Knowing What We Know
I spent this past Thursday and Friday at what has become one of my favorite events to attend - the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) Cooperator's Meeting. This annual meeting, in its 29th year, brings together farmers from across the state representing all types and scales of agriculture (from my dinky 2 acre market garden to thousand plus acre row crop operations) to present cooperative, on-farm research done in the past year and to plan for continuing that research or starting new projects in the coming season. As farmers we plan, design, and execute randomized, replicated on-farm trials testing hypotheses with the assistance of PFI staff, who help us design the trials, compile the data, run statistical analysis, draw conclusions, and determine avenues for future study. The late co-founder of PFI, Dick Thompson, is often quoted as saying "you can't buy the answers in a bag," reminding us that we can't simply buy a fertilizer or other hyped products to solve our problems on the farm. This kind of thinking exists equally in organic agriculture as it does in conventional farming. Just substitute synthetic fertilizer with organic fertilizer.
We have to investigate those problems OURSELVES scientifically and determine solutions based on evidence and observations gathered on our own farms, with our own efforts. Thompson conducted over 50 on-farm trials during his several decades as one of the leaders of PFI, and he blazed the way all of us who continue to conduct on-farm research. Since 2014, I have participated in at least 4 on-farm trials or data collecting projects. Talking about on-farm research is one thing, but actually executing it in a diligent manner during the growing season is an entirely different matter. Being part of a cooperative effort made me accountable to following through on those projects, helped motivate me to ensure the success of the crops in the trial, and participating in the trials themselves made me more carefully and closely observe my practices and what was happening on the farm.
I don't want to overstate what those trials have meant for my farm. Most of my decisions are still based on casual observations, relative successes and failures, and anecdote. And data is certainly not the only metric that one should use to make decisions in farming; I have to take into account other values as well. What on-farm research has taught me is to think more critically about whether adding or substituting a new production practice will really make the difference I imagine or hope it will. I am continuing to realize the value that on-farm trials can have in pushing my practices forward. Next season I will be conducting a trial to compare three ways of managing lettuce in two of my 4 foot by 100 foot beds (180 total beds covering 1.66 acres on the farm):
1) rototilling, leaving the soil bare, and planting lettuce directly into the soil
2) Putting a thick, one inch or more layer of purchased compost over the entire surface of the bed (like a mulch), then planting lettuce into the compost without incorporating it with the rototiller
3) Rototilling, covering the bare soil with durable landscape fabric, and planting the lettuce through holes that have been burned at regular intervals into the landscape fabric
The first practice is my current way of managing most crops. I am largely dissatisfied with it, particularly with the trying to keep up with weeding bare soil. The second practice is one that I have read about (never seen on a farm) and want to try as a way to eliminate rototilling, improve soil and plant health, and reduce weeding. The third practices is one I tried on the farm this year with several crops and found it promising enough to want to use on significantly more. I will be collecting data on the labor and cost of each practice, as well as the yield and quality of the lettuce produced, and the density of weeds that emerge in each treatment type. I hope to determine through data collection and analysis, as well as my own observations of the three practices side by side, whether either of the two newer practices really do have a distinct advantage over the old practice. My hypothesis is that they will, but I'm very curious to see in particular how the compost treatment will fare.
After 27 CSA shares spanning 32 weeks from May through December, its time for your farmer to go into winter hibernation. Its been an amazing and challenging growing season; there is so much I've learned and unlearned this year. What I do want to say in closing, is this farm is made possible by YOU. Your decision to purchase your produce directly from me and pay upfront through a CSA share is the financial, logistical, and social foundation of Middle Way Farm. I hope you will continue to support not only my farm, but local food producers of all stripes. Thank you, happy holiday to you and yours, and see you in 2017!