By Carolyn King
Innovative farmers and scientists team up in the Living Laboratories Initiative.
What happens when you bring together farmers, researchers and other partners to advance agricultural innovation? That’s what the Living Laboratories Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is working on in regions across Canada. In Ontario, a key part of the initiative is a set of on-farm trials to co-develop leading-edge practices that make sense for farmers while making Canadian agriculture more sustainable.
“Living Laboratories is a national priority for AAFC. Four Living Labs are up and running now; they are in P.E.I., Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario. All of them focus on accelerating the development and adoption of BMPs – either beneficial management practices or better management practices – focused on priority agri-environmental issues,” explains Eric Page, a research scientist with AAFC in Harrow, Ont., who is co-leading Living Lab-Ontario (LLON) with Pam Joosse, an AAFC senior soil and nutrient management specialist.
Shared priorities and tasks
To begin LLON, AAFC held engagement sessions in 2018 and 2019 with Ontario agricultural and conservation organizations to discuss the Living Laboratories concept and how it could work in Ontario.
The participants selected the Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair watersheds in southwestern Ontario as LLON’s target region. A Canada-U.S. agreement commits both countries to reducing the amount of nutrients entering Lake Erie from urban, rural, industrial and agricultural sources in the lake’s watershed. For LLON, the focus is on reducing soil and nutrient losses from agricultural lands. The participants also identified four agri-environmental priorities for LLON: soil quality, water quality, watershed management, and biodiversity.
The sessions also established the leadership and collaborations for carrying out LLON, with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) taking the lead on behalf of Ontario farm and environmental organizations. “The initiative focuses on farmer needs and bringing in partnerships, and testing things in a real-life context. That really fits with what is at the heart of OSCIA,” notes Tracey Ryan, OSCIA applied research co-ordinator.
“Living Labs is an opportunity for AAFC and other federal ministries such as Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to work directly on farms, with researchers and farmers co-developing and testing innovations on real working farms right in the field. … And it is an opportunity for different organizations to work together, enhancing each other’s capacity and knowledge, and sharing resources.”
The other organizations involved include the Ontario Soil Network (OSN), Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO), Essex Region Conservation Authority, Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority, and Upper Thames River Conservation Authority.”
The LLON on-farm trials and research studies got underway 2020 and are slated to finish in March 2023.
Towards practical, economic, sustainable innovations
“The on-farm trials are a very important component of the Living Laboratories Initiative in that it accomplishes many things. One is to get in touch with farmers and their needs, and have farmers, stakeholders and scientists working together to solve problems on real working landscapes. Another is to directly involve farmers in addressing the problems of nutrient runoff and challenges with climate change and economic sustainability,” Page notes.
“The practices being evaluated in the trials are the ones that were of most interest to the farmers that we are engaged with. We asked OSCIA, IFAO, EFAO and OSN: Do you have farmers with innovative trials that they see as possible solutions to some of these agri-environmental problems? Would they be interested in working with us on this type of project?”
IFAO selected Greg Vermeersch, Laurent (Woody) Van Arkel and Michael Groot; EFAO selected Brett Israel and Ken Laing; and OSCIA selected Henry Denotter. The trials conducted by these six farmers encompass conventional, ecological and organic production systems. They include innovations in field crop production, vegetable production, and even one that integrates rotational grazing with crop production. And the locations span the Lake Erie watershed from Essex County to the Waterloo region. The trials are knitted together by the notion of continuous cover through keeping living plants in the soil throughout the year and/or minimizing tillage.
The aim of the trials is to help the co-operating farmers develop, test and improve their innovative concepts and encourage other farmers in the region to increase the use of continuous cover on their own farms, using whichever approach works best for their own situation.
Relay vs. double-cropping trial
Greg Vermeersch, who manages VanMeer Farms in the Tillsonburg area, is interested in finding better ways to do things on the farm. He had tried double-cropping, but he wondered if relay cropping might be better. His Living Lab trial is a side-by-side, field-scale comparison of double-cropping and relay cropping using winter barley and soybeans. Both cropping systems offer a way to keep the soil covered with living plants from fall of one year to fall of the next year, but both systems have some production risks.
