Author Archives: Sarah Hargreaves

Farmer-researchers in Iowa!

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By Rebecca Ivanoff and Greta Kryger

A week after our amazing EFAO conference and Farmer-led Research Symposium, we had the opportunity to travel to Ames, Iowa for the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) annual farmer-researcher gathering. This event is called the Cooperators’ Meeting, as cooperators are what they call their farmer-researchers. For those of you who are not aware, PFI’s mission is to equip farmers to build resilient farms and communities. PFI is a broad and inclusive organization representing a diversity of farmers, with folks who raise corn and soybeans, hay, livestock, horticultural crops from fruits and vegetables to cut flowers and herbs, and more. Their members have conventional and organic systems; employ diverse management practices; run operations of all sizes; and come from a range of backgrounds. These farmers come together, however, because they are committed to moving their operations toward sustainability and because they believe in rigorous experimental design as a method of gaining insight into best practices to achieve this.

Held over two days, the Cooperators’ Meeting is where farmer-members of PFI gather to discuss past research and plan on-farm research for the following year. The Cooperators’ Meeting is an annual event rooted in the Practical Farmers philosophy of farmers generating independent solutions to on-farm challenges through farmer-led on-farm research and demonstration projects — and then sharing that knowledge freely with other farmers. It is the central place to ask new questions for future projects and set research priorities, with support from PFI staff. All farmer members of PFI are welcome to become participants, suggest research projects that they are interested in conducting, and join their peers to help decide the list of on-farm future research Practical Farmers will carry out over the next year.

While we have our Farmer-led Symposium on the Monday before the full EFAO conference, the PFI Cooperators’ meeting runs from noon on a Thursday to noon on a Friday. Folks arrive for lunch and are welcomed during the meal, and the afternoon begins with a joint session with one researcher reporting from the horticulture, field crop, and livestock sectors. This way the whole team gets an idea of the types of research that are being done by others in the whole group. This is important because the rest of the afternoon has concurrent breakout sessions by sector (Horticulture, Livestock, Field Crops). This latter part of the day was used for reporting from the previous years followed by generating new questions and finding the knowledge gaps.

The two-day-long event is punctuated by a dinner open to all members, as well as to academic and other institutional folks who work closely with the Cooperators on research. During our banquet dinner we were led through a Year-in-Review and then went around the room answering the question What are you curious about?, followed by a Keynote by a fellow researcher.

After a good night’s sleep with the ideas and questions running through our heads, we started the day with a Research Conversation Café where we were split into groups of folks from across the sectors as well as those who had been involved with PFI for differing lengths of time. Some folks have been doing research together since 1985! In these groups, we discussed on-farm research in small groups getting to know the challenges and opportunities that had presented themselves to farmer-researchers involved in this work in different ways.

The rest of the time, we were back in our concurrent breakout sessions working on the 2019 project design drafting and then reporting and critiquing these designs  & consensus. By the end of the session, many Cooperators had finished research designs submitted!

The closing Lunch and Remarks was a lovely way to end the event.

We appreciated the large number of Cooperators who were able to meet together and with the help of staff to answer questions, make critiques, and have a finished draft of a proposal by the end of the event. When we asked about the schedule for the Meeting, many cooperators emphasised that have it split over two days was very helpful.

PFI records many of the sessions during the Cooperators’ Meeting. You can find recorded sessions of the Cooperators’ Meeting here.

As part of the EFAO’s FLR program, we took our responsibility to represent the whole team as best we could. Though most of our time was spent with the Horticulture group, we both took a bit of time to check in with the other groups and ask questions you had sent along with us! We felt very welcomed and were encouraged to share our experiences, especially around areas that PFI has not been working in such as plant breeding. We have been asked to continue fostering the link between our groups as we all continue our important work.


EFAO’s collaboration with PFI was made possible with a grant from George Weston Limited and Loblaw Companies Limited. EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program is made possible with funding from Ontario Trillium Foundation, an Agency of the Government of Ontario, George Weston Limited and Loblaw Companies Limited and Robert and Moira Sansom Ideas Foundation, a fund within London Community Foundation.


Towards Farmer-led Research

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EFAO recently published a review and summary-to-date of farmer-led research. Towards Farmer-led Research: A Guidebook is written by EFAO and graduate students with the Food from Thought program at the Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph.

The guidebook is a culmination of the students’ internship with EFAO during which they collected data about farmer-researchers’ experiences and learned about the capacity of farmer-led research as a mechanism for grassroots change in agriculture and rural communities.

