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.