Tag Archives: farmerledresearch

EFAO wins inaugural Excellence in Agriculture Award

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We are excited to announce that EFAO’s Farmer-Led Research Program is the first recipient of the inaugural Excellence in Agriculture Award.

The Excellence in Agriculture Award recognizes agri-food businesses, individuals and organizations that have raised the bar for agri-food excellence, demonstrated leadership in their field, undertaken strategic product development benefiting their sector, or advanced technological innovation.

The award is a recognition of the importance of farmer-led research in addressing some of the big challenges that we face in agriculture. It also recognizes the hard work and innovation of more than 30 farmers who have received funding and support to conduct over 40 on-farm research trials since 2016. 

“EFAO’s Farmer-Led Research Program helps farmers combine their curiosity with research to answer their most challenging on-farm questions in a way that benefits their farms, soils, environment, and local communities. We are excited about this award for its potential to help secure funding to continue to support curious and innovative farmers across the province.” Says Dr. Sarah Hargreaves, Research Director, EFAO

“Agri-food organizations like the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario are always pushing boundaries and expanding economic opportunities. What I particularly like about their Farmer-led Research Program is that the research findings are publicly shared, so everyone can benefit.” said Ernie Hardeman, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Three cheers to all of the EFAO farmer-researchers for making this possible! 

Read more in OMAFRA press release

Watch video of award presentation

Learn more about Farmer-Led Research


We would like to thank our project funding partners who have generously provided financial support for the Program since its launch in 2016: 



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 (efao.ca/research-library).

“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 (efao.ca).

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. www.otf.ca.

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), sarah@efao.ca

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 globalsoilbiodiversity.org

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 (sarah@efao.ca).

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 (sarah@efao.ca). 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, sarah@efao.ca.


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, sarah@efao.ca, for more info.

Contact: Sarah Hargreaves, sarah@efao.ca


The “dirt” on Farmer-led Research Program Information Session and Next Steps!

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Over 25 farmers attended the Farmer-led Research Program Information Session at the Guelph Organic Conference on January 31st to share what makes them curious on their farms and ideas for research trials in 2016. It was exciting to see and hear from such a curious and outspoken group!


The Session started with the What, why, when and how?? of farmer-led on-farm research, including some inspirational quotes from long-time farmer-researchers south of the border.

“[On-farm research] is a flexible and affordable tool to get the reliable answers”

“It gives you ownership of research and results”

and clips from The Masters of On-Farm Research by Practical Farmers of Iowa.


Arguably, however, the most exciting part of the morning was the brainstorming session.


Participants divided by sector – Horticulture and Livestock/Field Crops. Farmers in the two groups shared and discussed research questions and ranked topics as a way to set research priorities for 2016, paying close attention to the fact that trial design and data collection are on a tight timeline this year due the timing of our funding. The Horticulture group ranked cover crops, intercropping and soil amendments as top research topics, while the Livestock/Field Crops group worked on discussing and designing a multi-farm comparison of different soil health tests. You can see the full list of research questions and topics here.


While the research projects are conceived and carried out by farmers on their farms, we need help selecting trials. This is the role of the Advisory Panel. The Advisory Panel, comprised of EFAO farmers (Thorsten Arnold, Paul DeJong, Angie Koch, Ken Laing, Darrel Roes) and University and non-profit partners (Dr. Ralph Martin/U of Guelph, and Aabir Dey/The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security), meets this month to guide project selection and, when needed, trial design. Expect to hear more in March about the Advisory Panel’s meeting.


Given the broad interest cover crops, we are forming a Cover Crops Working Group for vegetable or field crop production. Contact Sarah, sarah@efao.ca, to be added to the group or for more information.


Find more information about the Farmer-led Research Program on our webpage!

EFAO is hosting an Information Session about the new Farmer-led Research Program

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“What are you going to research?” is a question I get a lot these days. “I don’t know!” I reply enthusiastically, to an often-puzzled look.

Really, the question needs to be posed to EFAO farmers: “What are you going to research?”


The heart of our new Research Program is highlighted in its title: Farmer-led. It’s about giving EFAO farmers support, resources and compensation to investigate reliable on-farm answers and solutions. This means helping you

  • Find the root of your question or challenge
  • Design, conduct and analyze trials that fit your farm
  • Share discoveries freely with other farmers

In this way, the Information Session should really be called an Information & Brainstorming Session.

Research is a flexible and powerful tool for evaluating new methods, varieties and enterprises, and tweaks to current practices, so the Session will review its “instruction manual” – that is, the What? Why? And How’s of on-farm research.

But we will also spend a lot of time generating and sharing research ideas and questions.

  • What are you curious about?
  • What questions do you need answered to become a more profitable, resilient and ecological farmer?
  • What synergies and commonalities exist among members’ questions?
  • What training do you need to feel confident to conduct your own investigations?

Please join us at the Information Session! We want to hear from you!

Jan 31: Farmer-led Research Program Information (& Brainstorming) Session


50 Stone Road E, University of Guelph, University Centre, Room 334

Free, just pre-register here!

Contact: Sarah Hargreaves, sarah@efao.ca