It describes what farmer-led research is and why it is important; and summarizes four other farmer-led research programs to show the diversity in program structure and support. Finally, it dives a bit deeper into EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program. It is by no means comprehensive or complete – more of a first summary of lessons learned from starting EFAO’s program in 2016.

The capacity required for a farmer-led research program has EFAO staff exploring the model of EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program helping other organizations provide support for farmer-led research, like a hub of networks.

Please feel free to share with your networks and don’t hesitate to get in touch with Sarah ( with any questions.

Provide input to Ontario’s Soil Health Strategy

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OMAFRA is inviting comments on their Draft Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy until Dec 31. This is an important opportunity to shape priorities and directions on managing soil health in Ontario for the next 15 years. According to OMAFRAs own statistics, 82% of farmland has been losing soil organic matter and 54% of farmland is at serious risk of erosion. The Strategy covers 4 main Soil themes: Management; Data & Mapping; Evaluation & Monitoring; Knowledge & Innovation. While the stated goals and objectives of the draft Strategy and strong, they are not sufficiently captured in the targets and action plans.

The EFAO Soil Health Working Group was asked to prepare a submission, and we encourage all EFAO members to provide individual feedback as well. You can do this by responding via OMAFRA’s feedback form or by sending an email to (Better yet – do BOTH!).

Here are some of the points the Soil Health Working Group is addressing:

1. Farmers have a key role to play in counteracting climate change, as increases in soil organic carbon reduce atmospheric CO2. In order to take advantage of this, our provincial strategy must:

  • establish more aggressive targets for increasing % soil organic matter, and decreasing both % bare winter soil and % topsoil loss

  • set interim targets because 2030 is too far away

  • move away from limitations of Best Management Practices (BMP) to an integrated systems approach

2. The strategy should include provision of financial incentive for reaching and exceeding Soil Health improvement targets that:

  • incentivize results of farmers’ management strategies rather than compliance with particular BMPs

  • don’t disqualify financial supports from those who are already improving Soil Health

In response to the Feedback Form question “What could you or your organization do to support efforts to improve soil health and conservation in Ontario?” The EFAO Soil Health Working Group is suggesting:

  • Continue to improve on-farm cover cropping, soil building and tillage reduction practices

  • Provide funds to support peer-to-peer educational events and farmer-led research

  • The Agriculture Community should not be responsible for the full cost for building Soil Health – activities of agricultural non-profits, especially those that promote Peer-to-Peer networks, should be shared widely and funded

If you send an email submission, please cc or bcc EFAO’s Soil Health Working group at

Learn about interplanting and paper planters at upcoming field day

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The farmer-led research field days have been off to a great start, coming up next we’ll be visiting Ryan Thiessen at Creek Shore Farms in St. Catharines.  Ryan has been using a paper-pot transplanter and wanted to try planting some crops at a foot spacing, but the largest paper-pots are six inch spacing… so he got creative!  He’s trying out inter-planting onions in his brassicas to see if that will help limit moth pressure on the brassicas, and to see if the onions will still get enough light tucked in between his broccoli.  Come on out to see his farm and his experimental plots on the afternoon of Monday August 7th. For more info and to register check out


Here’s a video on the paper planter:

Media Release! EFAO Recognizes Grant from Ontario Trillium Foundation for Farmer-led Research

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On Monday, June 26, 2017, Heather Coffey of Fiddlehead Farm on behalf of Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), welcomed members of the public to a farm tour and plaque presentation to mark the growth of Ontario’s first Farmer-led Research Program. Local MPP Todd Smith and OTF Grant Review Team member Nancy Parks were on hand to congratulate the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario and the farmer-researchers conducting research trials this summer, and to hear more about how farmer-led research is a powerful decision-making tool that helps farmers innovate in the area of ecological agriculture.

“I am pleased to see this Ontario Trillium Foundation Grow grant go to such a worthy recipient,” said Todd Smith, MPP for Prince Edward – Hastings. “This farmer-led research project will bring vital information to Ontario farmers, for them to learn and share with one another and create an environment that is both economical and environmentally friendly. Congratulations to the EFAO on this successful application.”

Thanks to the $362,000 Grow Grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Farmer-led Research Program is supporting Ontario farmers to conduct research trials that address their challenges and fit their farm and equipment. In addition, the program hosts webinars, supports farmer-to-farmer information sharing at field days and workshops and a publicly available online database of farmers’ knowledge (

“This grant has allowed us to grow farmer-led research in Ontario. The program is about cultivating a culture of science and curiosity that supports farmers to innovate on their farms”, said Heather Coffey, Eastern Ontario Research Coordinator of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.

EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program is committed to supporting farmers to generate and share evidence-based information about ecological farming practices and archiving farmer knowledge specific to Ontario. Visit EFAO’s website for more information on how you can join or support farmer-led research efforts in Ontario (

An agency of the Government of Ontario, the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) is one of Canada’s largest granting foundations. With a budget of over $136 million, OTF awards grants to some 1,000 projects every year to build healthy and vibrant Ontario communities.

Photo caption: Participants learned about farmer-led research at a field day hosted by Heather Coffey and Steve Laing of Fiddlehead Farm. MPP Todd Smith and Ontario Trillium Foundation volunteer Nancy Parks were also in attendance to help the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario recognize funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to expand farmer-led across the province. (Left to right): Ayla Fenton (Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario), Heather Coffey (farmer-researcher and Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario), Nancy Parks (Ontario Trillium Foundation Grant Review Team member), and MPP Todd Smith (Prince Edward – Hastings)

For more information, please contact:

Sarah Hargreaves, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario 226-582-0626 (cell),

Tax Tips for Farmers!

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With tax season on us, Three Ridges Ecological Farm held a Kitchen Table Meeting on Tax Tips for Farmers. Greg Schoniker from FBC in London dropped by the farm to discuss all things farm taxes. The four of us in attendance all learned something important so I thought I would share Greg’s tips and advice.

FBC’s Top Tax Tips for Farmers:

  1. Keep good records! This includes readable copies of all your receipts, and credit card statements aren’t receipts!
  2. Always file a tax return AND file on time – even if you don’t owe! Late filings increasing your chance of an audit!
  3. Time capital gains and losses to reduce your overall tax burden. This is especially important for large purchases or sales with large capital gains.
  4. Plan borrowing to avoid losing tax deductions. Separate loans between personal and business to help identify tax deductions, remembering that interest is a tax deduction.
  5. Make mortgage interest tax deductible. Consider refinancing and investing the equity in your business.
  6. Get the facts before you rent out a portion of your property! Aside form legal implications, there are tax implications to consider, like depreciation on part of your primary residence.
  7. Use spousal RRSP to split income. This is especially pertinent if the farm business structure is sole proprietor.
  8. Plan your RRSP contributions. The tax deduction of RRSP may be better used in years when you anticipate having higher net income, while Tax Free Savings Accounts may be better used in lower income years.
  9. Invest in a Tax Free Savings Account. 
  10. Have a Risk Management Plan. 

Some other tips we took away from the KTM:

  1. Keep a vehicle log for all vehicles driven for farm-related activities.
  2. Each farmer-owner is eligible for up to $1 million in Capital Gains Exemptions, which need not be only on the gains on a property.

Similarly, ACORN released a blog by Coastal Tax and Accounting Services about Tips for Small-Scale Farmers, which you can read here.

Also note there will be a similar Tax Tips Webinar in May – keep an eye out!



This blog cannot and does not replace or substitute in place of a consultation with a knowledgeable accountant who may offer tax advice based upon the specific circumstances of your situation, and the tax layws in effect in your geographical location and jurisdiction.

Is bird-friendly grazing ‘for the birds’?

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Rotational grazing is generally considered ecologically beneficial because of its potential to build soil and maintain diverse and robust plant communities. Grass-based farming (i.e. pastures for grazing and haying), however, can come in conflict with the ecology of other organisms such as grassland birds.

Some have suggested that refuges – areas that aren’t grazed by cattle during the nesting season – may help reconcile the use of these ecosystems by cattle and grassland birds including the threatened bobolink.

A Bobolink nest built on the ground in a cattle pasture. Photo: Gerald Morris, BECO

A Bobolink nest built on the ground in a cattle pasture. Photo: Gerald Morris, BECO

To assess whether strategically placed bobolink refuges can have meaningful impact on conservation efforts for this species, Bird Ecology and Conservation Ontario (BECO), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of birds in Ontario through the use of ecological research, is teaming up with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) on a 2-year study in the Ottawa Valley. The project is funded by the Government of Canada through the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands initiative.

