On-Farm Trials ft. Moses Boone and Oscar Rodriguez

Host Carol McFarland returns to Holland-Boone Farms to speak with Moses Boone and student Oscar Rodriguez about the co-production of research around a field scale pH survey featuring the research and extension experiences for undergraduate students and the use of in-field pH meters and experimental design to capture pH variability across the field and within the soil profile and a discussion of low pH symptoms in lentils, nitrogen fertilizer contribution to low pH, and the benefits of the co-production of research.


Carol McFarland

We’re happy to be returning to the Holland-Boone Farm, where we’re going to visit with Mr. Moses Boone. And also undergraduate student Oscar Rodriguez is here with us today as part of the Research and Extension Experiences and for Undergraduates  internship program happening this summer, at WSU.  Thanks for having us out to your farm again, Mr. Boone and we’re really excited to be here.

Moses Boone

Yeah! It’s great to have you back. 

Would you please briefly share a bit about yourself and describe the site that we were working with you on today? 

Moses Boone

Sure. My name is Moses Boone. I’m a fifth generation farmer, we’re located in the Palouse region just outside of the city of Palouse in eastern Washington. We mainly raise wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas.

Yeah, continuous cropping rotation and mostly direct seed, no-till type operation and the field we were at today is a field that was in winter wheat last year and is in lentils this year, relatively flat for the topology that we have around here. So I don’t know maybe 20% slope max something in that range that we were, that we were on today.

And so some hilltops, some low level ground, some that’s been in grass for a long time, some CRP areas and we’re about, a month, six weeks away from harvesting the lentils. So they’re up, they’re about as big as they’re going to get. They’re blooming. And we can really see what the stand looks like at this point in the year.

And there’s a lot of variability out there. So definitely a lot of places that look pretty good, places that don’t look so good. So getting some answers as to exactly what’s what’s causing that, would definitely be useful. 

Carol McFarland

That’s great. Yes, it was definitely more than one 20% slope.

Moses Boone

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Carol McFarland

Oh, great. And then Oscar, would you share a little bit about yourself and what brings you to the Holland-Boone Farm today as a researcher? 

Oscar Rodriguez

Yeah. So I’m currently a student at Washington State University. I’m studying biochemistry and I have recently joined the Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates program as an intern here at Washington State University and part of the extension part of that program, our group has been researching On-Farm experimentation and today, Holland-Boone Farm, we are sampling the soil in various locations and part of the program is to help farmers learn new skills and information that might be useful to them.

Carol McFarland

Now, Moses, as part of your On-Farm Trials questions, you did reach out to the Farmers’ Network and myself about sampling soil on your farm as part of an invited opportunity. What were you hoping to learn when you reached out? 

Moses Boone

Well, so as I mentioned, we have a lot of variability in the stand, and that’s not something that’s specific to this year or this field.

That’s something that we see, you know, every year to some extent, and in every field, to some extent. And that’s, you know, that’s natural with the topology. But there’s certainly some variability out there that can’t be explained just by the topology or even by just the soil type. So I was hoping that the pH might give us some clues as to what’s causing these good areas versus bad areas.

And, you know, just to have more information in general about what’s going on out in the field, I don’t think having the information is ever there’s ever a downside to that. So, yeah, when you said, hey, we’re going to bring a bunch of people out to measure your survey, the across the field, I was like, yes, I’m yeah, that, that sounds great.

Carol McFarland

Well, we’re really glad you did. It’s been a really great opportunity and we really appreciate your hospitality on the farm and the opportunity to work with you. Thanks for your interest. So when did you notice your pH starting to decrease? 

Well, I. I think. I don’t think we’d really done anything real soil sampling until I started farming full time about ten years ago.

That’s when we started. You know, prior to that, it was kind of just, you know, just using the same tried and true rates for fertilizer application that we’ve always used. And I kind of wanted to try to be a little more targeted with that, you know, okay, do we actually need to put down that much fertilizer or can we benefit from putting down more?

So soil sampling was something that I wanted to do from the get go and that has been useful for the most part those rates of fertilizer that we been putting on are pretty much what it needs. But there have been times where it’s like, Oh, we need a little more or we can get by with a little less and part the soil sampling for nitrogen.

That’s the standard analysis pH is usually included. And you know, we noticed the pH is not ideal. It’s a lot lower than we’d like to see. 

Carol McFarland

Did you notice changes to the crop that kind of increased your suspicion around low soil pH  those- Well, maybe being underlying some of your soil conditions. 

