, the bulletin takes readers through the experimentation process from start to finish.
If you have ever considered conducting on-farm research either on your own or by applying for a SARE Producer grant, this guide is for you.
In the late eighties, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) worked closely with Congress to create the SARE program. Since then, SARE has become paramount to advancing on-farm sustainability and remains USDA’s only farm driven competitive research grant program that focuses on sustainable farming practices. Through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, SARE awards competitive grants to scientists and educators, cooperative extension agents, and farmers to conduct collaborative research projects. While all of these stakeholders can benefit greatly from the SARE grant, SARE is particularly useful for producers. Farmers and ranchers are both closest to production and often times most aware of research opportunities, but do not necessarily have the resources to engage with the research process. You can visit the program’s website for more information on SARE.