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A Guide to Conducting Research on Commercial Farms: Advantages and Challenges

on-farm research

Members of the Nault Lab in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University—left to right: Lidia Komondy, Ramandeep Kaur Sandhi, Ph.D., Dugan Doeblin, Nate Hesler, and Karly Regan, Ph.D.—worked on an on-farm research project aimed at minimizing populations of onion thrips and increasing yield in onion, which begain in 2018 and concluded this year. (Photo courtesy of Lidia Komondy)

By Lidia M. Komondy, M.S., and Ramandeep Kaur Sandhi, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Ramandeep Kaur Sandhi, Ph.D.

Ramandeep Kaur Sandhi, Ph.D.

Lidia M. Komondy, M.S.

Lidia M. Komondy, M.S.

As graduate students in entomology or other scientific fields, many of us have the opportunity to conduct on-farm research during the course of our degree programs, which can put us in touch with many growers who are working with different commodities and in diverse climates. These opportunities are valuable if you are considering a career in agriculture (e.g., instructor/professor in higher education, industry, or extension) or any other position involving significant agricultural production (e.g., outreach specialist, extension educator, science communicator). However, the skills acquired through conducting research on commercial farms—including time management, leadership, communication, conflict resolution, critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, organization, and project management—are transferable to a wide range of career paths.

Below, we discuss some of the advantages and challenges that graduate students face while conducting research on commercial farms. Additionally, we provide suggestions for making the most of your experience as well as navigate some of the unexpected challenges. Whether you want to learn more about research on commercial farms, start conducting on-farm research, or meet a combination of these and other objectives, there is something that any student can benefit from!

Advantages: Why You Should be Excited

Scale. In many cases, commercial farms are large-scale and heavily mechanized. This provides many benefits to conducting on-farm research. One such advantage is the ability of mechanized growers to prepare and manage fields according to different specifications such as fertilizer regimes, cover cropping, planting styles, harvesting schemes, and so forth. If you or your advisor have built relationships with commercial growers, often they will be willing to help prepare, manage, or harvest fields that contain your research trials.

Additionally, a benefit to conducting research on commercial farms is the added convenience of having multiple trials in one place, which can be helpful when it comes to designing experiments. If you have not yet built relationships with commercial growers, there are plenty of opportunities to get connected through county extension programs, community events, and your university network.

Impact, benefit, and fulfilment. Working on commercial farms is the real deal; it is often a family business supporting a network of individuals. Therefore, the people involved take it seriously, which can be intimidating to graduate students. Although this may seem daunting, it is best to carry out research projects on farm to simulate natural field conditions and realistic management regimes.

Before starting research on a commercial farms, building relationships with growers is essential to the success of the project. Not only because their participation is required to implement new techniques, but also because they are using their resources to host your research projects. So, it is helpful to have a good understanding of the system they are working in and challenges they face in their respective commodities, as well as the specific management goals they are trying to accomplish.

Further, it is a great opportunity to consider and reflect on your research objectives and how they will complement the goals of your growers. For example, a cucurbit grower’s interest in improving pollination services on their farm could align with a student’s interest in understanding pollinator diversity on commercial farms versus other landscapes to improve ecosystem services. This would be a mutually beneficial reason to conduct on-farm research and build a rapport with this grower. Conceptualizing your research objectives with growers in mind positively impacts growers and helps build trusting, fulfilling relationships. It can also strengthen your research outcomes and present great opportunities to collaborate with your growers on grants.

Opportunities to learn. When conducting research on commercial farms, students often communicate among teams of individuals such as crop consultants, farm managers and personnel, extension educators, and industry representatives. This opportunity to communicate with individuals from varying agriculture careers is beneficial for developing career interests. Additionally, it presents an opportunity to practice effective communication skills and network with individuals who are often involved in managing farms throughout your county or state.

Taking advantage of professional development opportunities such as growers’ meetings is also a great way to remain current on applied research findings, as well as to familiarize yourself with the ways different farms are managed. These opportunities are unique and beneficial to student development because they are heuristic and present experiences that cannot be found in primary literature.

