Why on-farm research continues to grow

There’s a North American-wide trend to greater research conducted on working farms

Farmer confidence in making decisions is a major outcome of the increasing number of on-farm research trials happening in Ontario.

“Conducting trials makes me make better decisions,” says Dr. Stefan Gailans, scientific co-ordinator of the “Co-operator” program of the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), in describing the reaction of one PFI member participating in the program’s farmer-led research. The experience of collecting data and seeing that data incorporated into a research finding makes them much more observant of other things happening on their farm, the farmer said.

Why it matters: Coordinated on-farm research generates multiple site, but also local data and information.

Gailans was one of the speakers during a recent program about farmer-based research put on by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association-administered ONFARM (On Farm Applied Research and Monitoring) program.

The Iowa group launched its program in the 1980s with trial plots proving lower nitrogen application rates were just as effective as the higher rates being recommended by fertilizer salespeople, and has been respected as an on-farm research leader since.

In Ontario ONFARM is giving 25 farmers across the province the chance to experience side-by-side trials. The four-year program was launched in 2020 with funding from the province and federal government through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, along with several conservation authorities and the Soil Resource Group.

“Ontario is a large and diverse province. It’s really important for our management team to understand if there are any regional differences in how our soils respond to industry-recognized best management practices,” said Renfrew County’s Jenn Doelmann, when the 25 farms were announced. 

Doelmann along with Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) member Eric Barnhorst of Brighton and Dr. Laura Van Eerd of the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus talked about their experiences with on-farm research.

Doelmann’s ONFARM trials will track a rotation of winter wheat and corn with oat and cereal rye cover crops, using no-till and organic amendments. 

They’re also seed growers, however, with a diverse rotation on the rest of the farm including niche crops like sunflowers. As a result, they’re no strangers to side-by-side variety trials.

But with no conservation authority covering her area, Doelmann says the impetus for soil health-related research isn’t always at the forefront. With the ONFARM opportunity, she said, “I was really looking for ways to help re-engage my farm” after a few years when they didn’t do any variety trials.

Barnhorst came to the concept through the EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program – introduced in 2016 and modelled after the Iowa group’s example by staff member Sarah Hargreaves, who had studied in that state. In 2018 Barnhorst took part in a garlic varieties study, then followed that up by researching tomato grafting in high tunnels in 2019 and field regeneration through cover crops in 2020.

“I find it incredibly useful to have a definitive answer to a question…and knowing that it’s supported by a rigorous process of recording data,” he said. If something doesn’t work, then it can be dismissed as an option. “So you’re not constantly thinking about ‘should I try it or not?’”

Keeping it simple

The panel discussion was preceded by short presentations from a number of speakers leading on-farm research efforts. They were asked for their thoughts on guiding principles. Dale Cowan, who has been leading on-farm trials for the Wanstead and AGRIS cooperatives under the tagline My Field, said “just test one thing. Measure one thing at a time..and, if you want to do a second thing, do it in a separate part of the field.”

In 2021, My Field will be looking into an N-fixing bacteria that has been promoted for use on a range of commonly grown cash crops. There will be side-by-side N-rate trials at about 14 sites as well as over 100 end strips on locations not involved in side-by-side work.

Hargreaves agreed with keeping it simple. Trained in the scientific method, she refers to the model as “side-by-side, randomized, replicated trials” but stresses this model of research can’t be overly strict with regards to calibrated equipment and data-gathering protocol. It has to be adaptable so farmers can do it themselves.

Multi-farm trials are a good way to get started in on-farm research, Hargreaves said, because all the pressure isn’t on a single farmer to come up with useable results.

So far, more than 60 EFAO members have now received funding and technical support to conduct more than 70 trials tackling an aspect of one of 10 member-chosen research priorities.

Cowan said there must be a commitment to follow the field trial through to its conclusion. Gailans noted this commitment is most likely when – as with the PFI or EFAO models – the farmers come to the organization with their idea or their curiosity or their challenge. That way they own it and it’s not likely to slip to the bottom of the priority list when the weather is bad.

For many PFI participants, Gailans explained, an annual co-operators meeting is the highlight of the year. For the meeting, farmers’ results are provided in the form of a presentation and they’re able to answer questions from their peers. 

“It’s truly a farmers’ meeting. It’s another example of the farmers truly owning their trials.”

EFAO offers a similar opportunity during its annual convention. And Barnhorst agrees that being able to share his “trials and tribulations” is valuable. “Most farmers have this impulse to share their findings,” he said, “and I feel much more confident doing this after being part of a rigorous research project.”

Over the years, Gailans has come to understand that participants aren’t generally trying to prescribe to others what to do on their farms. They simply want to know what works at their place.

“And, from what they tell us, that turns out to be an extremely meaningful experience.”

Agriculture companies looking towards on-farm research too

Some companies are moving toward more on-farm research, replacing their own research facilities with farmer co-operators.

Trouw Nutrition Canada has just sold its agricultural research farm near Burford – which has hosted research into animal nutrition since it was started in 1992 by Shur Gain. But the sale doesn’t mean Trouw Nutrition – whose Netherlands-based parent company, Nutreco, purchased Shur Gain in 2007 – is stepping away from on-farm research.

Dr. Kathleen Crispi, director of innovation at Trouw Nutrition, told Farmtario the Burford farm’s facilities needed significant upgrades to keep pace with modern research needs. So the company decided to focus instead on collaboration with university research programs in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba, as well as grow its “validation farm network” of participating commercial operations.

When asked what it takes to be part of the validation farm network, Crispi responded:

  • Dedication and passion to animal care, practice.
  • Enthusiasm for trying new innovations and solutions.
  • Attention to details – research is about removing variability so understanding the importance of standard operating procedures is key.
  • As for facility – ability to create experimental units, like pens or housing arrangements that allow for testing a new technology versus the old.

About the author


Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.



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