In double-cropping, soybeans are seeded immediately after harvesting the winter cereal, which is much later than regular soybean crops are planted. Double-cropping can work in southwestern Ontario if the weather co-operates – if the winter cereal can be harvested early enough, if moisture is adequate for soybean germination, if the killing frosts hold off until late fall. In relay cropping, soybeans are planted before the winter cereal is harvested, which means soybean is seeded at about the regular time. However, a lot of practical details need to be worked out to optimize production of both crops.
Some of the things Vermeersch would like to learn from his trial are: how double-cropping and relay cropping affect soil health, how the plant architecture of each crop affects production in the relay system, and what is the best time to seed relay soybeans.
For the double-cropping experiment, he solid-seeded winter barley at 7.5-inch spacing in fall 2020. He harvested the barley on July 15. Then he applied a burndown herbicide, and solid-seeded soybeans at 7.5-inch spacing and 180,000 seeds per acre. He chose a 2,700 heat unit soybean, a relatively short-season soybean for the area.
For the relay cropping experiment, he planted twin rows of barley at 7.5-inch spacing, but on 30-inch centres, in fall 2020. Then about April 27, he planted the soybeans in the strips between the twin barley rows, so the soybean rows were 30 inches apart. The strips for the soybean rows had about 1 to 1.5 inches of crop residue for weed suppression, and the soybeans were planted directly into that residue. He used a 3,200 heat unit soybean, a normal maturity for the area.
Vermeersch tried a 2.25-inch seeding depth for the relay soybeans, a little deeper than usual, which was intended “to keep the beans in the ground a little longer to avoid frost damage and to keep the beans from overtaking the barley because the barley was not very tall to begin with.” he says. “Planting deeper did delay emergence, but it probably caused some soil compaction in the seed trench from forcing the beans in that deep in maybe cold, wet soils. Next year, we’ll probably plant them not quite as deep and use less down-force on the planter.”
The relay barley was harvested in mid-July. “When we harvested the barley, we put tile over the cutter bar to push the soybeans down and not clip the tops, which worked pretty well. We could use something better in the future now that we know the concept works. We also learned that planting the relay soybeans really straight between the twin rows is very important. If they weren’t perfectly between, the tiles knocked over a bit of the barley crop as we were harvesting it.”
The Tillsonburg area had frost in mid-June after the relay soybeans and many regular soybean fields in the area had already been planted, but not the double-crop soybeans. “It was one of those flukes, once out of every 20 years, a late frost like that,” Vermeersch says. “We had a lot of frost damage on about 80 per cent of the trial of the relay beans, which delayed the damaged beans by about two or three weeks.”
He adds, “Out of all the soybean acres in the area, some of the worst damaged were the relays. In the relays, there is probably less moisture because the barley crop is there, and all the trash that we left let less heat in. So, I think relay soybeans have potentially high risk with high rewards – a double-edged sword.” The soybean yield data and the economic analysis for his 2021 trial are still to come.
Andy van Niekerk is the project co-ordinator for Vermeersch’s trial and the other two IFAO trials and acts as a bridge between the farmers and scientists. “I’m a certified crop advisor and I have some experience with field research and scientific rigour. So, I’m kind of an interpreter – I speak researcher and I speak farmer.,” he says.
Van Niekerk helps with the trials in several ways, including co-ordinating scientific activities so the co-operators don’t have to deal with a lot of calls from everyone involved in data collection. Several AAFC researchers are working on studies of Vermeersch’s trial: soil scientists are monitoring the soil’s chemical properties and microbial community to look at these characteristics under relay versus double cropping; Entomologists are monitoring traps for pollinators and looking at non-chemical ways of reducing wireworm pressure; A nematologist is examining the effects of the two cropping systems on soybean cyst nematode populations; And an economist will work with Vermeersch to assess the costs and benefits of the two cropping systems.
Van Niekerk also provides input to co-operating farmers on trial design. In late summer 2021, Page and van Niekerk asked Vermeersch what did and didn’t work and how the process could be improved, discussing things like seeding rates and soybean maturities to help with his planning for this fall and next spring. This approach is a little different than a scientific study where researchers would keep the same plot treatments for all the years of the study to ensure repeatability.
