National Program 207: Integrated Farming Systems
Part I: Introduction
|Action Plan (2002-2007)
As we enter the 21st century, American agriculture faces both 'the best of times and the worst of times.' Agriculture will be expected to help meet food, feed, and fiber demands of a world population that is anticipated to grow from approximately 6 billion in 1999 to between 8 and 11 billion by 2050. This essentially guarantees the need for the plant and animal products that are produced. However, American farmers and ranchers, who often have limited flexibility because of their fixed geographical locations, must also deal with increasing international competition, more sophisticated consumer demands in the marketplace, and an increasing public concern regarding both on- and off-site impacts of their production practices. In addition, current prices for many commodities are at 20-30-year lows while production costs have not decreased and, in many instances, have increased. Balancing these economic, environmental, and social demands requires a high degree of management skill and knowledge because every farm or ranch is a complex system of interacting components that exists in both a natural and socio-economic environment.
To help meet these multiple demands, this Agricultural Research Service (ARS) national program, Integrated Agricultural Systems (IAS), is designed to facilitate the synthesis, evaluation, and transfer of information to all types of agricultural operations using a 'systems approach.' The decision to conduct research in a flexible and holistic manner rather than using more traditional reductionist approaches was a direct outcome of a customer workshop in which it was repeatedly stressed that agricultural systems research must more appropriately represent the interactions, tradeoffs, and concerns faced by those who ultimately strive to use the tools and information products resulting from research. Workshop participants suggested that a systems approach also would provide a direct and immediate outlet for information being discovered and refined through more reductionist approaches within the other 22 ARS national programs.
A critical first step toward developing and implementing an IAS National Program is to more clearly define 'system' in this context. This definition is challenging because the term 'system' has become associated with processes at a continuum of scales. Every scientific, social, economic, and cultural discipline defines systems. This national program will focus at scales no smaller than multiple fields or paddocks and stress the importance of understanding interactions and emergent properties associated with various soil, plant, and animal factors affecting the physical area of concern. A second term that must be defined to discuss systems research is 'components,' which are simply the individual pieces that make up the system of concern. The challenge in communication is that almost every component is a system in itself with multiple components at a smaller scale. This continuum of 'systems and components' is a fundamental reason that traditional research approaches became increasingly reductionist. The primary goal was to understand more completely the mechanisms and the reasons that specific processes occurred.
As a result of reductionist approaches, previous research paradigms often focused on isolated problems. Given a specific problem, the typical solution was to provide a technological therapy to control the problem. Often the objective was simply to maximize productivity. This objective was considered a 'problem,' so research was carried out to develop tools to maximize the output of a particular product. The resulting technology was transferred to an outreach system, and 'extension agents' were tasked with convincing producers that this technology therapy would work in their systems. There was little effort to understand the problem or solution in relation to the production system. Unfortunately, this type of approach often leads to a treadmill effect in which stronger and more complex interventions are required to fix the problem. Producers must choose to increase nutrient, pesticide, or other input applications or to maintain production at current levels. Production systems often became larger simply to remain profitable and competitive in local, regional, or national markets.
There is no intent to discredit reductionist approaches. Fundamental information provided by those methods has caused American agriculture to be emulated throughout the world. However, just as experimental research on system components is needed to understand why certain responses occur, research is needed to help understand how agricultural systems respond and interact when implemented in real situations. Systems research, in the context of this national program, focuses on identifying linkages among components and quantifying resource use with respect to scale and location within the whole system. The intent is to evaluate interactions and emergent properties broader than specific technological responses associated with an agricultural production system. The system of interest includes such things as watershed characteristics, various infrastructures, neighboring farms and communities, climate, socio-economic and development issues, and civic organizations and the relationships of such components to regional and national concerns.
Emphasizing a flexible systems research approach will encourage collaborative research with nonagricultural scientists (e.g., economists, social scientists, community specialists) as well as with stakeholders interested in agriculture. Many of these groups play a critical role in developing and delivering functional agricultural systems but have traditionally played minor roles as ARS collaborators. Figure 1 illustrates the importance of integrating scientific knowledge and ARS resources with those of our partners to identify and understand the actual problem(s) and more efficiently target resources.
The process through IAS projects will become focused on specific targets will be highly interactive with participatory feedback and continuous revision of short-term goals. Important aspects of systems research are full understanding of the goals and strengths of the system, the rules by which it operates, and the relationship of these aspects to both the problem and the use of resources. Teams will strive to design projects that take advantage of natural ecological and biological resources whenever possible. Preparatory activities include gathering background knowledge, identifying linkages in the system, developing a database structure, and planning for sharing the knowledge derived from the solution including technology transfer. Initial research should focus on understanding the identified problem within the context of the related system rather than on proposing or implementing a specific solution.
Figure 1. Conceptual structure of the IAS National
Another important goal will be to understand the interactions among components at the whole-system level, particularly the components for which considerable knowledge is available. Projects associated with IAS often will focus on interactions of the components within a larger scale or context than that for which the information was originally obtained. For example, knowledge of eroded sediments, pathways for pesticide transport and degradation, nutrient and water use efficiencies, alternative crops, or genetically engineered plants and animals may be viewed in a much different context when interactions among these factors are extended to ecological or watershed systems beyond the farm. To better understand the system effects, participatory on-farm research often will be initiated to determine whether the components are mutually compatible or if one or more conflict with the effectiveness of others. For instance, does the production of an alternative crop require new equipment or lead to additional pests? Overall project goals will be to assist farmers and ranchers and their consultants in ensuring economic viability with minimal adverse environmental impacts and an awareness of effects on rural communities.
The conceptual approach of the IAS National Program differs from the traditional commodity or resource-based approach. Systems research is focused at an ecological-social level. Furthermore, the solution may not relate directly to the originally perceived problem, and completely new research approaches may be needed. These situations further emphasize the need for multidisciplinary teams with non-ARS members to provide a sufficiently broad perspective.
The foundation of the IAS National Program is the definition of 'sustainable agriculture' as addressed by Congress in the 1990 'Farm Bill' [Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603 (Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1990) NAL Call #KF1692.A31 1990]:
Sustainable Agriculture - An integrated system
of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that
will over the long-term - (1) satisfy human food and fiber needs; (2)
enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the
economy depends, (3) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and
on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles
and controls, (4) sustain the economic viability of farm operations, and (5)
enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
It is therefore important to state clearly that ARS, as a science-based research agency, applies all physical, chemical, and biological sciences to understand and solve agricultural problems. The foci and approaches are not limited to any specific ideologies, strategies, or philosophies that may be associated with the definition of sustainable agriculture. This national program will consider diverse tools and technologies to achieve more sustainable agriculture for all sectors of American agriculture.
A unique aspect of the IAS National Program is the emphasis on the 'infrastructure' to ensure that problems are addressed in a holistic manner. This infrastructure will include support for simulation models, databases, programmers, documentation protocols, and data management strategies as well as an emphasis on participatory and on-farm studies. There will be a development component as well as a research component. As stated previously, it is important to involve users and interested organizations in both components since they bring perspectives that often are much different than those focused solely on science or research. Involvement of the broader community ensures that the solution(s) will be economically and ecologically sustainable and facilitate development of appropriate solutions for specific communities or larger areas. The IAS National Program also will involve educational outreach to ensure that considerations important to relevant partners are incorporated into the development and application of solutions.
The need for this new, more holistic approach to the design and conduct of agricultural research was voiced throughout the IAS workshop and at other recent meetings with farmers, ranchers, agricultural consultants, and other stakeholders. A common theme was that tools and information are among the primary products wanted from an IAS research program. Owners and operators generally want to develop their own farm or ranch systems once they have the necessary information regarding individual components and their interactions. However, in some situations it may be appropriate for the agricultural research community to propose and design whole or partial management strategies. One example is information needed to facilitate the transition from farming with high levels of nonrenewable inputs to use of renewable resources. Others are the demand for science-based information on organic farming practices and a better understanding of how genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and other technologies will impact the entire environmental continuum. When making such transitions, the entire agricultural system needs to be evaluated to determine when and where to initiate changes. This holistic approach also is important for adoption of site-specific management practices, whether in the context of precision agriculture, sustainable agriculture, or both. An understanding of the on- and off-site effects of site-specific practices can help to mitigate many current stresses on urban, suburban, and rural relationships, whether related to plants or animals, or to the field, farm, watershed, or community level.
