To help farmers tailor the best sustainable agricultural practices for their farms’ unique circumstances, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has launched an equally unique training program.
The two-track course — held both in the classroom and in the field — teaches growers and North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents to plan, design and implement scientifically valid on-farm experiments in sustainable agriculture, says Dr. Keith Baldwin, an Extension horticultural science specialist.
Sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that are ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible. The idea behind the experiments, targeted for the 2001 growing season, is to make scientifically valid comparisons of various sustainable agricultural practices, Baldwin says.
“On-farm research is a good way for farmers to be able to generate their own information and evaluate how new practices work on their farms,” says Scott Marlow, project coordinator for the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. RAFI-USA is a cooperating partner with the College in the project.
“New technologies are coming out faster than the research community can evaluate them,” says Marlow, “and this is a way to keep up. Farmers need many skills, and the ability to evaluate farming practices definitely should be in a farmer’s toolbox.”
Following the autumn academic portion, “Training in Alternative Research Strategies for Sustainable Farming Systems,” grower-and-Extension agent teams will conduct winter on-site experiments on growers’ farms in the mountains and piedmont and on the coastal plain.
Growers also attend a winter meeting without extension agents accompanying. Called “Planning an On-Farm Research Project,” it’s the first of a series of three regional training workshops focusing on designing an on-farm experiment. A second set of similar meetings will be held in spring and the third, next fall.
Course participants also will conduct field days and demonstrations to train other farmers to conduct their own experiments.
“The course sessions are practical, focused on getting an on-farm experiment in the ground,” Baldwin says, “and the interpretation of the collected data gets special attention.”
North Carolina, among the nation’s most agriculturally and geographically diverse states, grows more than 70 commodities across widely varying climates and soils. That diversity means no universal solutions apply to production problems that cut into a farmer’s profits, Baldwin says.
“The folks who traditionally set up research studies and on-farm trials can’t be everywhere in the state,” he says. “Nor can they answer all the pressing questions unique to the individual counties and regions. But with proper training, farmers can work with their county extension agent to conduct an on-farm test that helps accurately identify useful cropping strategies that can lower production costs.”
The course is sponsored by competitive grants from the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Since its 1988 inception, SARE has funded about 1,200 projects to promote research and education on sustainable agriculture by examining how to improve agricultural profitability, protect natural resources and foster more viable rural communities.