Starting in May 2016, wildlife biologists with BECO worked with 5 farmers on 8 pastures that are each rotationally grazed by 1 herd of beef cattle (herd sizes vary, as do stocking density, rest period, etc.). Across the 2-year study, each pasture has 1 year of treatment, when ~2 hectares remains un-grazed during the bobolink breeding season (mid-May to mid-July) to provide refuge habitat, and 1 year of control, when all paddocks are grazed during the nesting period. When possible, the order of refuge treatment vs. control was randomly assigned.


Grassland Bird Field Assistant with BECO, watches for signs of Bobolink nesting activity. Photo credit: Andrew Campomizzi, BECO

Grassland Bird Field Assistant with BECO watches for signs of Bobolink nesting activity. Photo credit: Andrew Campomizzi, BECO

In May, June and July, the BECO crew located and monitored breeding success in nearly 90 bobolink territories. In these territories, they found and monitored 32 nests, of which 15 fledged young while the others were predated or destroyed by cattle trampling. After year 2, they will compare the proportion of bobolink that fledged young in each pasture under treatment and control.

The conservation implications of this study are important and complex. If refuges are effective at supporting bobolink conservation in pastures, what does this mean for grass-based farmers who may already feel the burden of conservation efforts in an agricultural landscape composed primarily of monocultures and field crops? If refuges don’t improve bobolink reproductive success, then what does the future hold for this charismatic grassland species?

Tea bag science for all

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The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative recently blogged about The Tea Bag Index, a citizen science project to measure rates of decomposition across the world. Their blog was a good reminder to share this project with EFAO members and talk about the importance of estimating decomposition.

Why decomposition?

Decomposition is a critical function performed by soil microbes that recycles nutrients, forms humus and stores carbon. It is important to understand decomposition so we can improve soil nutrient status and take carbon out of the atmosphere. Said again: understanding what controls rates of decomposition is central to soil health and global climate change mitigation. (Check out this video on humus formation!)

Historically, researchers measure decomposition using “litter bags”: mesh bags, sewn by frantic graduate students, and stuffed with pre-weighed amounts of dry material like leaves, stover, straw, needles, etc. depending on the research question. Bags are buried in the soil for a pre-determined amount of time and then dug up and re-weighed. The difference in mass between the bag before and after burial is used to estimate decomposition rate. The trouble with the litter bag method is that it’s hard to compare from ecosystem to ecosystem, site to site. Is the decomposition of wheat straw in Saskatchewan different than in Ontario due to differences wheat variety, length of time buried, or soil/climate and soil microbes etc.? Another issue is that estimates of decomposition rate require two measurements after burial to get change over time.

Photo taken from

To reduce the number of unknowns and simplify the method to just one measurement, researchers at The Tea Bag Index in Europe standardized and simplified the litter bag method using two types of tea bags – Lipton Green tea and Lipton Rooibos tea – with both types buried at specific depth and for a specified amount of time. This means anyone with access to these specific tea bags (which can be found here in Ontario!) and a scale can collect data on decomposition that can be compared to all other experiments that follow the protocol.

The Tea Bag Index isn’t just for scientists.

Yes, it is great to participate in citizen science projects because standardized datasets from around the world are incredibly powerful. Even more, the Tea Bag Index is a cheap and easy way to help you better understand microbial life in the soil on your farm. You can compare different materials (e.g. different pastures, different crops) or the same material in different soils/fields or at different times of year, or a combination.



It is generally recognized that there are two types of organic material: labile, easily decomposable material that is broken down in months, and recalcitrant, less decomposable material that takes many months or years to break down. This results in two stages (phases) of decomposition following exponential decay: rapid decomposition of labile material occurs in the first stage; decomposition slows down and levels off in the second stage when only recalcitrant material remains.

The Lipton Green Tea is composed of labile, or easily decomposed organic material, while the Lipton Rooibos Tea has more recalcitrant, or less decomposable organic material. After 90 days buried you assume:

  • labile Green tea decomposes so quickly that it is in the second stage of decomposition and;
  • Rooibos tea is still in the first stage of decomposition because the little amount of labile material it has is enmeshed in recalcitrant material and harder for microbes to access and decompose.

[An important caveat: not all labile material will decompose! Some will be stabilized. More on this below.]

You can use weight loss of the Green tea bag that you measure to determine how much of the labile fraction is decomposed and how much is stabilized. This gives you a stabilization factor that is valid for both Green and Rooibos tea and is used to calculate the decomposable portion of the Rooibos tea. Finally, the decomposable portion of the Rooibos tea and the mass loss of the Rooibos tea bag that you measure (weight before burying – weight after burying) are used to calculate the decomposition rate.