In addition to tools, information, and a better understanding of interactions among various components, anticipated products or outcomes from the IAS National Program include
- Scientific knowledge about agricultural systems. This will involve defining an agricultural system and describing how to study it; how to identify its significant components; and how to study the biological, physical, and chemical interactions among its components.
- More robust and better-structured approaches to integrate scientific knowledge from other national programs into packages that can be implemented by various stakeholders. This will be achieved through extensive interdisciplinary and multilocation research projects addressing agricultural problems identified directly by customers and through traditional research and technology transfer programs.
- Databases and information retrieval and analysis tools for farm management. While many such tools already are being developed through other national programs, IAS projects will promote the unification of such approaches through the use of data produced by other national programs (e.g., models for water, fertilizer, and pesticide management and for crop yield) as input to another specific application or to an overall farm/ranch management model.
- Technologies that enhance the viability of existing agricultural and animal production systems or that foster the development of more sustainable production.
- Structured approaches to involve agricultural
stakeholders--including producers, service and input providers, extension and
education organizations, regulators, and others--in the identification of
research problems and priorities and the corresponding development of research
efforts. This involvement will enhance the immediate usefulness of the
research products, facilitate the technology transfer process, and contribute
to development of science-based agricultural and resource management policies.
- Collaborative, science-based approaches to identify emerging regional agricultural issues; assess their relevance to productivity, the environment, and the economic well-being of rural and agricultural-based communities; and to determine the ARS role in addressing those issues.
- Collaborative, science-based approaches to analyze the long-term performance of agricultural technologies and their impact on the environment and rural communities.
Finally, it is anticipated that decision support systems will be one of the primary products associated with the IAS National Program. These tools generally will be designed for direct application to decision-making at farm or multiple field levels by integrating knowledge and information developed by ARS and elsewhere in the global agricultural research community. The target audiences for these tools will be farmers, ranchers, and their primary enterprise consultants, but benefits also will accrue to policymakers, financial and other service providers, and regulators. Key outcomes of IAS decision-support projects include agricultural management programs, individual computer-based decision aids, printed guidelines, Internet systems, databases, information resources, and other products. These tools will take multiple forms to make them accessible to farmers and others within a wide variety of educational backgrounds, skills, economic levels, and types of agricultural enterprises. New delivery technologies also will be sought but not to the exclusion of methods that have worked in the past such as field days, county farmer meetings, and on-farm consultations and demonstrations.
Planning Process and Plan Development
The vision, mission, project attributes, strategies, and research protocols outlined for projects associated with the IAS National Program were identified using a customer-oriented workshop in Denver, Colorado, and a subsequent participatory research planning process. A 20-member planning committee assisted the national program team in gathering input from ARS customers, stakeholders, and partners interested in agricultural systems research. Several ARS writing team members, representing various geographic locations, subsequently met to synthesize the information and prepare this document. Great effort was made to listen to diverse viewpoints and to identify the science-based issues to be addressed and solved to develop sustainable agricultural systems throughout the U.S. and around the world. The process was initiated by examining the characteristics of agricultural systems research as outlined by various groups of workshop participants (Table 1).
Characteristics of IAS research projects
identified by 1999 workgroups of IAS workshop participants
Emphasize conservation and protection of soil, water, and air resources; manage pests and wastes with minimal ecological destruction; encourage biological diversity; reduce use of fossil fuel; increase profit and quality of life and reduces risk; conduct science-based research at scales appropriate for subsequent implementation by stakeholders and other clients; consider social and ecological system impacts.
Increase sensitivity to natural systems with less isolation and greater consideration for externalities and off-site effects; increase producer participation; be sensitive to farm-scale and social implications; help guide policy; add value and increase options.
Increase focus on component interactions, not reductionism; recognize that change is driven by computers and communication, globalization of economy, biotechnology and genetics, and consumer empowerment; conduct at appropriate scales including field, on-farm, community, and watershed; exercise vision and work backward from the data.
Conduct at scales greater than the field with active producer participation in design, data collection, and interpretation; commit to multi-year projects; conduct regional as well as local-level studies; involve different agencies, organizations and disciplines; include energy balance, profitability, and nutrient budgets; use broad treatment approaches.
Increase emphasis on complete integration of all factors affecting the production system; increase emphasis on understanding system biology as well as economics; conduct studies at multiple scales appropriate for questions being asked.
Be inclusive rather than focused on a specific component or components; evaluate 'adequately defined' risk; integrate traditional research into real world situations; involve farmer or rancher with entire process; do not assume 'regulatory' approach by identifying practices as 'approved'; include an information component.
Include broader expertise and a greater range of information; explicitly define value system since science can not be value-free; utilize on-farm research; include economics as critical for sustainability and quality of life for contentment; be cyclic not linear.
Include all biological components and understand biogeochemical cycles and interactions between components; track for consumers, environmentalists, and others who need to know; include marketing and fluid transfer of information; use multidisciplinary approach, on-farm studies, and multi-year timelines; integrate environmental protection and economic opportunities; use community-based approach.
Provide mechanism for multidisciplinary teamwork; include quality of life and community impacts; include Native American cropping practices; provide for information and technology transfer in language producers can understand.
Ensure that research is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable and that markets are a major driving force; focus on interrelationships; use land for best-suited purpose; recognize that each farm or ranch is unique; recognize the need to get along with neighbors and community.
The workshop groups were then asked to identify specific barriers, requirements, and problems that often prevented or limited the usefulness of systems research and to suggest ways to overcome those real and/or perceived barriers (Table 2).
Real and perceived barriers to implementing IAS
and corresponding potential solutions on strategies
Barriers, Requirements, and Problems
Solutions and Strategies
Disciplinary tunnel vision; how to handle massive, multilocation and multidisciplinary data sets; balancing between publishing data and providing it to stakeholders; lack of input from women, minority, small-scale farmers and consumers; lack of physical sites dedicated to IAS research projects; lack of follow-up regarding long-term impacts of research products; no consensus on how to measure success at system level; traditional research too fragmented for systems applications; failure to recognize operator impact in decision- making.
Look outside of agriculture for ways to study integrated systems; utilize more on-farm (real-world) studies; involve stakeholders in all phases of the research; study longer, more complex rotations and cover crop associationsCincluding effects on fertility, weeds, insects, disease, and product quality as well as quantity; investigate successful holistic farming operations; increase scientist awareness of and sensitivity to risk.
Lack of long-term information to support high-risk, low-capital, or nontraditional systems; existing information is not readily available for farmers, extension personnel, NGOs and others; lack of appropriately defined databases, models, management information systems, and decision support; lack of communication between agriculture and urban/suburban neighbors; lack of people-friendly decision-making tools; lack of awareness of current tools and technologies among potential users; loss of agricultural literacy within the broader community.
Be sure the products are what operators want; strive for greater participatory input and participation in all phases of the research and technology transfer; develop educational programs that include on-farm activities and career opportunities; be specific in identifying producer benefits associated with IAS projects; increase communication between researchers, producers and customers; maximize use of Internet for information transfer; create new partnerships for information delivery.
Rewards often given to individuals instead of team; Agribusiness has too much influence on Congress and the ARS program; agency boundaries result in conflicting missions; research infra-structure emphasizes and rewards reductionism rather than holistic approaches; lack of integration between food quality/safety and product development; ARS needs product development and not only science; competitive rather than cooperative funding environments; lack of top-level support for systems research; lack of communication between researchers and farmers, ranchers and consumers; lack of mechanisms to promote interdisciplinary and interagency cooperation; infrastructure is not set up for IAS research; lack of public funding for systems research.
Reward teams and provide greater long-term support for research sites, simulation models, and decision aids as well as good science; make initial contact with native American farmers and traditionally under-served farmers and reward scientists for working with these groups; engage urban population in products they can support.
Unknown outcomes (financial, ecological, and social), system evolution (long-term costs versus benefits), and interactions associated with changing systems; lack of market opportunities and community support for alternative systems; lack of alternative crops and/or pest management strategies compatible with whole systems (both organic and inorganic); limited understanding of interactions at the production and commercial scale; poor understanding of transition time.
Promote development of a better understanding of agricultural system impact on the health of agricultural workers, neighbors, and local communities; develop regionally appropriate information.
Inadequate tools to replace those lost because of environmental constraints; lack of forecasting that includes risk matrices and techniques to reduce risk; no real-time sensors for complete monitoring of product from start to finish; lack of techniques to preserve product identities; lack of benchmarks for water and air quality and soil resources.
