Iowa grain cropping farmers design and run replicated trials

During the midwestern USA farm crisis of the 1980s, a group of Iowa farmers organized the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) (Harp, 1996). They felt that university research and extension programs were unresponsive to farmers' economic and environmental problems. Organized in five chapters across the state, they test alternative management practices such as lower nitrogen fertilizer rates and ridge tillage without herbicides. Scientists from Iowa State University were recruited to collaborate on experimental design and data analysis. At an annual winter planning meeting in each chapter, farmers and scientists meet to discuss research ideas and to draw up experimental procedures. Individual farmers identify problems that interest them. The on-farm research is conducted in replicated trials, usually with two treatments and six replicates, on each farm. Plots are the length of a field and a single or double planter width (Thompson & Thompson, 1990). Farmers plant the trials and collect data with support from researchers and students. PFI has attracted over 10000 people to summer field days and farm tours in eight years. Farmers and researchers also present results at other extension events.

A recent evaluation identified specific strengths in the PFI approach (Harp, 1996). Scientists and farmers developed a common language based on the mutual understanding of each others' constraints and opportunities. Scientists learned more about farmers' research needs, while farmers had a channel to influence the university research agenda. For university research and extension programs, the PFI network guaranteed accelerated diffusion of results. Participating farmers from PFI developed leadership skills by organizing a farmer-managed research program to identify lower-cost cropping practices with reduced environmental impact.

Several difficulties were also identified (Harp, 1996). University staff cited problems with colleagues and job tenure from on-farm work. The trials from individual farms provided only site-specific results that were difficult to publish in scientific journals. The adopted procedure of standardized treatments for multifarm trials conflicted with PFI philosophy that prioritized individual farmer decisions about treatments. Farmers also found that opportunity costs of data collection and trial management were high because these activities made little immediate contribution to farm profits.

From 1987 to 1994, PFI farmers conducted 394 trials, including 78 on weed management. Fifty-one trials on maize and soybean demonstrated that ridge tillage without herbicides suffered no yield reductions and had lower production costs (Harp, 1996). These results and others concerning fertilizer reductions provided assurance for farmers contemplating input reduction. However, a more diverse participatory learning process that included field monitoring, group analysis of farmer planning and decision-making, and reviews of weed patterns could have promoted more extensive farmer-scientist collaboration. This broader range of co-learning activities might also have allowed the active participation of farmers beyond those who were motivated to run replicated trials. Improved management of the spatial and temporal variability of weeds requires that more farmers document weed numbers and distribution over multiple seasons and then use these data to discuss their criteria for decisionmaking.

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