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Grassroots research

09/30/2011 @ 11:15am

In 2000, a six-year-long research project on precision agriculture that the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board funded at Iowa State University (ISU) was winding down. That study was significant in what it revealed about the value and adoption of precision agriculture. But it was probably more significant because it gave the farmers on the promotion board and the Iowa Soybean Association board a greater appreciation of the benefits of on-farm research. And it ushered in a whole new approach to on-farm research that has been growing, evolving, and spreading to other states for the past 11 years.

Ron Heck was on the Iowa Soybean Association board at the time. “When the two boards would get together,” he says, “we'd ask each other, ‘How did this practice work for you?’ Then we realized we had the resources to create what led to the On-Farm Network. We could do sophisticated versions of asking other farmers, ‘How did that work for you?’ ”

That very year, the farmers on the Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Soybean Promotion boards jointly decided to start conducting agronomic research with farmer cooperators in addition to funding research at land-grant universities. Thus, the Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network was born. (Five years later, the two soybean groups merged under the Iowa Soybean Association banner and began operating with one board of 21 directors.)

See a timeline of On-Farm Network achievements

It was a groundbreaking decision. “Grower organizations don't normally do this sort of research,” says Tracy Blackmer, director of research, who joined the On-Farm Network in August 2000. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't.

“If growers don't organize to collect true, independent, third-party data, they're going to be at the mercy of those who have data,” says Blackmer. “I believe that collecting this data can be the competitive edge for growers. If every grower in Iowa did one trial, we'd have over 40,000 trials. Through that, we would learn so much about how to improve our management. Most growers agree they can do at least one thing better. The question is how do you find it. I believe this network can find it.”

Blackmer, who has a doctorate in soil science, started his career at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. More recently he had worked for Monsanto in a program called Farm Optimization, which was collecting precision ag information. Several of the Iowa Soybean Association directors were involved with that project.

The time line on the opposite page traces the significant growth and the major accomplishments of the On-Farm Network since its beginning in 2000. It's growth in Iowa and beyond is actually one of its major accomplishments. There are now On-Farm Network programs in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

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