Moses Boone

We noticed our yields in lentils in particular had been declining, or at least on a downward trend. And the lentils, as I understand, are particularly susceptible to low soil pH. So we had a hunch that maybe that was part of the issue.

And so, you know, the pH sampling has kind of indicated that, unfortunately, we might be right about that. Our previous soil testing methods have usually just been the aggregate style sampling where we take samples from several different places throughout the field.

But then it all just gets mixed together and I’ll test this as one. So this kind of survey where we’re preserving the locational information, of which each sample is, it provides some interesting information. 

Carol McFarland

That’s great. Yeah, we did try to design our sampling techniques today. to help answer this question around soil pH in this field, our methodologies according to getting more spatial across the landscape, but also within soil of profile information for you around that.

So Oscar, would you describe the method that our group used in the sampling conducted today? 

Oscar Rodriguez

Yeah. So we took three samples for each of the four zone locations So the sample zones that were taken were accounted for predominantly for the topographical variability such as hilltops, side slopes and lower ground. And we took cores to a depth of about 12 inches with a back saver soil probe and used the hand-held in-field meter.

And the protocol outlined is in the WSU extension pub called using a meter for in-field soil sampling to record pH values with the depth and capture any potential pH stratification. We took G.P.S. locations of the sampling points and three replicas within each zone. We had about three different groups out there and we pulled cores from adjacent on farm ground and measured the pace in the same way as a control.

We will also provide a summary with the findings and a one page written report for the Holland- Boone Farm records. 

Carol McFarland

Thanks for describing the methods that were used today. For more information on how to use an open face soil probe with an in-field pH meter, there is an extension publication on the WSU Wheat and Small Grains website written by Dr. Paul Carter, describing that process, that protocol in detail.

If any of our listeners are interested in following up with that tool as part of this effort, we are working  together through the research lens on the working farm, to answer this question of what’s going on with the lentils, what is the variability look like again across the landscape and within the profile. We’d like to hear from each of you and how you would each describe the potential benefits of on the farm experimentation to both farmers and researchers.

Oscar, let’s start with you. 

Oscar Rodriguez

Well, first of all, from our group’s research, we found that it creates a social learning experience for each participant from the co-designing of the experiment to the interpretation of the results. This is done by extending out to other stakeholders and peers, which promotes further learning through the sharing of data, ideas and insights. The local community also benefits because the experiments are relatable.

There is also a Journal article named ‘Farmers as Researchers,’ where they interviewed a group of farmers that previously participated in on farm research to understand how to create strategies that encourage farmers to participate in this program and the study. Most farmers participated for economic gain, After participating in the trial, many farmers were interested in the exchange of ideas that they had, the experimental design and the statistical analysis, and by letting engaging in the research and collaboration with scientific researchers, they became more involved in the process and at the end suggested developing innovative research projects and they wanted to try new studies.

It also states that farmers get first hand experience with the results and therefore bridges the gap between experimental plots and commercial fields. They also noticed that communication around new agricultural knowledge is more likely in everyday interactions and conversations, and farmers routinely seek knowledge from other farmers. The scientific researcher also benefits from the data gathered to share the knowledge to other farmers that have similar questions.

It is unbiased data where farmers get data that correlates to their process and creates a better connection between farmer and scientific researcher. On-farm experimentation also creates prototypes for innovative innovation ecosystem platforms and most importantly, accelerated learning for all. 

Carol McFarland

Thanks for that. It’s been really fun to see you and your group dive into some more of the background information.

Other case studies around on farm experimentation and the benefits of this collaboration between researchers and producers. Moses, would you like to, from your perspective, maybe talk a little bit more about how that experience is for you and what you see the benefit is? 

Moses Boone

Sure. I kind of see as there being two main types of on farm experimentation from the growers perspective, there’s a type where you maybe heard something your neighbors [are] doing or that our research university is some technique that they’ve tried.

And so you’re just doing the experiment to validate that their results will translate to your farm because, you know, agriculture is so specialized and, you know, the smallest little things that you wouldn’t expect can make a huge difference. So what works for somebody, you know, three or four miles down the road doesn’t necessarily work here on this farm.

