Every farming operation is unique, with different needs than their neighbours and different crops growing on its land.
A lot of farming is trial and error, sometimes bringing up more questions than answers. Now, Sarah Hargreaves and the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) group are facilitating on-farm tests and trials to answer some of those questions.
Whether it is which sprays work best, or if some cover crops work better than others in organic farming, producers around southwestern Ontario are looking for solutions.
With a $75,000 seed grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, ten farmers are testing different techniques and products on their land in order to share their results with other farmers in the area and across the province.
In St. Agatha, Angie Koch is running two experiments, one with foliar sprays, and the second to see what kinds of cover crops benefit the soil the most for late-season growing.
“She is looking at the organic foliar sprays to see if they are increasing or decreasing pest loads, while increasing yields,” said Hargreaves. “It is very ambitious. The experiment involved six blocks of 190-foot beds in 20-foot sections of either an unsprayed zone, a buffer zone, and then a sprayed zone.”
Hargreaves says the results, which have to be replicated more than once to gauge effectiveness, are a benefit to all farmers, even if their operations are a bit different, especially in the cover crop experiment.
“The cover crop trials were very specific, but it answered similar questions that other farmers were interested in,” she said. “Do spring planted cover crops benefit the production of late-season grass and cash crops? Angie’s question was whether a cover crop cocktail containing a legume … will help with nitrogen (in the soil) and how does that differ from a monoculture of buckwheat with respect to plant health and harvestable yield.”
With a very dry and hot summer this year, Hargreaves says the results were a bit skewed, but there was a surprise – the buckwheat germinated well, showing that, as a cover crop, the plant is resilient in a drought year.
The farmer-led research program is the first of its kind in Ontario, and is modeled on already successful programs elsewhere in North America. Hargreaves says she looked specifically to a 30-plus-year program running in Iowa to see why they were successful and how they maintained membership.
“They really know their stuff and it is highly successful,” she said. “Hundreds of farmers have participated in thousands of research trials which have been shared at field days that have reached at least 4,000 people in Iowa last year alone,” she said, adding that the EFAO program also hosts field days for other farmers to come check out the experiments and trials. “That is where a lot of on-farm research is shared. It has also proven to be an effective mechanism for innovation.”
The program’s first year is drawing to a close, but Hargreaves says the EFAO is already looking ahead to see how they can keep the program growing. They have already received lots of interest.
“Those two big questions around reproducibility and sensitivity are relevant to every farmer,” she said. “We have these amazing models to work off and we have applied for more funding. We are hopeful that we are going to get enough funding to continue it for another three years at least, just as a start. There has been so much interest in the program among our members and also from other organizations.”
Hargreaves is currently working on a free-to-access database that will have all of the results from the on-farm trials, available for everyone to take a look.
For more information on the EFAO and the on-farm trials, or to see a schedule of field days, visit their website at www.efao.ca.