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Living lab

Farmers' first-hand knowledge key to climate resiliency collaboration

By Pamela Gill

Involving farmers in research and partnering with experts, including farmers from various disciplines and backgrounds, to tackle a common issue.

That’s the mandate behind everything taking place at the Agricultural Climate Solutions Newfoundland and Labrador Living Lab on Newfoundland’s West Coast.

More specifically, the living lab is a collaborative research project that brings together farmers, scientists and other stakeholders to co-develop beneficial management practices for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration.

It’s a partnership of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture; Grenfell Campus, Memorial University; Agriculture and Agri-food Canada; and the provincial department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture.

From left are living lab members on Ian Richardson’s farm, Larch Grove Farm.
Photo: Submitted

The work is rooted in real-life context: testing takes place where the farmers would use the technology or practice.

“Working on the farm with farmers allows us to learn together in real-time,” said Crystal McCall, the manager of agriculture research in the Agriculture Production and Research Division, Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture.

She also says one of the benefits is insight into the complexities of successful crop production.

“Having the farmers there allows us to evaluate real-world solutions to the unique challenges faced by farmers in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Productive and efficient

Farmers and researchers identified some beneficial management practices for use in the Newfoundland and Labrador living lab.

These are the basis for the on-farm scientific studies.

From left, researcher Dr. Vanessa Kavanagh engages with farmers at the N.L. Federation of Agrculture Expo in Corner Brook.
Photo: Submitted

Some practices are diversifying forage and vegetable rotations through cover crop inclusion to promote soil carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions mitigation; improving nitrogen use efficiency and soil carbon sequestration by optimizing fertilizer rates and/or sources; and improving soil carbon through composts and biochar amendments in sandy soils.

The researchers are also creating baseline datasets that capture historical and current information related to land use, cropping systems and practices, and soil characteristics in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The living lab also offers an opportunity to evaluate selected beneficial management practices along with socio-economic considerations,” said Dr. Mumtaz Cheema, principal investigator, Grenfell Campus.

Dr. Cheema says that a key aspect of the project is to identify cereal legume cover crop mixtures that have the potential to improve productivity and nitrogen use efficiency in annual forage and potato production systems.

“We are always looking to innovate . . . and being part of the living lab is just that.” — Ian Richardson

Assessments of soil health and economic viability will inform farmers’ decisions to test or, ultimately, adopt these beneficial management practices.

“We are always looking to innovate to do better and increase efficiency and reduce our inputs and being part of the living lab is just that,” said Ian Richardson, who owns Larch Grove Farm in Cormack.

Iterative approach

Living lab activities are not just taking place on the province’s West Coast farms.

Dr. Linda Jewell is the co-lead of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s Research and Development Centre in St. John’s, which supports activities in the Labrador and eastern regions of the province.

She says the living lab approach is unique in that it creates a framework that helps researchers develop ideas and projects that are co-developed by the growers who may ultimately want to use them.

The living lab team at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook.
Photo: Submitted

She also says the iterative approach encourages participants to make changes to improve the project when it is still in motion, as opposed to waiting until the end of the project when all of the data has already been collected.

Also on the to do list? A lot.

Generate biochar carbon from locally sourced organic materials and test the efficacy of these materials in sandy soils under vegetable production systems in Labrador; quantify and monitor greenhouse gas emissions under different best management practice scenarios; and perform economic assessments specific to BMPs to evaluate the impacts of selected practices on farm profit/economic viability and cost-benefit ratio, as well as practise adoption.

Knowledge technology and transfer is also a significant part of the living lab’s mandate.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture is leading that component of the work.

“Effective collaboration and a strong emphasis on the needs of farmers are essential for the project’s success,” said Rodney Reid, manager of climate change at the organization. “We eagerly anticipate further engagement with the farming community as the project continues.”

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