PFI Cooperators’ Program celebrates 30 years of farmer-led on-farm research

For Release: September 28, 2017


Nick Ohde | Research & Media Coordinator | Practical Farmers of Iowa | (515) 232-5661 | [email protected]

Stefan Gailans | Research & Field Crops Director | Practical Farmers of Iowa | (515)232-5661 | [email protected]

AMES, Iowa — In 1987, a small group of farmers concerned about rising input costs gathered and decided to do something entirely novel: They would each conduct research on their own farms to test alternative production methods that might lessen the need for costly inputs – and they would share their results with each other.

The farmers, all members of Practical Farmers of Iowa, agreed to use the scientific method so results were robust and the research could be replicated, and they committed to making annual on-farm research a staple of their efforts to improve their farms. With that commitment, Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cooperators’ Program was born.

This year marks the program’s 30th anniversary, and while the research interests of participants have broadened, cooperators continue to share two defining traits: a drive to search for answers and a commitment to sharing results freely with other farmers.

“Practical Farmers was created to help farmers make better decisions,” says Tom Frantzen, who raises organic crops, cattle and hogs near New Hampton and has been involved with the program since 1988.

“The Cooperators’ Program is the essential component of this effort. The research data generated creates a flywheel momentum that helps keep farmers on the land.”

An evolving legacy of research

Since the inception of the Cooperators’ Program, more than 1,400 on-farm research trials have been conducted by over 280 individual farmers. The earliest trials investigated weed control, tillage systems and soil fertility practices, primarily nitrogen, for row crop farmers.

The program evolved to include grazing and feed-ration trials led by livestock farmers, and in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the first horticulture trials exploring issues in vegetable, fruit and orchard production systems. Cooperators have researched flax production, on-farm energy and local foods purchasing habits.

Today, participants in the Cooperators’ Program are exploring a range of questions from cover crops and soil health, to pasture monitoring and regeneration, to vegetable variety trials.

Many cooperating farmers become dedicated on-farm research participants. In 2013, PFI created the Master Researcher Award to honor their commitment. Members are eligible for the award once they have conducted at least 20 on-farm research trials and hosted at least five PFI field days to share the knowledge they’ve gained.

To date, 12 farm families have received the award, including Tom Frantzen – and Practical Farmers of Iowa co-founders Dick and Sharon Thompson, whose pioneering use of scientifically based on-farm research to guide sustainable farm decision-making inspired the creation of the Cooperators’ Program.

Finding practical solutions

For Dick Sloan, who farms near Rowley, this farmer-led scientific approach is a big part of why PFI’s Cooperators’ Program appeals to him. He raises corn, soybeans and small grains, and has been conducting research to find ways of making cover crops and diverse rotations work on his farm.

“There’s a lot of good research on cover crops out there,” Dick says. “But then I think: ‘What does that have to do with me?’ When I do research on my farm, I can feel confident that I’m able to grow the system I’ve chosen for a lot of soil health reasons.”

Dick is conducting several research projects on cover crops. One set of projects is looking at the differences between early and late termination of winter cereal rye in two production systems (corn-after-corn and corn-after-soybeans).

He wants to know if he can let the rye grow right up to a few days before planting, or if he would be better off killing it a couple weeks before. He is also looking at whether nitrogen rates affect yields in those cover cropped production systems.

He says the data he collects from this on-farm research helps him make practical decisions on his farm, provides concrete information he can share with other farmers and “stimulates a lot of good discussion.”

What farmers are researching in 2017

This year, PFI farmers are conducting 25 projects on topics that range from rolling cover crops ahead of soybeans to using an oat cover crop in garlic; feeding pelleted small grains to hogs to variety trials of summer lettuce and hybrid cereal rye. The diversity of topics is a testament to the big-tent ethos of Practical Farmers, which welcomes farmers of all types and production systems.

Each year, Practical Farmers shares the research protocols farmers are using to conduct these projects. The 2017 protocols are now available at

The protocols outline the methods and experimental designs cooperators are using for each on-farm research project, and are intended as both a resource for other farmers contemplating an on-farm project and as an illustration of the scientific rigor that guides all research in PFI’s Cooperators’ Program.

Building community through research

After projects are completed, results are analyzed and presented in freely available research reports. Each December, cooperating farmers also gather to share results of research that took place that year, and make plans for the coming year.

“I had some real bonding experiences at the Cooperators’ Program meetings in the early years,” says Jeff Olson, a PFI master researcher who farms with his wife, Gayle, near Winfield. “Looking back, it was a support network of like souls on the same path. I liked being associated with other questioners.”

For Dick Sloan, the meeting provides a unique forum for brainstorming with other enterprising farmers. “Being able to compare and talk with other farmers and help each other design our projects is one of the real benefits of being able to go to the meeting in December,” he says.

“With Practical Farmers of Iowa, I have a lot of farmers working on these systems with me,” Dick adds. “I’m not alone. I might not have a lot of neighbors working on them right around me, but I do have a lot of neighbors working on them across the state.”

For more information on the Cooperators’ Program and Practical Farmers of Iowa’s work with on-farm research, visit


Practical Farmers of Iowa strengthens farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information-sharing. Our values include: welcoming everyone; creativity, collaboration and community; viable farms now and for future generations; and stewardship and ecology. Founded in 1985, farmers in our network raise corn, soybeans, livestock, hay, fruits and vegetables, and more. To learn more, visit