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Canada: Potato growers and researchers collaborate to implement sustainable farming practices

The Living Laboratories Initiative is a four-year research partnership between Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), farmers and environmental organizations, where research is co-developed and managed on farms to produce farming practices tailored to local environments.

Launched in 2019, the Atlantic site – located in the province of Prince Edward Island (PEI) – is the first-of-its-kind in Canada. Research at Living Lab – Atlantic is addressing several key areas impacting potato producers in PEI, including soil health, water quality management and crop productivity.

AAFC is excited to work with the East Prince Agri-Environment Association, Kensington North Watersheds Association, Souris and Area Branch of the PEI Wildlife Federation along with 17 other organizations and numerous farmers in three important PEI watersheds and eco-regions .

Together these groups are measuring soil health under various tillage or plowing strategies, identifying crop rotation strategies and soil amendments (fertilizers and manure) to improve soil health, and reducing erosion of healthy topsoil by planting cover crops. They are also exploring eco-friendly irrigation strategies that benefit potato yield, as well as constructed wetlands and water drainage basins that act as filtration systems to remove harmful pollutants before entering waterways. Finally, the team is measuring the socioeconomic impacts to farmers when adopting these practices.

Throughout the first two years of Living Lab – Atlantic, researchers and farmers set up activities at over 20 PEI farms, installed research equipment, oversaw crop planting, took weekly soil, greenhouse gas and water samples for laboratory analysis.

Research results will begin to take shape by the end of the 2021 growing season, but the group already found encouraging data showing winter cover crops can reduce soil erosion and nitrate leaching. Researchers have also created a searchable database for farmers to access historical data for soil, land use, topography, and weather in PEI.

While the research being conducted is important for the sustainability of the agriculture sector in Atlantic Canada, it’s the new collaboration between farmers and researchers that makes Living Lab – Atlantic so invaluable.

Andrea McKenna (far left), AAFC and Living Lab – Atlantic co-lead researcher, Dr. Judith Nyiraneza (left), and Scott Anderson (far right) discuss activities with farmers and other partners in (September 2019)

“One of the biggest accomplishments so far from Living Lab – Atlantic is that farmers and researchers are now more connected than ever,” says AAFC engineer and Living Lab – Atlantic Site Coordinator, Scott Anderson.

Scott recalls a planning meeting that reinforced the value of co-development, which is a key pillar of the Living Lab initiative.

“Farmers proposed a study where AAFC could explore a four-year crop versus usual three-year rotation for potatoes on their farms,” says Anderson. “The farmers came to us with anecdotal evidence that showed a four-year rotation has potential to increase potato yield, improve soil health and reduce pesticide use, and we were eager to explore this.”

For farmers, having the ability to be directly involved in planning and overseeing activities, as well as understanding the economic impact, will be vital when the time comes to adopting these new farming practices. A socioeconomic survey and interviews are now underway with participating farmers which will help researchers establish estimated costs to implement new farming practices.

After two years, the PEI farmers who are participating in Living Lab – Atlantic already understand the value of seeing the research take place first-hand.

“Continuous communication throughout the planning and research execution led to a successful first two years that required only a few small changes to the original work plan,” says Andrea McKenna, Executive Director of the East Prince Agri-Environment Association.

“Our farmers are encouraged by the diverse agriculture expertise that they now have access to and by the unity shown among partners to work together to find answers to real challenges that farmers face every day.”

Farmers and scientists are excited to build on the success of the first two years and now are in the process of analyzing their work from the second field season. Anticipation is mounting for the research results to start taking shape next season.

Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)
On the web: Living Laboratories Initiative
Across the globe: Living Laboratories Networks – European Network of Living Labs (ENOLL)
Cover photo: Discover Charlottetown | Credit Stephanie McQuaid @theredheadroamer
Further information: Brett van Heyningen
Communications Advisor, Atlantic Region Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada / Government of Canada
[email protected]

Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher of Potato News Today

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