On-farm trials: Learning from the horticultural field labs (Organised by OGA)

The session aimed to reflect on the lessons learnt from the growers’ field lab trials and provide growers and researchers a chance to share experiences of conducting small-scale trials. What has worked well and what hasn’t?

Phil Sumption (ORC): Chair

Session summary

Today, it is widely accepted that organic growers innovate and do “informal research” on their farms. They find DIY solutions to everyday problems and sometimes even design novel production systems. However, alternative options need to be tested, assessed and good tips must be shared with a broader range of growers. The Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme (DOFF) makes it possible for producers to come up with questions, problems and/or potential solutions and to get support from the Soil Association and the Organic Research Centre. Organising a Field Lab is a way to encourage producers’ inventiveness, reclaim the research agenda for ourselves and to bring about more relevant, useful and robust results for peers.Indeed, this kind of on-farm trial raises both methodology and feasibility issues. During this session, Ben Raskin(Soil Association, facilitator), Iain Tolhurst (Tolhurst Organics, grower) and Anja Vieweger (ORC researcher) shared their perspectives on the Field Lab on woodchip compost they organised together recently. They explained the practical choices they made in terms of experiment design, replication, data record, interpretation of results, and dissemination. Actually, there are many different options possible, especially for experiment design and data recording but one must make choices while taking into account their practicality in farm conditions. The different tasks must fit in to a producer’s daily work and the site chosen may induce some bias. This kind of issue came up often and led to many discussions between them; they had to be creative and to bring smart and cheap solutions. Producer’s involvement in the process, good facilitation and collective brainstorming were the key components of this success. Engaging academics in such producer-led process sounds very promising.

From this first attempt, they also learnt that technology can help with on-farm trials and should be used even more; they allow taking many pictures and videos that can be shared with wider audience. One suggested investigating the different options of “apps” that could help for data recording. In order to improve the robustness of results, it would be interesting to organise multi-farm trials and to broaden the replication of trials across different sites. It may compensate for the “simplicity” of experiment design. To conclude, it is really important to build “local” networks of producers and scientists to build interest on particular topics, and exchange sources of information, tips, knowledge and experience. Although the low ‘geographical density’ of organic producers might be problematic, the experience showed that producers are really eager to stay in touch and to keep on sharing. This kind of network would ensure a better dissemination of results and would avoid losing track of information accumulated by predecessors as well.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • There are many different options for experiment design and data record but we have to make choices while taking into account their practicality in farm conditions.
  • It is really important to build “local” networks of producers to exchange sources of information, knowledge and experience on technical topics although the low density of organic producers and the big distances between them can be problematic.
  • It would be interesting to organise multi-farm trials and broader replication across different sites. It may compensate the “simplicity” of experiment design.
  • Technologies can help to carry on-farm trials and we should use them even more: they allow to take many pictures, videos, etc.

Action points

  • Investigate the different options of “apps” for data recording

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Ben Raskin (Soil Association): Field labs – running effective DIY trials and sharing best practice (2.1mb pdf file)

How to get and share useful results from your trials. Using real examples from the Duchy Original Future Farming programme we will look at how to run effective farmer research. Including setting up the trial and recording information as well as interpreting the results.

IainTolhurst (Tolhurst Organic): A grower’s perspective of running on-farm trials (5.24mb pdf file)

In my farming career I have been involved with a range of horticultural research projects. These on-farm trials were invariably designed by researchers suitably qualified to analyse and document the results. For many farmers the perception is that these results rarely went beyond the research community ending up languishing in a dusty filing cabinet somewhere. The Duchy Originals Future Farming programme puts the farmer at the heart of the research, who has the opportunity to help with the design, implementation and dissemination of the trials through a series of ‘field labs’. Having a researcher to hand enables the farmer to keep the trials on track, follow set protocols and ensure that the results are presented in a farmer-friendly way. The problems of finding a replacement to peat-based substrates for propagation have been around now for several decades, but little progress has been made, with most growers still reliant on peat. With a future ban on peat time is running out to find a solution. For many years we have been trialling woodchip base substrates with varying degrees of success, but needed to know how this would perform when compared with other substrates and what the real issues in terms of plant growth were. This trial provided much useful information and experience.

Anja Vieweger (ORC): A researcher’s perspective of running on-farm trials (788kb pdf file)

From a scientific point of view, running successful on-farm trials is usually a question of getting the balance right. Scale, size and scope of the experiment, as well as budget and labour are usually central items in this balancing act which have to be brought in line with expected results and benefits for growers and farmers. Particularly for small-scale on-farm trials, where financial and spatial restraints often play a significant role, the selection of a suitable trial design and methods is critical to maximise outcomes. Through field labs under the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme, farmers have been able to share experiences and strengthen their knowledge on trialling their own research questions. Such small-scale on-farm trials are highly important, as they are addressing the farmer’s specific needs, especially tailored for their own holding, environment and system; making them more independent and less reliant on conventional and generalised research approaches.

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