So that’s always something that’s important for any farmer to do. I don’t think I know a farmer who would just no matter how well the research is done, I don’t know any farmer who would just jump in with both feet to try something new across their entire farm just by reading a publication. They’re always going to do a little experiment first and so- and the benefits to that kind of experiment is, you know, it’s- you know what to expect because someone else has kind of already done it. You’re just verifying it for yourself. The other kind is where, you know, you’ve got some wild idea for something new that no one’s tried before and you want to try it for yourself and it’s like any other kind of experiment, you know, the likelihood of it being successful or turn out exactly the way you think it’s going through is almost zero.

But the benefit, the potential upside is huge because we don’t know everything about farming, but we do know, or at least I think most farmers have a very strong intuition that whatever they’re doing, there’s got to be a better way. So yeah, that, that the benefit is out in finding a better way to do things. And then you, you get to reap the benefits of that, you know, indefinitely to, you know, to replicate that over and over and over again potentially for your, your neighbors, the agricultural community at large also.

So there’s a low probability of success, but, you know, a high impact and there when it is successful. So that can be both frustrating but also exciting. 

Carol McFarland

For more on that, check out Moses’ other episode of the on farm trials, where he talks more about his grower-led trials. So I have seen that described though there is literature on on farm experimentation.

And one of the things that we think about when we’re describing on-farm experimentation and its different flavors is it is kind of a spectrum, you know, from what you’re describing as a wild idea. Mm hmm. From a grower. Which are some of the most fun things I hear in the ag community. And totally one of the reasons that we’re here doing this podcast.

  But all the way in a continuum, you know, Are you reading something from the scientific community? Are you talking to an extension specialist or another researcher? Are you working in collaboration with them to do trials on your farm? There’s so many different flavors across the spectrum, so it’s been really fun to have a bit of that collaboration here today and also to hear your perspective on the benefits.

Moses Boone

Yeah. And in my experience, that collaboration has been really fruitful also. Yeah, I do like to do as much research as I can, including reading, like, academic publications. And I’ve, you know, a lot of times they’re from WSU or U of I, but even from places that are farther away. It doesn’t matter where it is. My experience has always been as a grower.

When I reach out to the authors of these publications, they are very happy to talk to you about anything. it’s not like inaccessible or anything you can as a grower. You can really take advantage of a lot of that, that knowledge that’s out there. 

Carol McFarland

My experience is that a lot of folks who are working in applied Science in particular are really excited to talk with folks who are interested in implementing their research on the ground, because I think I speak for myself and maybe some of my colleagues as well.

That’s why we do this work. Is in the hope that it is useful on the ground. Yeah. So, Moses, do you expect this field scale survey that we conducted today to change any of your management decisions? 

Moses Boone

Well, I hope so. Any time you take. I haven’t had a chance to look at the data in depth yet, so I’m not sure exactly what decisions or or changes might be made as a result of this, but I think it has some potential to drive some decision making.

So in addressing soil, there’s two ways to go about it. You can do the uniform whole field approach where you’re trying to treat the whole field, or you can try to do a more targeted spatially or vertically through the soil profile. So, you know, unless the cost comes down substantially, we’d probably be looking at more- that targeted approach.

And one thing I’ve been interested in trying is treating the pH in the T band. So just right basically on the seed drill, at the same time the seed is applied and, and treating just that, you know, one or two inch wide trench where the seed is applied to maybe get the seed in some healthier soil while it’s starting out.

And then when it’s a little bigger, it can kind of grow out into the slower pH zones and maybe have a better chance. Yeah, that’s one thing I could potentially see doing with this information.

Carol McFarland

As a soil scientist who did all of my graduate work on soil acidification. I just want to throw in 

The pH number is a value that indicates where there might be an issue. It does not indicate how much remediation is necessary. 

You’re right. 

And so the buffering capacity of the soil varies. And probably also spatially across your field.

Moses Boone

Yeah. We didn’t do any cation exchange capacity analysis or anything like that, so. Yeah, Yeah. So the other thing that I, I have thought about doing would be interested in potentially doing this, changing the type of fertilizer that we use because virtually everyone around here is using either anhydrous ammonia or aqueous ammonia or urea ammonium nitrate, you’re in solution 32, whatever you might call it.

And we’ve been doing this, uh, the solution 32 mainly. And yeah, I’ve heard there’s, there’s a lot of confusion. I think on the part of growers about of fertilizer and soil and, and I know you’ve done a lot of work to try to alleviate some of that confusion. You know, I, I think it’s worth bringing up here. You know, a lot of farmers, they will say this mantra like why nitrogen is nitrogen when it comes to soil acidification, no matter what sort of nitrogen you use, it all has the same effect.