Create a global data collection and retrieval system for plant, animal, water, and air quality and soil resources data; develop alternative tools to stay abreast of regulations; ensure software is easy to use; develop tools that determine relative risk of using alternatives; develop new chemicals, biological solutions, crop rotations, and other practices.
Lack of markets for new products or uses for traditional commodities; lack of product differentiation; vertical integration in poultry, hog, and dairy operations; global competition; return on investment; transportation costs and alternatives.
Develop programs to evaluate and share risks associated with IAS adoption; provide data for crop insurance needs; establish working group to help identify market trends and opportunities; include a marketing aspect in all IAS projects.
No apparent strategies to predict effects of changes in policies, practices, markets, and trade regulations here and overseas; no clear understanding of what drives change; lack of understanding by regulatory agencies of system tradeoffs and the requirements to produce agricultural products, i.e., lack of whole-system understanding.
Develop systems that make it possible for young people to farm; strengthen USDA commitment to supporting farmers in regulatory issues; strive for level playing field regarding international imports and exports; ensure research is appropriate for family farms and ranches.
The issues and concerns raised by the customers, stakeholders, and partners were consolidated into themes by the planning team and voted on by non-ARS participants. After further examination, the themes were placed into four categories, which were not mutually exclusive: (1) researchable projects by ARS scientists, (2) requirements and/or guidance for conducting IAS research, (3) development projects, or (4) topics more appropriate for agencies, organizations, or persons outside of ARS. The issues that generally fit Category 1 (researchable by ARS) focused on a systems approach to agricultural production issues associated with small-to-medium-sized farms, organic systems, precision farming, and environmental impacts. They also stressed the need for research to understand existing systems, alternative pest management strategies, risk management, transition from one system to another, and low capital options. Issues emphasizing the research process (Category 2) emphasized on-farm approaches including economic and marketing considerations, environmental impacts, information transfer to all agricultural sectors, and examination of low capital options. Issues considered as primarily developmental projects rather than research focused on analyses of existing systems, improved communications between researchers and users, better database management and accessibility, and sensitivity to risk.
Finally, some issues, outside of the ARS mission, emphasized social, political, policy, and institutional barriers as well as marketing and additional communication concerns. Nevertheless, these issues will be addressed whenever appropriate and possible by, for example, cooperative activities with agencies and organizations that focus on these concerns. Obvious overlap among the four categories occurred because elements of many issues applied equally to more than one category. The process of using customer input from the workshop and elsewhere to develop the IAS National Program was considered very successful.
The IAS National Program Action Plan, based on this substantial customer input, is intended as a philosophical framework for developing agricultural systems projects. To ensure use of a systems approach, the framework emphasizes that a typical IAS project will draw upon many disciplines to integrate science-based knowledge with policy and socio-economic considerations into tools and technologies that assist decision-making in agricultural enterprises. IAS projects will take many forms. Sections within the action plan therefore identify 'Attributes' of typical research projects associated with this national program and 'Strategies' to guide project planning to include those attributes. A final section, 'Case Studies,' provides examples of current projects that meet many of the requirements identified by customers as desirable for future projects directly associated with the IAS National Program. A draft of the plan was circulated to ARS scientists and modified in accordance with their comments.
Beneficiaries of this Research Program
The primary beneficiaries of the information developed and transferred through this national program will be farmers and ranchers. A better understanding of the interaction of the various components will enable them to design and manage more economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable operations. Other beneficiaries include NGOs; local, state, and federal agencies; agribusiness; resource managers; policymakers, and land stewards that need information and techniques to evaluate the status and trends occurring within their agricultural systems. Indirectly, the public at large will benefit through improved water, air, and soil quality; recreational areas; and a sustainable, nutritious, and safe food, feed, and fiber supply.
Science-Based Sustainable Agricultural Systems
To develop sustainable agricultural systems by forming broad participatory partnerships that integrate ecologically based resource management and interdisciplinary science with whole-system knowledge and experience into environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially acceptable tools and technologies, with effective delivery to all customers and stakeholders.
ARS locations currently conducting research programs under the IAS National Program are listed in Table 3.
ARS locations conducting systems research
associated with the IAS National Program
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Part II: Attributes of Integrated Agricultural Systems and Associated Projects
Several characteristics distinguish the IAS National Program from other national programs, so it is therefore designed differently. Distinguishing features include increased emphasis on stakeholder participation and on-farm research approaches. Projects addressing the entire spectrum of agricultural approaches and management strategies and philosophies are included in this national program. Information transfer will be facilitated through interactions and by assembling large databases that include background and management information as well as data from experiments conducted at scales much greater than traditional projects. Specific project attributes will include
- A complete initial assessment of the current situation to understand the system. This understanding is needed to identify problem(s) as opposed to problem symptoms and to identify gap(s) in knowledge and/or information delivery;
- Active participation by producers and stakeholders in 'on-farm' and/or 'controlled' studies;
- Interdisciplinary teams and multi-organizational collaborators;
- The science of interactions among components as well as with the entire 'system' and the 'environments' in which they operate;
- Optimum use of long-term studies to provide information for short-term answers while striving to quantify the long-term impacts associated with various options or system scenarios;
- The infrastructure to address problems of regional and/or national scope when appropriate, which may require developing projects across ARS locations;
- A fully documented database management plan and quality assurance/quality control protocol;
- Maximum use of natural ecological and biological resources where appropriate, considering diverse production options;
- The appropriate scale for the research objectives and goals of all partners, stakeholders, and cooperators involved in planning, conducting, and interpreting the data; and
- Economic and environmental risk and social impact assessments.
In addition to specific project attributes, several mechanisms will differentiate the IAS National Program from other national programs. These will include mechanisms to
- Incorporate information from other national programs and diverse sources and fields such as economics, marketing, and sociology;
- Exchange information with and disseminate research information to clients, partners, stakeholders, and those who are doing basic research;
- Conduct periodic evaluations with all partners, cooperators, and stakeholders to ensure relevant progress in addressing their needs and requirements; and
- Foster a national focus by encouraging more frequent interaction among scientists contributing to this program to prompt sharing of new technologies, insights, and techniques for analysis.
Part III: Strategies for Developing IAS Projects
This section provides guidance for developing research programs under the IAS National Program. Realistically, a small number of research projects will fit completely the proposed IAS model. However, scientists should keep in mind the IAS attributes and strategies and consider how their research can be linked to other disciplinary and geographical areas. The following steps should be considered in developing a systems research program:
- Identify and bring together all stakeholders who are interested in a particular problem or research area. These parties may include grower organizations and scientists; representatives of agribusiness, extension, and action agencies; as well as producers and consumers.
- Clarify the request and determine if this is an ARS issue.
- Determine whether the problem has a potential technical solution, is appropriate for an ARS research project (vs. university, other federal or state agency, or the private sector), or if the solution is primarily socio-economic or political.
- Determine whether the problem is regional or national in scope.
- Determine whether or not this is an IAS problem.
- If this is an IAS problem, then
- Determine whether or not this is a duplication of previous research. If so, a solution may be formalized using current knowledge.
- Otherwise, determine the appropriate parties to be involved in the preliminary evaluation. This may require actively seeking partnerships with NGOs, universities, producers, agribusiness, and others outside of ARS and typical scientific communities.
- Identify secondary (sub) systems and pertinent congressional mandates.
- Plan and conduct a detailed information-gathering effort. This includes a search for background information in databases and literature. Information-gathering should include human experience as well as papers and electronically based sources. Questions should include but not be limited to
- What is the impact of the problem on society?
- What are the researchable goals?
- Where are the knowledge gaps?
- Under what kinds of conditions does the customer operate?
- Analyze and synthesize the data collected and feed it into the databases.
- Using the collected data, jointly develop a common understanding of the entire system among the potential participants.
- Agree that resources should be committed to proceed with this area of research.
- Form a preliminary planning team to define researchable issues and user requirements and products and to identify appropriate team members.
- Determine the boundaries of the system and the natural ecological and biological resources available.
- Determine methods to quantify and predict the impact of critical interactions on potential solutions. Interactions among various systems and their environments need to be understood, quantified, and explained.
- Determine the appropriate scale for the research and impacts of the interactions on scaling up and down for the problem being addressed.
