On-farm research solves problems close to home

An EFAO project put farmers in charge of 18 projects that helped look at issues they faced on their farms

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Farmers are gaining practical knowledge derived from on-farm research projects conducted by operations similar to their own.

In one case, the research carried out through an Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) project, helped a farmer understand how plastic can be used to control weeds. Another group is working to develop a made-in-Ontario sweet pepper.

Why it matters: Farmer-led research can help solve problems that are particular to one, or to a group of farms, making it highly applicable.

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However, a persistent question loomed over the recent Farmer-Led Research Symposium hosted by the EFAO: Where will the funding come from to continue the work?

A $362,000 Trillium Foundation grant is set to run out at the end of 2019 and the concern about funding was expressed, along with talk of “blockier” red peppers and more -winter-hardy garden peas.

The day-long symposium examined this year’s research and looked at how to continue the program and improve it. The Trillium funding has helped ensure scientifically legitimate projects that benefit from sound data gathering.

New funding sources must be identified, the program’s participants noted.

Sarah Hargreaves, with a doctorate in soil biology and experience working on a similar program for the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), spearheaded the EFAO’s farmer-led research grant application in 2016.

Ten farmers signed on the first year; a handful of those projects developed into multi-year studies. The program has grown to include more multiple-farm shared projects.

As PFI speaker Tim Landgraf noted, farmer-led research projects run the range from those that answer direct questions — such as one in which a cost/benefit analysis of his farm’s carrot-growing enterprise concluded it would make financial sense to buy a barrel-washer to streamline the process — to projects that leave more questions than answers — such as an energy-use study that left him wondering what to do about the farm’s largest energy user, a walk-in cooler.

Practical projects

Brent Preston of The New Farm near Creemore, Ont., described a comparison between the farm’s established protocol of seeding lettuce into fully-tilled beds, versus two versions of attempting to kill weeds through covering for two weeks with heavy silage-wrapping plastic. The results were conclusive and Preston now plans to switch to covering all just-harvested beds with plastic if lettuce is next on the crop rotation.

Jessica Gale, though, didn’t achieve the same level of success in her goal of determining the best variety of sweet pea to grow in southern Ontario so she could keep up with a growing demand for flowers grown using ecological farming practices.

A severe heat wave struck all four of the farms she had joined together for trial plots — in Prince Edward County, Niagara, St. Thomas and Hamilton — about two weeks into the growth period. That was disastrous for a crop for which almost all seed globally is produced in areas with long, cool springs.

Gale, undeterred, said the experience only makes her more interested in answering further questions about what she refers to as her “passion plant.” Specifically, are there varieties that are more tolerant of heat? And, from a cost/benefit standpoint, what’s the highest acreage of sweet peas that would be viable, considering they tend to all flower at the same time and, therefore, require significant labour for a short period?

Funding for EFAO’s farmer-led research program supports two staff, research supplies up to about $1,500 per project, and a $500 annual stipend to each participating farm. Additional dollars, aside from the Trillium Foundation, have come from the London Community Foundation and Loblaws.

Suggestions raised during the afternoon session for post-Trillium Fund financial support included tax refunds for research projects, partnerships with other farm-related organizations, and reaching out to government and post-secondary institutions for funding. One symposium participant volunteered to develop a data-gathering app specifically for EFAO, free of charge.

Landgraf said that PFI’s funding is a combination of state and federal government, along with private contributions and a small amount self-generated through memberships and events.

“PFI has been very fortunate to actually have funders approach them at various times,” he said, with suggestions made that members of the organization undertake research into a particular topic. PFI’s leadership must then decide whether or not to pursue the opportunity.

Hargreaves noted the project-by-project model will be considered by EFAO for future funding. But that model, she noted, doesn’t cover the type of overall co-ordination that creates such advantages as the Farmer-Led Research Symposiums, or the purposeful linking of different farms aiming to link with like-minded producers on a multi-farm project.

The advantages of the multi-farm approach were demonstrated during one of the poster presentations from 2018 projects. Three women — one from Ottawa, one from the Kingston area and one from the Guelph area — described their experience growing trial plots with the aim of developing a “blockier” red pepper that ripens early and can be grown using ecological methods in Ontario.

Ace, an early variety developed at Cornell University in the northeast United States, was crossed with an established blocky-shaped variety called Aristotle. “Wow, did we see variety. Because, hidden behind those two different parents in a hybrid variety, there is a tremendous diversity,” said Rebecca Ivanoff, a participant in the second-year project. There were even yellow peppers.

For 2018, the 12 most favourable of those (six red and six yellow) were grown out. And although the trials need to continue for another few years to hone down to a variety with stable genetic lines, “we’re definitely getting close, especially in the yellows,” said participating farmer Greta Kryger. Even with the variability evident in a still-developing variety, one participant held a tasting event and the trial-grown peppers easily won out over three others, including commercial varieties, as well as the Ace parent.

For Kryger, being part of the Farmer-Led Research program has been a game-changer. “I’ve done projects like this on my own, for myself. But you never have this group of people checking out whether you were keeping up with the requirements,” she said in an interview.

“Now, there are four of us, so you kind of feel guilty that you’re letting the other ones down if you don’t follow it right through.”

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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