Challenges and Tips for Overcoming Them

on-farm research

Members of the Nault Lab in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University—left to right: Enya Shen, Lidia Komondy, Nate Hesler, Dugan Doeblin, and Matt Garlick—worked on an on-farm research project this year looking at the impact of iris yellow spot virus, transmitted by onion thrips, in onion muck production systems, part of Komondy’s doctoral research. (Photo courtesy of Lidia Komondy)

Geographic difficulties. Commercial farms are often located in rural areas, which means getting to these locations requires a lot of driving. It also means that you may be working on large farms of a single commodity, which may require a deeper knowledge of geographic information systems (GIS) and more in-depth planning of your experiments to account for random variables. Without these skills or adequate planning, researchers can get lost in unfamiliar locations, and this can leave them vulnerable to mistakes in their research, such as taking data from the wrong field or evaluating the wrong variety of crop. Depending on the state, it can also be difficult to find regions that are comparable to large agricultural production areas, which can present challenges when looking to replicate experiments.

Tip 1: Take advantage of workshops in GIS and experimental design and randomization. These workshops can also enhance your resume for jobs in government, private industry, extension and outreach, and academia.

High risk, high reward. Commercial agricultural production regions rely heavily on applied research programs to increase yield and reduce costs. Therefore, students often feel pressure to provide rapid solutions to growers’ production or management problems. This phenomenon can be anxiety-inducing and more harmful to the development of the production system. Furthermore, unexpected events such as extreme climate events, pest outbreaks, or epidemics can affect an entire farm, as well as the outcome of a research trial. Therefore, an objective approach to your research and thoughtful experimental design is essential to successful on-farm research.

Tip 2: Plan for the worst and hope for the best when designing your experiments. Trust the research process and remember that solving a growers’ problem involves being as objective as possible about the outcomes of your research.

The downside of big ag. Many commercial farms have large farm implements and machinery that is convenient when setting up a research trial; however, these conveniences can potentially become hindrances to your research. For example, experiments can be ruined by improper or untimely application of pesticides to adjacent fields, improper fertilizer regiments, trials harvested prior to evaluation, and so on. Although these situations can be disastrous, they can be avoided with strong and clear communication.

Tip 3: Communicate with growers and their management team exhaustively, even if you don’t think you have to!

Field safety. Field safety is an important component of all research programs that sometimes gets overlooked. It is especially important, though, in the research settings within agricultural sciences. Examples include visits to farms on private land where researchers may not be recognized, working outside in inclement weather such as thunderstorms or in extreme heat, and places where researchers can experience different threat landscapes that require ongoing and adaptive conversations.

Many universities and departments have field safety protocols that have been developed to protect researchers in the event of an accident; however, they are sometimes outdated and not emphasized in departmental programs.

Tip 4: Take steps to protect yourself when conducting field research, and ask about protocols that your lab or department may have available. For example, the Department of Entomology at Cornell has recently updated its Field Safety Protocol for researchers.

Conclusions

Conducting research on commercial farms is an exciting experience that can prepare students for careers in agriculture and the environmental sciences. With experience in conducting on-farm research, students can improve their communication skills, attention to detail, critical thinking, and GIS skills. Although on-farm research presents both benefits and challenges, prior knowledge of these situations can help students make the best of any situation and guarantee a more productive, successful on-farm project.

Students will also have an impact beyond their research by building lasting relationships with the growing community and tailoring research objectives to the community’s most pressing needs, which is a great opportunity to conceptualize novel ways of addressing grower needs.

Do you have experience conducting research on commercial farms or other related opportunities that you would like to share with the community? If so, please leave a comment below!

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Patricia Prade, Ph.D., and Joe Rominiecki for comments that improved the scope of this article. Special thanks to Brian Nault, Ph.D., for sharing insights and examples, which enhanced the content.

Lidia Komondy, M.S., is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/lidiakomondy. ResearchGate: www.researchgate.net/profile/Lidia-Komondy. Email: lmk275@cornell.edu.

Ramandeep Sandhi, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. Twitter: @raman_sandhi. LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ramandeep-sandhi-33544915b. ResearchGate: www.researchgate.net/profile/Ramandeep-Sandhi. Email: ramansandhi2010@gmail.com.

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