- Identify and solicit additional team members as needed.
- Considering the researchable issues identified by the preliminary planning team, above, plan and implement research to be done at the field, farm, watershed, or higher level.
- Determine optimum roles for all partners, cooperators, and stakeholders, ensuring maintenance of high-quality science as the foundation for solving systems problems.
- Identify relevant available research and design and initiate needed new studies.
- Develop timelines and milestones.
- Identify resources, both financial and in-kind, to be contributed by participants.
- Establish evaluation criteria and develop an evaluation plan.
- Develop a database management plan to document,
maintain, update, archive, and release data; to provide guidance for its
appropriate use; and to provide for quality assurance.
- Provide for team members' access to the database and its release to others. When appropriate, provide preliminary data and guidelines for interpretation to customers and stakeholders. When feasible, make the data available in multiple formats.
- Discuss in advance plans for data interpretation, use, authorship, publication, and other research credit.
- Incorporate new research results, tools, and technologies into the system as they are developed to test for more complex interactions and feedback mechanisms. For example, will a new tillage system increase or decrease surface or groundwater contamination? Knowledge of secondary effects can guide modification of the tillage system or choice of inputs. This process will enable researchers and partners to anticipate the effects of changes on the system and minimize unanticipated secondary effects.
The following diagram (Figure 2) illustrates the sequence of steps discussed above in the development of an ARS systems research project.
Figure 2. Typical pathways for development of an IAS National Program project
At each step there will be opportunities for feedback and reassessment using the most recently available information. Iteration and modification are an expected process throughout the entire project. Utilizing these steps to implement IAS research projects has been successfully demonstrated.
IAS projects rely heavily on teams. However, all team members need not be identified initially. Specific needed expertise will become known once the problem is clearly identified. An initial team should include customers, cooperators, action agency personnel, scientists, and others who will focus on gathering information and identifying the problem. The team ultimately should include persons with skills in the appropriate technical areas, social sciences, economics, information/library for long-term archiving, and other areas as appropriate.
Typical pathways associated with incorporating IAS attributes and implementing IAS strategies in project development are illustrated in Figure 2. The diagram is based on the concept of needs being identified to ARS by customers. The process begins with initial stakeholder/ARS activities to clarify issues and flows through scenarios determined by whether or not the problem is a systems issue, its relevancy to ARS, and possible duplication of previous research.
Some other things to keep in mind as we develop IAS projects:
- Initiators of the research may be motivated by social or ecological considerations.
- Expected research outcomes should be clearly defined.
- The technical team should not be limited to ARS personnel.
- Problem selection may be influenced by how much can be accomplished and how long it will take.
- For every potential IAS project, we must answer research priority questions.
- Planning for IAS projects needs to include an approach for seeking cooperators and a process to provide them with appropriate background and context at whatever point they enter the project. Although several specific potential cooperators within and outside the federal government have been identified within this plan, this list is not meant to be exclusive. Any interested entity that cares to be involved in and to contribute to these research goals may contact ARS researchers.
Part IV: Examples of Integrated Agricultural Systems Research in ARS
Integrated agricultural research to address a broad range of problems is being conducted at many locations in ARS. Approaches to team building and the research are diverse. We have prepared case studies of existing projects within this national program to give concrete examples of research conducted under the broad philosophical umbrella described in previous sections of this action plan. Some of the case study projects are new and just approaching the implementation stage, others are complete, and many are ongoing. While none of the projects may exhibit all of the attributes, they all clearly address broad integrated issues at the whole system level. They all were developed with extensive end-user participation and all involved broad partnerships outside the research unit. Research at other ARS units also exhibits many of these attributes, but this combination of case studies was selected to describe research for different types of agricultural systems across a broad range of physiographic regions. We envision the final implementation plan for this national program to include descriptions of specific systems research projects similar to these case studies. Some of the case studies will be extended into future implementation plans, and others will be finalized and updated to address emerging aspects of current systems or to focus on new priority research needs in different systems.
A. Integrated Crop/Livestock Project
Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory
Mandan, North Dakota
Farmers and ranchers in the Northern Plains are struggling for economic survival. In many ways, a monoculture agricultural economy has been more beneficial to consumers than to the producers. As producers become more efficient, the price they receive for their product has decreased. Thus, scientists at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory have used input from producers and other scientists to develop a multidisciplinary approach to crop/livestock problems in the Northern Great Plains region. The goal of this replicated research is to develop methods to decrease farm input costs by exploring potential synergies between crop and livestock production systems. An iterative process of interaction between scientists and diverse customer groups was used to assess the research approaches. Scientists at the laboratory integrated this information with input from ARS researchers at several other locations and from North Dakota State University and Colorado State University soil scientists and animal nutritionists to define the final research direction, goal, and approaches.
From the cropping systems point of view, our objective was to develop cultural practices using crop sequences and rotations to minimize the need for purchased fertilizer and pesticides. We wanted to use crops new to our region as well as more established crops in creative new ways. Crops were selected that would offer the option of direct marketing or marketing through livestock, depending on the best opportunity for profit. Crops chosen for use in the first rotation were triticale, oat/pea mix, and drilled corn (much narrower rows, less controlled seeding rate). Triticale and oat/pea were harvested for grain. Corn, triticale, and oat/pea residue are grazed in the field by cattle. No-till seeding of all crops was a critical aspect of this research because moisture is usually a limiting factor in Northern Great Plains agriculture.
Beef cattle are the dominant species of livestock in the Northern Great Plains, so we used dry-bred beef cows as the livestock component of the research. Beef cows have the lowest nutritional requirements during the middle trimester of pregnancy, but because this period usually occurs in winter when cows are traditionally fed harvested feeds, their feed costs are the highest. Our goal was to determine if crop residue with drilled corn forage or perennial grass forage could be used to lower beef cow wintering costs. A portion of the harvested grain was used to supplement the crop residue and corn that the cows were grazing, but most of the grain was available for other livestock or sold. We are using a local producer's cattle only during the mid-winter period. Calving weights, weaning weights, and reproductive efficiency data will be collected by the producer because the cattle will be under producer control for most of the year. The stakeholders also provide valuable feedback on general feeding and animal care and a variety of management practices.
Interactions are expected to occur between livestock and crop production over a number of years and are an essential aspect of the project, especially with regard to the impact of the cattle on various soil resource measurements such as organic matter, soil carbon, beneficial microbial populations, and nutrient cycling. Grazing also may affect subsequent crop production in ways not understood, and the effects may differ according to yearly weather conditions.
The ultimate goal of this investigation is to develop an economically viable, environmentally sustainable management system. Interactions between grazing animals and crop development are the core environmental aspect. The project may be expanded to include other species of livestock and annual crops to develop more environmentally friendly and economically sustainable crop/livestock production systems for the Northern Great Plains. No-till establishment techniques offer great potential for using annual crops to complement perennial forages to more nearly meet livestock nutritional requirements on a twelve-month basis. Crop and livestock production expenses and returns will be determined. An economic scenario will be developed with the assistance of an agricultural economist to assess whether an integrated farming approach can facilitate a greater net economic return and a more sustainable production system.
This project is being reviewed so that the attributes of IAS projects can be more fully realized. We have not developed a database management plan or quality assessment/quality control protocol, and the project needs to incorporate formal and timely progress evaluations. We are currently evaluating this project for potential products that can be used on a regional basis. These products include decision aids for developing strategic management plans. Our scientists are involved nationally through ARS National Program Teams, regional and area projects, scientific societies, and personal networking.
B. Integrated Nitrogen and Water Management Practices to Protect Groundwater Quality
Soil and Water Conservation Research Unit
The Management Systems Evaluation Area (MSEA) projects located in the Midwest were initiated to address the broad concerns about nitrate and pesticide contamination of groundwater. Local, state, and U.S. Geological Survey groundwater monitoring over the previous four decades documented the gradual decline in water quality. The twelve-state area produces more than 80% of the corn grown in the U.S. and receives over 50% of all nitrogen fertilizer applied to agricultural land. The Nebraska-based project is one of five such activities in the Midwest. The effort involved on-farm evaluations of several integrated technologies (nitrogen and water management options) requiring different levels of capital and technical inputs. Companion efforts included controlled plot studies to develop and test new technologies and concepts. A major component of the project was to better understand and improve synchronization of soil biological processes with crop nutrient needs. Stakeholders such as producers; agribusiness; various local, state, and national agencies; and scientists with a range of expertise were involved in the planning process. Research and technology transfer activities were carried out by a number of multidisciplinary USDA-ARS and University of Nebraska scientists. Two off-site locations were utilized to capitalize on existing long-term studies that provided unique information about nitrogen cycling and fertilizer utilization within a corn/soybean rotation (Kansas State University) and nitrate leaching below the root zone (North Platte, Nebraska). Management practices and technologies that were deemed practical, environmentally effective, and economical were implemented on several producer fields. The awareness generated by the combined plot research, field-scale evaluations, technology transfer activities (e.g., remote sensing and precision agriculture) and environmental successes (e.g., reduced nitrate and pesticide leaching, improved nitrogen fertilizer efficiency) prompted various agribusiness interests to become partners (e.g., seed suppliers, implement companies, Resource21, NASA).
