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Editor’s Take: Farmers should be researchers

More years ago than I care to remember, I began my career writing about agriculture production practices in this newspaper.

While I did grow up on a grain and oilseed operation, I don’t have much in the way of formal agriculture training. My early years involved a lot of learning on the job, asking what I was sure at the time were stupid questions, and relying on the patience of those willing to guide a neophyte through the more technical ins and outs.

Over the years I was fortunate enough to meet plenty of those, and I was at times a bit sheepish about leaning so heavily on some of them. I even went so far as to apologize to one University of Manitoba weed science professor for taking up so much of his time as he educated me on weed resistance, selection pressure, integrated weed management and how all those pieces fit together.

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He graciously replied: “I don’t mind one little bit. It’s great to have a conversation with someone who’s actually interested. I sometimes find myself talking about this stuff at parties, while I watch people’s eyes glaze over.”

As I learned a bit more about how agriculture research was conducted, a few shared themes across the various academic disciplines emerged. All of them took the scientific method very seriously and worked very hard to ensure their studies and experiments were impartial.

Some might have had a suspicion about what they might find, but they were very careful to not go into it with a predetermined conclusion they were seeking evidence to support. Instead they designed trials that captured unbiased data and they subjected that data to rigorous statistical analysis.

They also didn’t look for or force conclusions that weren’t there. As one research scientist put it, “Sometimes not getting a result is a pretty important result in itself.”

Another important shared trait was a recognition of the shortcomings of what they were doing. Most acknowledged that even though there might be a preponderance of evidence on any given topic, they had to remain open to examine new evidence that might challenge a cherished belief.

Most also noted that while what they were doing at the research level would yield important information, it wasn’t going to just be a straight line to transfer that knowledge from the research plot to the farmer’s field.

As more than one researcher carefully pointed out to me, the research plot is a creation all unto itself. It’s a small plot, which means there’s not a lot of variability, there can be considerable ‘edge effect’ and ‘scaling up’ that data could amplify any anomalies, just to name a few issues.

And while it was a very interesting thing to delve into the world of agriculture research, I also quickly found the scientists weren’t the only ones engaging in it.

On the other side of that coin is the more trial-and-error, seat-of-the-pants experimentation that most farmers have engaged in at one point or another in their careers.

There are more than a few examples of farmers trying something out, sometimes on a whim or hunch, getting decent results, and being copied by neighbours until suddenly that was just the way things were done.

Consider the power that might be had by marrying these two approaches into a hybrid which while respecting the scientific method, allowed for a slightly less rigid and more adaptive system that answers questions posed by farmers on a commercial scale.

It would help tailor research to the needs of farms and give researchers and farmers alike access to each other’s skill sets and knowledge — a real case where two or more heads are better than one.

That’s why a recent push towards building a more robust on-farm research system here in Manitoba is exciting to watch. The Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers is among the leaders in this push, as freelance contributor Angela Lovell reports on the front-page story of our Jan. 9 issue.

The group has been working on this for the past decade, starting with its first informal efforts in 2010, then launching a full-blown on-farm research network a few years later, in 2014.

This network has allowed the group to complete 35 collaborative on-farm trials covering a broad range of topics that delve into agronomic management of pulse and soybean crops.

In Lovell’s article, MPSG agronomist Megan Bourns describes a hybrid system that both pursues large datasets to answer larger, regional questions and at the same time delves down into the individual farm level to answer questions farmers themselves are posing.

Bourns says it’s possible to “adapt your science” more in field-scale trials and that there’s room for more creativity “… as long as the scientific principles remain sound.”

That sounds a lot like the best of both worlds, something Manitoba farmers should be very interested in exploring.

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