Field Trials - an often neglected but important tool for growers

Field trials are what take you from seed to success!

Field Trials - an often neglected but important tool for growers

Published May 29, 2018 

How do you decide what to grow? Well, as I have explored in a few articles, there are many pieces of that puzzle to consider. You have to figure out what will be profitable. But how will you know a crop will grow well and be profitable? How do you know how much pest pressure and disease problems it may run into, increasing its cost both in terms of controls and labor?

As I perused my FB feed this morning, I saw multiple farmers lamenting large crop losses due to different pests and disease issues that may have been avoided by doing field trials. Don’t know how bad pest pressure will be on your brassicas? It may be a bad idea jumping right into a quarter acre of them then! Unsure how your soil will do with carrots or a similar crop? May not be a good idea to spend a few days seeding thousands and thousands of such plants then! Yet, this is exactly what some growers to, and what they go through when it goes wrong is completely unnecessary.

While many neglect field trials, it is one piece of the growing puzzle that you shouldn’t. So let’s look at how we do them. Now, you or others may do it differently. But what matters is that you do do them.

Generally, for our operation, a crop goes through a few stages. These stages help us decide not just what grows well, but what WE want to grow and what we can grow profitably.

First stage - Dream, dream dream dream

It all starts with a dream. Or perhaps a thought. I wonder if I can grow carrots. Or kohlrabi. Or insert fruit or vegetable X here. Or perhaps someone requests a particular crop from our operation. That dream leads to research. The research takes two forms. First, online, learning about the crop, its positives, negatives, pests, soil preferences, and more. This is low cost recon. In an hour or less of time, I can consult a few reference works we have on hand and also some online tools to gain some basic knowledge to work with. But it doesn’t stop here.

Second, I move on to other farmers, especially other local or regional farmers who grow varieties of the particular crop in question. Book and reference knowledge is great, but it should always be married to real life knowledge and first hand experience. The two help inform each other (because which one of us hasn’t received BAD advice from a real life neighbor or farmer?). Another skilled grower will offer perspective and experience for little to no cost that otherwise you would have to pay for through time, tears, and frustration in the field possibly. They may highlight or note issues that your original research didn’t or that you didn’t notice.

What happens after the above? Sometimes the dream fizzles out, derailed by any number of factors. But sometimes that dream seed finds good soil, and we move on to the second stage.

Second stage - kitchen garden scale

At this scale, we are just getting our feet wet with a crop. For instance, in 2017 I grew a small bed of fennel in the high tunnel. I wanted to get to know the plant better, and I have always enjoyed the vegetable. What does it like? What doesn’t it like? How does it do? How do I like dealing with this plant? What issues did it or I run into? What are my yields like per square foot? You can see, a small planting lets you easily get some baseline data to work with moving forward.

You can learn a lot from a small test plot, while at the very least making use of otherwise unused space or improving your family’s food options. Don’t neglect how you enjoy dealing with a possible crop. It may negatively impact your and its performance with that crop, especially at larger scale.

For instance, take onions. We love to eat onions, but after a few years I really grew to dislike growing them. I could never find a setup that worked well to get consistent results in our weather and soil. The labor component, even with using slips, with the low profit or cost savings potential always reminded me that it was a bit of a waste of space and time. I don’t grow onions anymore, even though I love to eat them!

Third stage - field trials

This is where the rubber meets the road. If we liked smaller trials of a particular crop, we are going to allocate more space to it AND more formally explore its possibilities, positives, and negatives. This involves a number of components.

  1. Multiple spots - We will plant the crop in the high tunnel and in the field. In the field, we will plant it in a few different bed options if at all possible.

  1. Multiple seed options - Especially with some crops, like carrots, we will get 3-4 varieties to try. It isn’t fair to blame a crop for a batch of bad seed or a bad choice of variety by the farmer. Even recommended or suggested varieties are not always right for YOUR farm. Field trials let you take recommendations and test them yourself with a great deal less risk. For instance, this year, we are on our third variety of carrots for late winter/spring trials. This fall, we will again plant out the same three varieties, getting a good overall picture of how they perform.

Two varieties of potatoes, grown side by side in the field, but completely different yields at harvest.  Which do you think will be more profitable? 

  1. Multiple planting dates - It also isn’t fair for a crop to take the blame for bad weather. For instance, this year we tried parthogenic zucchini in our high tunnel. Twice, we had plantings taken out by freak cold weather (we had below freezing weather on April 30th in my area, and I was out of town speaking at a conference. So the zuchs got nuked!). Especially when you are getting to know new crops, staggered and succession planting is important to ensure that weather or some other random factor doesn’t derail things and ruin the trial.

  1. Good record keeping - It doesn’t matter if you do field trials if you don’t quantify the results. That requires keeping good records on yields, labor, and other inputs that went into the experiment. It doesn't have to be super fancy. But it does have to provide adequate, reliable, and accurate information to evaluate how things went and make good decisions moving forward.

Note, field trials should produce enough volume (if things go moderately well) to have products for sale. But the goal at this stage isn’t economic production, but final stages of research and development. Production scale comes next, if your field trials result in confidence that you can grow the crop successfully and profitably at larger volumes!

There are many things you will learn in field trials that are invaluable if you decide to scale up production further. For instance, for how much of the season can you produce this crop? How is harvesting? What is its impact on soil and space? How hard is to to process - harvest, clean, store, and get to market, either wholesale, consumer, etc.?

During this stage, you should also be asking questions like -

Would particular tools, techniques or infrastructure make this process easier and more profitable?

If I scale up this crop, what infrastructure or issues may it create or changes will it require?

For instance, a farmer friend decided to dramatically increase their sweet potato production. The growing side was fantastically well… but this success created a problem come harvest - the space that was normally set aside for other purposes was now needed for sweet potato curing. He also underestimated how quickly they would sell, resulting in storage space issues. So, he had a bunch of headaches post harvest because he neglected to think about all the moving pieces and parts of that particular crop. During the field trial stage, you can take time to think about such issues to avoid the headache later!

Take the time to think a crop all the way through, from seed to sale, including if it doesn’t sell or move as quickly as you anticipate or expect.

Final Stage - Full roll out

With the above info, you are now ready to scale up a particular crops production. Remember, this requires that at greater production you have a market to accept the greater volume of product at a profitable price. Given all the work up front you now have done to ensure success, your likelihood of things working out well will be far better.

How do you decide what to grow? How do you go from the possibly to actual production for different crops on your farm?