Common data base parameters, sample collection protocols (soil, plants, water, air), and quality control procedures were established when the project was initiated. These discussions were driven by intent to use the data from multiple locations to validate the Root Zone Water Quality Model developed jointly by USDA-ARS and NRCS, university, and industry representatives. Special data (timing, depths, type) were collected after the field treatments had equilibrated to the new management systems. Models were used to evaluate certain economic considerations of the field operations and to help characterize the temporal components of nitrate leaching. Agencies such as NRCS and Cooperative Extension demonstrated and promoted technologies such as surge-flow irrigation, fertigation, and chlorophyll meters that were adopted for the region by the MSEA team. The Central Platte Natural Resources District initiated a cost-sharing program with producers for surge valves, irrigation flow meters, and underground pipelines based partially on the results of the project. Local, regional, and national meetings and conferences were held to disseminate information. Annual meetings were held to share results among locations, and a Cooperative Research Education and Extension Service review was held at the end of the first five-year period. Technologies developed at the Nebraska project were implemented at other locations (e.g., chlorophyll meters and remote sensing) and other technologies were imported (e.g., electromagnetic induction mapping of fields). Results of the MSEA project were used to acquire grant funding for specific aspects of nutrient management (e.g., precision agriculture and remote sensing). The other four MSEA locations could provide similar documentation of their organization, activities, and results.
C. GPFARM: A Decision Support System (DSS) for Farmers and Ranchers in the Great Plains
Great Plains Systems Research Unit
Fort Collins, Colorado
During the last five years, the USDA-ARS Great Plains Systems Research Unit has developed a whole-farm/ranch DSS, called GPFARM (Great Plains Framework for Agricultural Resource), for strategic planning in the Great Plains. The overall goal of GPFARM is to determine medium- and long-term effects of current and alternate cropping, ranching, or integrated farming systems on economic and environmental sustainability. The program also is capable of analyzing changes in management practices associated with these systems, such as the level of tillage and residue cover, dates of planting, manure and fertilizer applications, chemical weed control, and water applications on cropland and grazing management on rangeland. GPFARM allows managers to design and compare alternate strategies on the computer before implementing them in the field.
Sustainable agriculture in the Great Plains involves a complex range of interrelated factors, processes, and institutions. Across the Plains, agriculture is limited by the supplies of water and nutrients available from the natural system. Producers also must adapt to fluctuations in weather and commodity prices and react to trends in federal and state legislation and to perceptions by the urban public. In the immediate future, the ability to modify farm and ranch management practices quickly in response to (1) the global economy; (2) new cropping, pest management, and tillage systems; and (3) new legislation while protecting soil, air, and water resources will determine whether an agricultural enterprise system survives or perishes. The complexity of the management problems calls for a comprehensive, integrated knowledge base of the whole system and suitable analysis tools for making decisions.
The basis and recognized need for a systems approach and networking of scientists for agricultural research and technology development in the Great Plains date back at least 15 to 20 years and were initially emphasized at a regional symposium, 'Sustainable Agriculture for the Great Plains,' held in Fort Collins in1989. Subsequent to the conference, a committee of ARS and university scientists, state and federal agricultural professionals, and farmers and ranchers prepared a report titled 'Great Plains Agrosystems Project' that outlined the basic components and key institutions needed for a regional project that would unite efforts across the Plains. Central to these efforts, a need was identified to develop a computer-based DSS for Great Plains agriculture.
An interdisciplinary team of scientists from the Great Plains Systems Unit developed GPFARM. In addition, this team has a strong partnership with Colorado State University for economics, weed management, and cropping systems areas. The Unit also has an active Customer Focus Group representing GPFARM target users--farmers, ranchers, agricultural consultants, NRCS, Cooperative Extension, and some scientists--who have advised on the project from the start. Early in 1998, many of these users beta-tested a prototype of GPFARM. More than 200 comments and suggestions were received. The GPFARM team has since improved the program by incorporating most of these suggestions. During the development process, the GPFARM team has used a cooperator's farm and ranch in eastern Colorado as a real-world example to guide the design of GPFARM Version 1.0. In this process, the DSS has been partially tested on this farm. However, a thorough testing of Version 1.0 on this farm and 8-10 other farms and ranches in the west-central Great Plains is our ongoing high priority.
GPFARM consists of four main components and two complementary components operating at the whole-farm level. The main components are a Windows 95/98 NT tm graphical user interface with an on-line help system, site-specific Microsoft Access tm databases, object-oriented science simulation package, and an economic analysis package. The complementary components are an information system on new research, crop varieties, weeds, and chemicals and a record-keeping package. The program has built-in databases for soils, land use, climate, chemicals, and standard farm management practices. The databases are currently populated for only eastern Colorado conditions and cropping systems. A climate generator, CLIGEN, is provided for simulating climate data when historical records are not available. In addition, the users may provide site-specific data about their farm or ranch soil conditions as well as their own crop rotation management practices and equipment on each field or management unit on the farm. The interface and the help system facilitate entry of this information. The GPFARM science package simulates biological, chemical, and physical interactions among soil, plants, climate, and animals on a daily basis. The simulation output provides estimates of crop yields and/or range and animal growth as well as runoff, soil erosion, leaching of nitrates and pesticides below the root zone, and chemicals lost in runoff. Simulations are generally run for 10 to 20 years to obtain long-term averages of these variables as well as changes in soil productivity, in terms of erosion and soil organic matter and groundwater quality. The inputs and outputs are used by the economic package to calculate net returns by crop and rotation. The economic and environmental impact results are presented in graphs and tables for users' evaluation. These results can be shown for individual management units, fields, specific crops or cropping systems, or for the whole farm or ranch. The user can then make changes in cropping and management practices, save the information as a new scenario, and run the simulation again to compare the new results with the original.
D. Sustainable Agroecosystems for Small Farms in the Southern Piedmont
Natural Resource Conservation Center
In 1995, we conducted strategic planning to determine
the most important problems that we should address in a 10-15 year time frame.
Participants including staff, farmers, agribusiness, researchers from other ARS
locations and universities, the ARS Area Director, and ARS National Program
Leaders, identified the importance of small farms within Southern Piedmont
landscapes. Agricultural income is predominantly from forestry and poultry or
other animal production with a major concern about nutrient overloading within
watersheds. Land use is dominated by forestry, cow-calf production, and rapid
residential and commercial development. Critical knowledge gaps remain in
understanding complex interactions within cropping and grazing systems as well
as landscape-scale processes that determine off-site impacts and social
acceptability of agriculture. We have focused new research primarily at two
levels: whole-farm productivity and profitability and watershed or landscape
scale interactions of agroecosystems with other ecosystems. In 1997, we
organized the Soil and Water Conservation Society 'Conference on Investigating Ecosystem Dynamics at a Watershed Level' to generate dialog about the need for and approaches to effectively conducting such research and to build networks among natural resource managers and systems-level researchers.
Our research program is conducted in hierarchical studies ranging across laboratory, plot, field, farm, watershed, and landscape scales. Studies are conducted so that findings from one level can be scaled to other levels to more fully understand the processes, interactions, and impacts of the systems under study. Interdisciplinary teams (soil science, animal science, ecology, forage specialists, agronomy, geography, economics, parasitology, hydrology, forestry, and others) undertake broad cropping system and grazing system studies with extensive interaction in defining the need for the research and objectives, approaches, and desired results. Team members include the Center's staff, university collaborators, other ARS research units, and end users. The latter include extension specialists, producer groups, individual farmers, and nonprofit organizations.