Full details on the mathematics of decomposition can be found in this publication by researchers at The Tea Bag Index.

Interested in collecting data for The Tea Bag Index? The simple step-wise protocol can be found here.

Questions about The Tea Bag Index? Contact the organisers directly or contact Sarah (

Learning from other farmer-researchers: strip-tilling and forages for pastured pigs

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While EFAO farmer-researchers are busy collecting data and tending their research plots, it’s a good time to share results from other farmer-led research studies.  Highlights like this will continue throughout the year, so if there’s a study you’d like shared or summarized, please email me ( The following studies were also highlighted in the July EFAO Member Newsletter.

Summer squash yield higher in strip-till compared to no-till in Iowa

Squash growing in till and no-till plots at Mustard Seed Farm on Sept. 17, 2015. Photo credit: Practical Farmers of Iowa

Squash growing in till and no-till plots at Mustard Seed Farm on Sept. 17, 2015. Photo credit: Practical Farmers of Iowa

In cooperation with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), Alice McGary of Mustard Seed Community Farm in Iowa tested winter rye as weed control for summer squash. She established 8 plots (6’ wide x 36’ long), with 4 randomly assigned replicates each of strip till and no-till treatments. In tilled plots, 2’ wide strips of cereal rye were incorporated prior to seeding; in no-till plots, summer squash was seeded into cereal rye that was scythed at maturity.

Results revealed that mean plot yield and number of fruit produced were higher in the strip-tilled plots than no-till plots. This trend was driven by better plant survival in the tilled plots, with surviving plants under both treatments producing similar yields. McGary suspects the difference in yield was due to an outbreak of mosaic virus in the no-till plots. Replicate experiments are needed, however, to determine if no-till increases disease risk to cash crops. Time spent weeding was lower in the no-tilled plots, but additional analysis is needed to determine the revenue trade-off between yield and labour costs.

Overall, McGary concluded that the strip-till method, which leaves the majority of soil mulched and covered, may be a good compromise. Read the full report here.


Testing field peas and barley as forage for pastured pork in Maine

In cooperation with Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NE-SARE), Hanne Tierney of Cornerstone Farm in Maine tested whether pasturing pigs on field peas and barley can reduce feed cost and fat content of pork. She wanted to conduct this experiment after observing her pigs’ preference for high protein forages.

For the experiment, piglets from two litters were randomly sorted into two new groups using ear tags, with 10 pigs in each group. She assigned one group a full grain ration + standard pasture (control) and the second group a 1/2 grain ration + pasture with succession plantings of field peas and barley pasture (treatment). Every week she weighed the pigs and collected forage samples. After slaughter, hanging weight of the five largest pigs and % fat were comparable between groups. However, the five smallest pigs were smaller in the treatment compared to control group, resulting in the treatment group costing $0.09 per lb more to raise.

This is only one replicate (i.e. a group of animals is equivalent to a row of vegetables) such that additional experiments are needed to draw robust conclusions. Tierney noted that future studies should decrease competition among pigs for grain, especially in the treatment group that receives less grain. She also noted that planting a greater diversity of forages that mature differently throughout the season might better supplement the pigs.

You can watch the full video report here and read the full report here.


Looking for other resources? Check out these useful links!

Practical Farmers of Iowa Farmer Knowledge Database

NE-SARE Learning Center

Resources for reduced tillage and no-till vegetable production.


EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program is made possible by a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Contact: Sarah Hargreaves,


EFAO announces first webinar: On-Farm Research Design & Analysis

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EFAO’s Farmer-led Research Program is gearing up for a productive first field season. We are working out the final details of two multi-farm projects (quick turnaround cover crops and soil health testing) and single-farm experiments (meat chicken comparison – see below, efficacy of foliar sprays and others). Stay tuned for more information in May!

As part of the program, EFAO will host its inaugural webinar: On-Farm Research Design & Analysis on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 from 9-10:30 a.m EST. It is free for anyone with an internet connection. This year’s farmer-researchers will participate and we hope you can join us too!

The webinar will cover the four steps to on-farm research, including tips for designing randomized and replicated trials that fit your farm and equipment and straightforward ways to analyze and interpret your results, followed by Q&A.


Can’t make it? The webinar will be recorded and archived here.

Attention pastured poultry farmers: Are you testing different breeds this year and want to be part of our meat chicken comparison? Please contact Sarah Hargreaves,, for more info.

Contact: Sarah Hargreaves,