And that’s not the case. There’s you know, if most of the practical fertilizers that we have access to, I think you could say that, yes, one unit of nitrogen produces the same amount of soil acidification. That’s as the same unit of nitrogen from another fertilizer source. But if we were to look at something like calcium ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer instead or calcium nitrate, then, you know, we could halt or potentially even reverse the problem just by applying fertilizer, or it’s just a matter of finding a source and an economically viable source for that material.

Carol McFarland

Thanks for that. So also, I mean, when we were visiting a little bit before starting the recording here, I mean, you mentioned thinking about getting into the variable rate nitrogen application technology and even its all steps toward a goal. Mm hmm. And there’s a lot of different ways of that. So it sounds like you’ve already been thinking plenty about this.

Moses Boone

Yeah. Yeah, I do a lot of thinking, thinking’s free. So I do a lot of thinking, it’s doing part that’s hard.

Carol McFarland
Well, and again, hopefully having information from this group of folks today with the infield readers does help give you a little bit more information to keep thinking about. Oscar, I’ve got a question for you.

Thanks for listening us talk so much about acidification. How has this experience of working with a grower in the field to answer a question important to their working farm influenced your view of science and research and your future role in it?

Oscar Rodriguez
Yeah. So as a researcher, it really has inspired me to find innovative ways to try to create learning platforms in which to share my knowledge and to learn from farmers knowledge to try to get as much people connected.

I really enjoyed learning from Moses about what questions he had because as a researcher, many of the work done in the lab is more scientific based that is not available to the public. Having this experience, I think it was nice to use simple tools to use them to create an experiment that is usable.

Carol McFarland
So would you describe and this is a question again, if you wouldn’t mind answering, would you describe from your perspective the respective roles for farmer driven experiments versus scientist driven experiments and how they each might influence on farm decision making?

Let’s start with you, Oscar.

Oscar Rodriguez

Yeah. So the difference between farmer driven experiment and scientist driven experiment, I think it really depends on who really initiates the research question And the farmer driven experiment. The farmer asks a question to test one or more of the inputs of interest. I think the strength behind it is that it is directly transferable to the farmer’s managed system.

But one weakness is that it needs to be interpreted to provide more generalizable insight. As for the scientist driven experiment, the farmer only hosts the experiment and the question arises from the scientist. One of the strengths behind that could be that there’s clear goals. Goals and that there’s a clear design. One weakness is that the experiment is not a good representation of the whole field.

They only address the scientist question and maybe not the farmers. So based on this information, if it is a farmer driven experiment, it will impact that specific farmer. And if it is a scientific driven experiment, it will influence a variety of farmers with a similar question.

Carol McFarland
Absolutely. Thanks for highlighting that continuum of, you know, who’s leading the question, asking where, who’s doing the farming?

Where are these experiments taking place? And again, part of that continuum is also the research farms. We’re really lucky in this region to have some very excellent research farms, including long term agro-ecosystem research. So, yeah, they’re all on this continuum of how do we answer questions that are relevant to our existence here in this region. Moses, would you describe  from your perspective, the respective roles for farmer driven versus scientist driven experiments?

Moses Boone

Yeah, sure. I think there’s potentially a lot of differences. I guess the first thing that jumps out to me is the farmer. We already have to wear so many different hats, right? We have to be an agronomist and a market analyst and a mechanic and, you know, everything else. So even there’s plenty of farmers who are really smart, but, you know, can’t afford to take the time to specialize in these micro areas of focus.

So I see the scientific-led experimentation as really drilling down to answer very specific questions and identifying specific root causes for problems in a way that I don’t think farmers have the time to focus on to identify themselves. And, whereas, the farmer driven experimentation, you know, once those problems are identified, then there’s the question of implementing the solution. And so farmers are in a good position to to test with different, different possible solutions to the problem. And there’s where there’s an intersection between producers and researchers is, you know, collaborating to come up with the potential solutions to the problem, the many different potential solutions, and then going out on the farm and and trying to see which one works.

Carol McFarland

That is a wonderful note to end. Thank you so much, Moses, for having us out to help you explore this question you had on your farm and providing the opportunity for our group of students, including Oscar, to learn more about collaborating in the field and on farm experimentation. Thanks, Oscar, for doing so much work recently researching about on farm experimentation.

Oscar Rodriguez

Thank you. Thank you for having me. Thank you for having us. 

Carol McFarland

Absolutely. Guys, come back anytime.