Environmental impacts of land management and
agricultural practices are a core aspect of our research. Economic analyses are
conducted in collaboration with university collaborators and farm operators.
Nongovernment organizations are involved in education and outreach and in
defining research priorities. A participatory approach to assessing natural
resource decision-making from the private landowner through community, county,
state, regional, and national levels is being conducted collaboratively with the
Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research
Long-term sites are integrated into new research objectives. Our oldest watershed, established in 1938 to study erosion from row-cropping, was converted to pasture in the 1970s. This watershed was recently instrumented to study hydrology and water quality impacts under different pasture management strategies. Our oldest no-till field, established in 1975, is one of the oldest in the Southeast. It is being integrated into a new study on four research catchments of nutrient cycling and water quality impacts of poultry litter application and tillage. Historical research paddocks with some treatments going back several decades have been used to develop a better understanding of soil carbon storage in humid pastures. In diverse studies, we are focusing on effective use of legumes and poultry litter as nutrient sources for crops and pastures to replace inorganic fertilizer. We are developing strategies to maintain parasite-free pastures and to minimize parasite impacts on cattle with reduced use of treatment for parasites. We are studying improved pasture management and rotational grazing to enhance soil quality and reduce chemical weed control.
In two adjacent 35-square-mile watersheds, 15 farmers identified practices that they wanted to evaluate on their farms. They collect and analyze water samples and discuss results with a researcher who analyzes sub-samples of the water collected. The team of farmers, researchers, and educators meets annually to discuss patterns of water quality within the watersheds and evaluate the project overall. These meetings allow farmers to see how their practices impact water quality and to compare their results to others. In related studies, we are evaluating water quality trends in Environmental Quality Incentives Program Priority Areas in the Upper Oconee River Basin, working with the 'Local Work Groups' (language from 1996 farm bill) and district conservationists. New studies to increase the sustainability of cotton production for Coastal Plains soils have been developed with farmer cooperators, a farm consultant, the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance, and ARS and university scientists from Tifton, Auburn, and Fort Valley State University. In studies of global climate gas fluxes, most measurements are conducted on-farm, and results are discussed frequently with producer groups. The team has not yet been organized for planned economic analysis of small cattle farms. However, producers and county and state extension specialists will be integral to the team, and we plan to blend participatory off-station research with parallel on-station research.
Operationally, some tasks remain to be done to support our system research program. We do not have an established database management plan and quality assessment/quality control protocol that span the entire program. Each sub-project handles the data independently, but the program needs an overall data management protocol. We are beginning the process by developing the Conservation Center Land Use Data Base to document and archive agronomic and herd management data, which later can be expanded to include research data archiving. Some experiments include periodic formal evaluations of progress toward the goals of the project. For the overall program and some individual projects, this evaluation process still needs to be developed. Our scientists are involved nationally through ARS National Program teams, regional projects, scientific societies, and personal networking to ensure that our research complements but does not duplicate other research.
E. Sustainable and Organic Farming Research
Beltsville Agricultural Research Center
Our current understanding of farming systems relies heavily on research conducted within a conventional farming context. Generally, this includes a large input of off-farm resources such as fertilizers and pesticides. While these practices have increased the gross yield from American farms to the highest in the world, many of our farmers are not surviving, and our water, air, and soil resources are showing increased levels of agricultural products such as pesticides and nitrates. The goal of much of our agricultural-based research has been to increase yields with little regard for net income, environmental protection, and the survival of the rural community. In 1991, a research program aimed at developing a more sustainable agricultural systems approach was initiated at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC). Initially, a 16-acre erodible site was chosen for long-term research and demonstration. Field crops were grown under conventional, no-till, cover crop, living cover crop, and organic (no synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) practices. The first data were collected in 1993. While this site was being developed, a 40-acre site (Farming System Project) was chosen for a more systematic approach to designing the experiment. Here the site was studied extensively with three years of uniformity studies, soil sampling, etc. At the end of this period, field plots were designed so that four replicates would contain similar soil types. The Farming System Project consisted of seven farming systems, with some rotations up to five years long with entry points each year. More than half the acreage was devoted to organic research. Some of the longer rotations included forage production, which is believed to help control weeds.
There is increasing evidence that organic farms may be fundamentally different from conventional farms. An understanding of the principles of organic farming would likely contribute to knowledge for improving the sustainability of all agricultural systems. We have discovered at BARC that we can not do everything at the Center. With the encouragement of the agency and the need for more diversified systems, we have undertaken on-farm research with cooperating farmers. Organic farmers have identified their top research needs as better weed and pest management, reduced soil erosion from tillage-intensive weed management practices, reduced gastrointestinal parasites for livestock grazing systems, and better soil nutrient management, especially in light of the new phosphorous-based nutrient management regulations in Maryland and other states. Use of cover crops to supply nitrogen and recapture and recycle other nutrients and the integration of cropping and livestock into farm management programs may help address these problems.
The objectives of the on-farm projects are to develop a research program to solve the highest priority problems identified by organic producers. The program will (1) investigate the basic processes and mechanisms that define the biotic and abiotic characteristics of organic farms; (2) utilize integrated cropping systems that improve soil fertility and reduce pest pressure and adverse environmental impacts; and (3) manage pastures to minimize economic losses incurred by parasites while maintaining the organic designation.
To carry out this research, an ARS team consisting of weed scientists, agronomists, soil scientists, entomologists, and human and animal pathogen ecologists was assembled. This team has a strong working relationship with Maryland Cooperative Extension, Future Harvest: Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, and small acreage farmers.
On-farm research presents scientists with unique problems related to replication. We are using the powerful tools of geographic positioning systems and geographic information systems to address this issue. Spatial data provide extensive information on field variability associated with soils, topography, and management practices. Analysis of changes over time will enable us to understand the interrelationships of important variables and thence to adjust management practices to optimize crop and livestock performance while minimizing nutrient, pest, and pathogen problems.
Research on organic farms will supplement detailed research already being conducted on the Farming System Project and the demonstration site at BARC. Applied research will focus on integrating cover crops into farming systems on two of the cooperating organic farms. Specifically, this will include replicated strips across fields to (1) compare cover crop residue management to minimize soil tillage and erosion, (2) integrate cover crop and manure management to provide adequate nitrogen for crop growth without developing excessive phosphorus levels, and (3) reduce weed populations and eliminate perennial weed patches. Basic research will include sampling important soil parameters and weed populations to understand the interrelations between soil quality and pest population dynamics on organic farms.
Control of gastrointestinal nematodes on organic farms without using drugs is complex, inefficient, and somewhat unreliable. As such, these parasites pose a significant problem and considerable risk to the organic farming community. Studies will be initiated on an organic beef cattle farm to identify the parasite fauna and delineate parasite transmission patterns. Methods will include a combination of sampling within the resident farm herd, placing tracer cattle raised at BARC to define the parasite species infecting the resident herd, and the identifying optimal transmission periods for each species. Once this information is available, management programs will be modified to minimize parasite transmission patterns. Parasite control studies also will be initiated on a second farm.
Initial studies to monitor human pathogens will be conducted at organic farms containing both produce and animal production components. For example, two certified organic farms will be used that provide various combinations of forage, vegetable, beef, swine, and/or poultry production. Animal feces and manures will be analyzed for fecal coliform levels and specific pathogens (e.g., Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes). Depending on utilization or deposition of feces and manure, we will sample water, soil, and produce to assess the transformation, survival, and potential modes of dissemination.
Three organic farms growing potatoes including one of our collaborators, will be selected for research. Maps will be prepared showing the location of previous potato, tomato, and eggplant fields that could serve as sources of Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB). All fields will be scouted intensively to measure CPB pressure. Traps of various designs will be used to determine the direction of invasion and whether the beetles are walking or flying into fields. This work will be conducted in conjunction with collaborative research with a University of Maryland entomologist on area-wide CPB movement on a larger scale in conventional potato fields. This work will provide baseline data for subsequent studies on the use of vegetative barriers and organic mulches to reduce CPB infestations in susceptible crops.
The organic research program at Beltsville is moving ahead to gather fundamental knowledge about organic farming. The results of this research should contribute to the science base for integrating organic practices into other farming systems.
