California tomato cropping systems farmers advise a research station study

In the late 1980s a group of scientists representing ten different disciplines at the University of California at Davis established a 12-year replicated comparison of conventional, low-input, and organic tomato-based cropping systems [see Temple et al. (1994a, 1994b) for details of treatments and working procedures]. Tomato is one of the most economically important crops in the state. The group decided to work on the experiment station to insure rigor in the operation of the experiment and in data collection. However, they were also interested in using best farmer practices in each system to achieve profitability rather than comparing predetermined fixed treatments. They recruited an advisory committee of two conventional and two organic tomato growers and two county extension advisors. Farmers, extension advisors, and scientists have been meeting every two weeks to analyze the status of the experiment and to plan upcoming crop management activities.

This California case is innovative in its multidisciplinary focus, in the treatment flexibility based on the use of best farmer practices, and in the incorporation of farmers as advisors. A comparison with the concepts of participatory learning for action suggests that learning was done primarily on the scientists' terms. Scientists formed the majority of the group; all data were generated on the research station in the 8-ha main experiment and a 3.2-ha satellite plot; data were taken for credibility with scientific peers. Scientists gained insight into grower decision-making, particularly the difficulty of learning to use cover crops and new farm machinery, the difficulties of growing new crops for the first time, and the uncertainty created by weather and prices.

However, this approach had few mechanisms for comparisons with a greater diversity of on-farm conditions or involvement of larger groups of growers in co-learning. Yield averages for the county were the reference for comparison of experimental crop yields, but other local farm data were not available, for example, on weed abundance or floristics or grower weed control methods. Farmer advisors recommended the use of transplants instead of direct seeding in the organic and low-input tomato for easier weed control, and a longer growing period for green manures (Lanini et al., 1994). Were scientists adopting practices already used by most organic growers? By the third year, tomato yields were similar in the three systems, although weed biomass was significantly higher in the organic and low-input systems. The collection of data by growers on weeds, soils, and pests in their fields could have provided useful reference points for the experiment as well as a basis for broader farmer-extensionist-scientist discussions on variability among fields and farms.

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