What can we learn from farmer-led research?

food security

Last week I attended Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario’s (EFAO’s) Farmer-led Research Workshop. As I entered the room on Day 1, I was pleased to see that participants were already deep in conversation – some were meeting for the first time, while others were catching up since the last time they met. This workshop provided an opportunity for ecological farmers to reflect on the lessons learned from their research projects in 2017, along with plan for new research projects for 2018.

There were around 30 participants comprising of farmer-researchers, farmer-research enthusiasts, EFAO’s advisory board members, interns, and students (such as myself). The participants were diverse in terms of research interests, geographic location, gender, and age.

Sarah (program manager) kicked off the workshop by introducing the farmer-led research program, followed by farmer-researchers presenting their posters. Then, Ricardo (evaluator) facilitated participatory activities to better understand what farmers: 1) liked about the program; 2) did not like about the program; and 3) would like changed about the program. Participants were also asked to reflect on an ‘aha moment’, in other words, a time when the farmer thought about the program – could be positive, negative, or neutral. Despite some challenges regarding the timing of projects, feedback from farmers was overall positive – many reflecting on the technical support from Sarah, the collaborative nature of the project, research funding ($500), and flexibility to explore ideas.

Day 2 was kicked off with a talk by Rob Faux from Genuine Faux Farm in Iowa, titled “On farm research: Learning to farm better”. Some context – Rob is a computer scientist by training, holds a PhD, and is an ecological farmer (making up the <1% of such farmers in Iowa). He’s been involved in numerous on-farm research projects over the last 10 years, making him a valuable resource to learn from. Among his many takeaways, the one that inspired me most was: “a field we want to be in is a successful field”, meaning a field that is diverse, healthy, and in harmony with nature. I also learned that in farmer-led research, 1) sometimes you get an answer to a different question by accident, and 2) despite how much you plan for variables, there are some things you simply cannot control (e.g. weather variability). Thus, farmer-led research is perhaps in tension with hypothesis-driven and variable-controlling tendencies generally associated with traditional research.

Having attended many workshops typically tailored towards academics and decision-makers, I found this workshop to be a refreshing opportunity to learn from a different, yet important perspective, farmers. I was absolutely captivated, particularly when listening to farmers talk about their research during the poster session. What struck me most was their curiosity, and creative ways of tackling problems – although I am not completely surprised – farmers have always been experimenting on their farms but perhaps not documenting the process systematically.

I admit, however, that as a non-farmer, my sense of “not knowing” was a bit overwhelmed at times. I was not familiar with some of the terminologies (Brassica, anyone?) and the technical details of on-farm research trials. Yet, fair enough, this conference was led by farmers, for farmers. I felt encouraged to ask questions, and sure enough, I did. In a way, maybe this is a role for us non-farmers, to strive to understand farmers’ lived experiences, and to support farmers’ efforts in sustainable farming in an increasingly challenging world.

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