F. The Management Improvement Program
U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory
Background. Developing concepts and technologies for
improving irrigation management is an important aspect of the research program
of the USDA-ARS U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory (USWCL). Initially, this
research focused exclusively on irrigation practices at the farm level. During
the 1970s, our irrigation research program began to include the water delivery
system as we recognized that on-farm irrigation research and development efforts
often were impeded by inappropriate water delivery to the farm. Over the years,
our research activities have evolved to recognize the significance of
technologies that did not adapt well to specific on-farm physical and managerial
constraints. We had further observed that broader social and economic aspects of
the agricultural context also directly impacted the water management research in
which we were engaged. The Management Improvement Program (MIP), a managed
change process that seeks to improve water and other natural resource management
at the agricultural system level, is another step in this research
The MIP is grounded in Organizational Development principles and resembles
approaches used by industrial and service organizations to improve their
competitiveness and internal efficiency. It involves an initial assessment of
the system's performance, sharing of the findings with stakeholders through
structured feedback activities, participatory planning with all relevant
stakeholders, and collaborative implementation of planned activities to address
the identified priority issues. The MIP provides a framework through which all
stakeholders--farmers, agricultural support and regulatory organizations,
environmental interests, and advocacy groups--can act in concert to support an
area's agriculture. Key expected outcomes of an MIP application are an improved
understanding of management of water and other natural resources within the
agricultural system and, based on this understanding, adoption of appropriate
technologies and coordinated management strategies by producers, service and
input providers, and regulatory agencies. The ultimate goal is to strengthen the
economical and ecological viability of the agricultural system. From the ARS
standpoint, an important outcome is the identification of agricultural research
and technology transfer opportunities.
The Demonstration MIP. Specific MIP approaches are based on
methods developed as part of irrigation research and development efforts carried
out in the 1970s and 1980s in less developed countries by the U.S. Agency for
International Development. Based on these prior experiences, the USWCL proposed
to several federal and state of Arizona agencies the idea of demonstrating the
process. A group of these agencies agreed to participate in and support, both
financially and in-kind, the development and application of the MIP. The USWCL
agreed to lead the effort on behalf of the interagency group and established an
MIP Management Team to guide it.
The three-phased MIP was carried out in the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District (MSIDD) in central Arizona from 1991 through early 1994. Thus, the service area of the irrigation district was defined as the agricultural system. The interdisciplinary Diagnostic Analysis study, which is the first phase of the MIP, was conducted in the summer of 1991. The study assessed the performance of the irrigated agricultural system and explained the causes of both high and low performance. The performance assessment and description were done by first analyzing the performance of subsystems such as agricultural production, farm economics, water delivery, and the support and regulatory environment, and then by examining the interactions among these components. During the Management Planning Phase, which began in the spring of 1992, farmers and relevant organizations developed a shared understanding of the Diagnostic Analysis results and expanded their understanding of the performance of the system. With this foundation, participants jointly identified performance improvement opportunities and developed plans to address some of the priority issues. In addition to problem-solving activities, participants also were involved in strategic planning and team-building activities, which are essential for the long-term sustainability of the process. While the formal Performance Improvement Phase began in 1993, the involved entities began to act on improvement opportunities as early as during the Diagnostic Analysis phase. A local group (the MIP Coordinating Group), consisting of local farmers and agency representatives, was formally established in late 1993 to guide the MIP after the formal demonstration stage. The organizations involved in the MIP and their roles in the MSIDD agricultural system are shown below:
Insert table here
Progress of the MIP was assessed primarily through feedback review sessions with stakeholders and sponsoring organizations. The purpose of these sessions was to critique program activities, guide future developments, and in some instances, assess the impact of implemented initiatives. A field study was conducted at the end of the formal demonstration to document short-term program impacts on farmers, the irrigation district, and collaborating agencies. Additional data have been obtained since then mostly through informal conversations with stakeholders.
The MIP was initially conceived with a strong water management focus. Hence, many of its documented impacts fall in this area. However, the project has led to other types of impacts. One key outcome was better coordination of the irrigation district's water delivery services with the farmers' needs. The MSIDD improved its water measurement and control, adopted a new organizational structure, instituted formal mechanisms for employee and client feedback, and adopted measures to enhance client service. These changes occurred early in the process in direct response to findings as they developed.
Through the structured collaborative planning activities, district managers and policymakers, farmers, and other stakeholders developed an in-depth understanding of the economic interdependency among farms and between farmers and the district. This led to district policy changes aimed at alleviating some of the economic pressures in the area. These changes included adopting an aggressive reduced winter water pricing program to encourage crop rotation with small grains to counter the effects of the cotton monoculture that prevailed in 1991, providing financial relief to farmers who were delinquent with their tax payments (therefore ineligible to receive water), and the formal adoption of water delivery policies that district management had been reluctant to support openly. These policy changes, coupled with strong efforts by the local Coordinating Group to attract new investment to the area, have helped to diversify the local agricultural economy and thus to mitigate market conditions adverse to growing cotton.
Agency representatives who participated in the process also have reported benefits, ranging from an improved understanding of the agricultural system to improved networking with other agency representatives and farmers and in some instances, changes in their individual programs or practices. These changes in programs and practices have had impacts outside the district area as a result of the interaction between these agency representatives and non-MSIDD farmers. Significant anecdotal information supports the assessment that the new working relationships developed through the MIP among agencies and between the agencies and the district are highly valued. At the state level, the Diagnostic Analysis findings influenced the development of a report requested by the Governor's office describing the economic conditions of agriculture in MSIDD and other irrigation districts serviced by the Central Arizona Project, which transports water from the Colorado River.
A summary of some initiatives developed through the MIP planning process is presented in Table 4.
Some MIP initiatives and their current status
Farm-Specific Assistance Program
The purpose of the program was to develop a strategy by which support agencies would provide collaborative technical assistance to farmers. While the program focused mostly on the farm's soil and water management needs, it was based on an interdisciplinary assessment of the farm production system.
The program was tested with a limited number of farmers during two summers. Time demands and coordination difficulties discouraged participating agencies from continuing the program. A more modest program was initiated by MSIDD and the local NRCS to provide guidance to farmers new to the area. The program prompted the development of a grower-to-grower discussion group, which is still ongoing.
Reduction of Flow Fluctuations in Irrigation Laterals
The program focused on developing manual and automatic control schemes to improve the accuracy of water deliveries to the farms.
The USWCL currently is conducting research on canal control. MSIDD is collaborating in these efforts by allowing the use of one of its lateral canals as a test site and developing the necessary infrastructure to accommodate research needs.
High and Low On-Farm Water Usage
In the Diagnostic Analysis of the MSIDD area, wide variations in water application volumes were identified that did not correlate with cotton yields. This unexplained variability provides an opportunity to identify its specific causes and then develop appropriate on-farm management practice changes.
This issue has not been pursued.
Commodity Diversification in the MSIDD Area
The goal of this program was to facilitate successful diversification of commodities produced by farming enterprises in the area. The program is seen as longer term and requiring participation by a variety of organizations, including research, extension, finance, and agribusiness.
While a formal program was never initiated, the discussion raised awareness of the issue among local stakeholders. Thanks in great part to changes in water pricing and financing conditions, agricultural production in the area has diversified significantly since 1991 when the Diagnostic Analysis was conducted.
Reducing the Level and Impact of Water Costs and Assessments
The purpose of this initiative was to explore strategies to reduce the impact of Central Arizona Project water costs and related assessments on farm profitability.
Based on discussions of an MIP interagency workgroup formed in 1992, MSIDD implemented a number of strategies to reduce the impact of high water costs. A reduced winter water pricing program was carried out for six years, with significant success, to encourage crop diversification. The district also adopted more flexible delivery policies and has continued to improve its service as a way to reduce farm water use.
G. Ecologically-Based Cotton Production: A Community-Based Model for Fostering Sustainable Agriculture
Insect Biology and Population Management Research Unit
Rationale. There are pressing economic,
environmental and sociological needs for ecologically-based farming practices as
a component of sustainable communities. Conventional therapeutic-based
approaches have helped create an unstable farming enterprise. Compounding the
issue for farmers is the rising per unit cost of inputs and recent drop in
commodity values. These environmental and economic issues associated with
farming are further complicated by major sociological and economic problems in
our rural communities. Ecologically unsound farming practices reflect a systemic
weakness in the appreciation for sustainable living practices and the absence of
infrastructures to develop and implement such programs effectively. Thus, truly
successful environmentally sound, ecologically-based agricultural initiatives
must be combined in a holistic way to foster rural community health. A cotton
production program is being piloted in selected Georgia communities as a model
for the development and implementation of such a system.
