Research and Extension With a Focus on Farmer Collaborators
This post was written by Russell Galanti from the University of Hawaii and was a finalist in Agrilinks' Young Scholars Blog Contest. Read more about the contest and the other finalists here. A huge thank you to all the young scholars who submitted blogs for this contest.
Farmer collaboration is an essential component of agricultural research and extension projects, requiring social navigation, information gathering and foresight in order to be successful. I found this out as both a University of Hawaii graduate student and as a Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture Trellis Fund fellow collaborating on a training program in Tanzania. While the statement in the first sentence is not novel, lessons from the following experiences may be beneficial for those unaware or those who need a good reminder of these ideas.
A little background: Soil management is often the most overlooked responsibility of a busy farmer yet one of the most influential for long-term farm productivity and environmental sustainability. This is a global issue that affects everyone from commercial macadamia farmers in Hawaii to subsistence farmers in Tanzania as well as the ecosystems in these regions. Tackling this issue requires farmer participation and buy-in. Part of good research and extension is understanding what farmers can realistically be expected to take away from the project. All too often research misses the mark due to lack of farmer consultation, and extension fails to make an impact due to not-so-relevant advice.
As a graduate student I collaborated with a private macadamia farmer in Hawaii on a research project involving the use of locally-sourced soil amendments including mulches, biochar, and effective microorganisms and soil management practices to improve orchard health. Selecting a respected and committed farmer collaborator for this project was a lucky break. Having a farmer that has participated in research and was direct and open about responsibilities was essential for the project's success and continued relationships with farmers. One of the best actions I took was consulting with the farmer in order to determine best treatment practices that would be accepted by the macadamia industry. There were three topics discussed that stood out as very important to project success:
- Input on what treatments are relevant, useful or even practical. Looking at experimental treatments from a cost-benefit perspective and determining if they are practical for the farmer will increase the likelihood they will be employed by practitioners. For example, soil profiling and effective microorganisms were grower-initiated treatment ideas and resulted in the most influential results of the experiment.
- Input on what results may be useful for practical use and understanding of farm managers. Applicable research needs to be able to correlate to important results, like yield, to measurable parameters in the field. Collecting soils and tree data were part of the project, but we were unable to correlate soil parameters to tree health parameters, which was a criticism when we finally evaluated the success of the project with the farmer. Unfortunately, this topic didn’t come up until the project’s exit evaluation.
- Input on what current practices are already being employed. This will avoid redundancy and help incorporate complimentary practices. Harvesting practices is one example of this. Our decision on mulch depths was directly influenced by the potential for mulch to become lodged in the mechanical harvesters during harvest.
The same philosophies can be applied to extension. As a Trellis Fund fellow, I collaborated with HORTI-Tengeru, an extension agency in the Arusha region of Tanzania. Collaborating from abroad meant building a training program based on literature available and knowledge from the local extension agency. Surveying the farmers before the project was not an option and turned into a bane. Much of what was taught was useful for the farmers. The theory-based sessions on basic plant science crop production were hailed by the local farmers as very useful. Farmer’s critiques on the training were primarily directed at practices that were not practical in terms of economics, resources or labor availability. Some practices included composting, irrigation technologies, and use of plastic mulches. All of these practices were met with wariness by the farmers who doubted the success of using them compared to the costs. Fortunately for those unconvinced farmers, demonstration plots were built using some of these practices so farmers would be able to see the results first hand. Demonstrating in a risk-free environment was one way that the project was able promote farmer participation and exposure to these practices.
It can be easy to lose sight of the who, what and why of agricultural research. Focusing on relationships and collaboration with farmers, using informal and formal surveying before and after any project, and incorporating important components like cost-benefit analyses are all lessons that I have taken away from my work with University of Hawaii, the Horticulture Innovation Lab and Horti-Tengeru.