“Our job here is to help Greg work the kinks out of the cropping system in such a way that it is economically sustainable,” Page explains. “Then our scientists can weigh in a little bit on the environmental pros and cons.”
Ideas for improving co-development
While the farmers’ innovations are being developed, tested and improved, the Living Lab approach itself is being developed, tested and improved by the trial participants.
The co-development process has been challenging, especially in summer/fall 2020 when Vermeersch was planning the first year of his trial. Van Niekerk says, “Because of COVID, we couldn’t visit in person, and we weren’t quite used to working in a COVID atmosphere yet. Also, the concept of co-development is really new for all of us. We are continually trying to tweak and improve our methods in co-development and collaboration, but we’re learning together.”
“It is a steep learning curve, understanding everybody’s roles, what their needs are, and what our needs are, and everybody is learning their way through this,” Vermeersch notes. “We were expecting a lot of support and a lot of farm visits, and I don’t think that came to fruition. And COVID changed a lot of things – sitting down at the kitchen table is obviously better for working out a plan than being 100 kilometres away and trying to do it over multiple Zoom screens. But we’re in the early stages of Living Labs, and hopefully it can grow into something with less red tape and more back-and-forth between researchers and farmers, trying to solve problems and answer questions at both ends.”
“I’ve learned that we need more regular conversations, even if it is just five minutes, to see what is going on,” van Niekerk says. “And I think more face-to-face time between the scientists and the farmers would help. Scientists have reservations about suggesting outcomes without scientific proof, while farmers are used to making decisions without complete information.” More discussion between scientists and farmers might find a way across this difference in perspectives.
“I’ve also learned that we need a few more repetitions in the trial, not just one comparison,” van Niekerk notes. “My goal is to help Greg answer the question: is relay more profitable than double cropping? But we’re also trying to maintain some scientific rigour because we want these best management practices we’re developing to be [repeatable, scalable] practices that could be adopted by other farmers.”
Despite the initial challenges, the co-development concept has promise. “I certainly have appreciated getting out and being in touch with farmers and the different organizations,” Page says. “I have learned a tremendous amount from even the limited amount of participation that I have been able to have.”
“When farmers are stepping out to try innovative ideas there is a lot of unknown risk – this [federal] funding helps to mitigate some of that risk,” van Niekerk adds. “It helps when someone else is in that space with them and helping them determine whether it’s worth going further down that new road.”
“Hopefully with some time, the Living Lab approach will be a valued asset to help speed things along with other farmers and researchers,” Vermeersch says. “This approach is an opportunity for both sides to learn and solve real issues that innovative farmers are challenged with. We all want to learn and improve. We have the equipment and the lands to do it, and they have the knowledge and resources to help bridge that gap [from concept to reality].”
Other components of LLON
Along with the on-farm trials, LLON has watershed-based research, socio-economic research, and education/outreach components.
“The watershed component makes up a lot of the work that the researchers are doing in the initiative. ECCC and AAFC are working with the conservation authorities, evaluating and monitoring what is happening on the farm and how that is translating into the watershed’s overall water quantity and quality parameters,” Ryan says, adding that this component includes a long list of research activities, including: surface water quality and quantity monitoring, land management surveys, remote sensing of cover crops and soil disturbance, and biodiversity studies on topics like aquatic microbial and invertebrate communities.
“The socio-economic component includes field- and farm-scale work as well as broader-scale studies. We are trying to provide some detailed field-scale and farm-scale economic analyses that can feed back to the farm co-operator, and that could also be rolled up into larger information pieces which can be used for knowledge and tech transfer, but also used in larger studies about why do people adopt, what needs to happen, and are there ways to predict adoption.”
OSN is leading the engagement, education and outreach component, with IFAO, EFAO and OSCIA taking active roles.
LLON will end in March 2023, but AAFC is using the Living Labs approach in its new programs – AAFC’s Agricultural Climate Solutions program, which aims to develop and implement farming practices to address climate change, will include a national Living Lab network.
“I think there is a great future for the Living Lab approach,” Ryan says. “It brings together a diverse group of players and engages different levels of thinking and ways to approach a problem –that brings you to a better solution than just thinking about it by yourself.”