Current barriers to implementing sustainable agriculture. Despite wide appeals for their adoption and substantial
results demonstrating the environmental and economic benefits of sustainable
practices, truly satisfactory shifts to sustainable agricultural practices
continue to be limited. There are several reasons for such limited use: (1)
difficulty in paradigm shifts, (2) need for customized programs, (3) need for
direct demonstrations and shared learning, (4) need for community-wide support,
(5) weakness of infrastructure designed to accommodate reductionist and
therapeutic-oriented approaches to agricultural production systems (Figures 3
and 4), (6) lingering reliability questions around certain issues, and (7) the
need to demonstrate the benefits of the total practice.
Figure 3. Illustration of the current conventional infrastructure of developing and implementing ecologically-based agricultural systems
Figure 4. Illustration of a model program designed to develop and implement effective ecologically- and community-based agricultural systems
The Georgia Initiative. The purpose of the
initiative is to develop and implement an ecologically-based cotton production
system in selected Georgia communities. The effort is being undertaken to pilot
a systems process for fostering sustainable agricultural practices as part of a
program to advance principles for sustainable rural communities. Prior work done
in these communities has demonstrated excellent prospects for the cotton
production system as a model for this program. It is proposed that this pilot
initiative will provide the foundation and capacity for expanded sustainable
cotton production and for sustainable farming and rural communities,
Organizational Design. As indicated in Figure 4,
the funding and overall responsibility for the project will be administered
through the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance- a producer-based
organization. USDA-ARS and the University of Georgia will cooperate to provide
scientific facilitation for the project including assisting in the management of
fiscal processes as needed. Communities In Schools of Georgia, Inc., will
cooperate in providing educational outreach activities. A steering committee of
representatives from the latter three organizations will provide the overall
Two local communities are proposed for the pilot initiative: Coffee County, Georgia, and an area involving two to three counties in the area of Louisville, Georgia. In each of these locations a local chapter of the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance will provide local coordination. Funds will be furnished for a local technical coordinator who will provide day-to-day guidance of the program, especially activities associated with the field sites such as planting, monitoring, and pest management decisions.
In cooperation with the local Conservation Tillage Alliance chapter, Communities In Schools of Georgia will provide educational outreach within each community. The local chapters of the Conservation Tillage Alliance, together with their statewide organization, will focus on outreach to farmers through field days, workshops, literature dissemination, etc. The Communities In Schools organization, working through their local governing boards of business leaders, educators, government officials, and others will provide outreach regarding the importance of the program, along with other sustainable living practices, to the community's overall future well-being. These outreach activities will include such activities as orientation workshops with community leaders and field trips to the farms for students and teachers. A multidisciplinary, multilocation science team from USDA-ARS and the University of Georgia will provide guidance for design, monitoring, and evaluation needs.
Technical plans. Three growers in each local
community are being selected to provide pilot cotton production and
demonstration systems. Each of these farmers will provide at least one
40-to-50-acre field for the duration of the pilot demonstration purpose. Similar
conventional sites will be chosen for comparative purposes. These sites will be
placed into cotton programs in accordance with core sustainable production
Year-round habitat management using cover crops and diverse associated borders and other noncropped areas, with an emphasis on healthy balance between pests and natural enemies. Conservation tillage. Minimum tillage with an emphasis on continuous overlap of living plant material, enhanced soil nutrient and water quality, organic matter, and diverse soil organisms. Crop health. Strong emphasis on crop variety and management practices that promote maximum health with respect to optimal balance of yield and input costs. Judicious inputs. Careful and minimal use of pesticides, fertilizers, and energy. All input decisions will be made on the premise that they are strictly backups to the inherent system and that they should be chosen and used to minimize costs and disruption. The boundaries on interventions will be strongly stressed vs. conventional wisdom.
Evaluation. The success of the program will be
evaluated on three criteria: (1) the increased interest and confidence in, and
knowledge and use of, sustainable practices by farmers; (2) the increased
interest in sustainable farming practices by people whose jobs are directly or
indirectly related to farming; and (3) the increased knowledge and interest in
sustainable farming and sustainable communities by the general population of the
H. The Ecological Area-Wide Management of Leafy Spurge
Northern Great Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory
The Ecological Area-Wide Management (TEAM) of Leafy Spurge is a 5-year USDA-ARS area-wide program focused on the Little Missouri River and associated drainage of the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. Its primary goal is to stimulate research and demonstrate ecologically based Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies that can be used to control leafy spurge effectively and affordably.
TEAM Leafy Spurge is built on three important concepts:
- Regional Approach. The study area for the program includes portions of the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming, allowing researchers to work across a wide range of biogeographical regions. The regional approach helps scientists understand the applicable extent of their work and the unique problems that exist across the region.
- Biologically-Based Integrated Pest Management. IPM combines different management tools to provide more effective leafy spurge control than could be achieved by using any single tool. Biocontrol agents, such as the host-specific leafy spurge flea beetle, are integrated with other management tools, such as herbicides, multi-species grazing, reseeding, tillage, burning, and clipping, to achieve leafy spurge control. IPM offers the flexibility needed by landowners and land managers to devise different management strategies for different situations.
- Teamwork. TEAM Leafy Spurge has assembled an experienced group of researchers and land managers into a focused, goal-oriented team. The program's collaborative effort enables participants to share resources and expertise and work more effectively toward a common goal.
The team structure of the program includes direct cooperation with the USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. The quality and type of work the team conducts is reviewed and commented on by a non-partisan ad hoc committee of state and federal researchers; land managers; representatives from local, state and federal entities; and private landowners and ranchers. The research is conducted on private and public lands by members that include the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, state departments of agriculture and other state agencies, Cooperative Extension, land grant universities, county weed managers, landowners, and ranchers.
TEAM Leafy Spurge research and demonstration projects are designed to build on existing data and explore promising areas of leafy spurge research. The projects that are chosen cover a wide range of disciplines including biological control with insects and naturally occurring plant pathogens, multi-species grazing, the judicious use of herbicides, and the integration of these various control tools.
Research projects focus on gaining a better understanding of the entire system. Baseline assessments of major ecological and geographical features were conducted before beginning the project. Assessments were primarily conducted at specific sites with aerial photography used to extrapolate findings across broader regions. Theodore Roosevelt National Park serves as our spatial database repository. Site-specific data and metadata are collected and linked geographically to this regional database. Baseline socio-economic data also were collected prior to the program and provide further insight into the major problems facing ranchers and land managers in the region. This information helps the research and operations teams understand why land managers use a given tool and what educational programs will entice them to try alternative control methodologies.
The goal of TEAM Leafy Spurge is to develop management techniques that stop or reverse the progression of invading pests through the use of biological control agents and other IPM tools that have no direct detrimental effect on the system or whose negative impacts to the ecosystem are outweighed by the overall benefit of their use. Research programs cover the range of scales from local to regional and include evaluating the synergistic effects of plant pathogens, alternative grazing programs, and limited chemical use with biological control agents. This research will help us understand how weed control programs can be enhanced by the interaction of multiple control tools (biologically-based IPM). Other research helps us understand the complex ecological interactions (ecological barriers) that can influence the establishment or effectiveness of control agents and other IPM tools on leafy spurge. The fact that several issues remain unanswered, especially in the areas of complex ecological and socio-economic decision-making, indicates that there is still much to learn. The 5-year TEAM leafy spurge program has made substantial contributions to the scientific understanding of the leafy spurge problem; however, a great deal of additional research is still needed to realize the ultimate goal. The scientific progress made to date is certainly a solid base upon which future researchers and land managers can build.
Demonstration projects aim at education and rapid technology transfer. Demonstration sites established in each of the four states give ranchers and land managers an opportunity to see IPM in action. This forum also facilitates exchanges between ranchers and land managers about weed control efforts in other areas.
TEAM Leafy Spurge has as its ultimate goal eradicating leafy spurge or at least reducing it from year-to-year. But with 5 million acres infesting 35 states and the Prairie Provinces of Canada, our ultimate goal will not be achieved soon. Therefore, incremental goals must be established that will ensure this project contributes to the end result. As we attack the need to better understand the system and the biological interaction of the different components, we also are cultivating the public's participation in weed management by helping them understand how this and other exotic weeds affect them economically, socially, politically, and legally.
Last Modified: 12/15/2008