Getting the Most from On-Farm Trials

Team examining crop trials.

Many producers around the inland Pacific Northwest at this point are likely wrapping up harvest mode and getting started on the next crop year. Perhaps some are looking at yield maps and other data to evaluate whether something new they tried this year worked or not, and if they should try it again. Many people in our region’s ag community are thinking about a few new things to try for optimizing next year’s crop production and stewardship goals. These producer-led on-farm trials hold an important place in the on-farm experimentation continuum and the region’s cropping systems innovation.

On-farm experimentation is a useful tool to continue the advancement and optimization of cropping systems toward meeting both production and land stewardship goals. Navigating constantly changing market conditions, weather patterns, as well as other challenges like herbicide resistance and soil degradation can be a trial itself. When tackling these challenges, having more management tools available can help farms increase their resilience around the inherently dynamic conditions of agricultural systems. It can also be fun and interesting to explore how small or large adjustments may affect the overall farming system. On-farm trials can happen around an intriguing new product, a new crop or practice, or even creating small experiments around existing practices such as seeding or fertility rates. Curiosity about making changes can come with a lot of questions and each is unique, and the most effective way to address these various questions will be different. Getting the most out of each experiment starts with a process and a plan. The experimental process in its simplest form has three steps:

  1. Gathering information to refine the question and determine if it makes sense to move forward from there.
  2. Develop a logistical plan to represent what effect a new product or practice might have within varying field conditions and over time.
  3. Decide how ‘success’ will be measured and evaluated to determine if that product or practice should be tried again (the most useful information comes from trials that are managed in a way that represents what it would look like if done across the farm).

The first step of gathering information can be overwhelming. There is a lot of information available and much of it is published as a variety of digital and print resources. Extension publications (find a great collection of them and related tools on our site!) and journal articles are often based on experiments done on research farms or greenhouses and labs. Attending field days, meetings, and lectures often provides many different sources of information, from presenters to conversation. The sharing of experiences from a range of backgrounds and vantage points, usually with others in the ag community, is a way to work together to produce new knowledge about what is possible and advance our region’s production systems. These conversations and relationships can develop into further collaborations around answering regionally important cropping systems innovation questions.

In a recent episode of the Wheat Beat podcast, Dr. Nick Bergmann describes an example of a group effort in the ‘co-production of knowledge and research’ in the PNW Herbicide Resistance Initiative where farmers and researchers are working together to answer their shared questions.

In another recent Wheat Beat podcast interview, USDA-ARS Scientist Dr. Garett Heineck describes the continuum of on-farm experimentation. Additionally, he describes how he is working with producer collaborators to ‘co-produce’ on-farm research and better understand how to answer the pressing cropping systems questions of the iPNW. Dr. Heineck’s research program is all about advancing cropping systems innovation, with an emphasis on the perennial small grain Kernza®. He is hoping to use small plot research trials to determine the viability, potential advantages, and drawbacks around growing this ‘new’ crop in the iPNW, and then ‘scale up’ the question to larger trials. Dr. Heineck’s work contributes to the portfolio of research being done across the on- (and off-) farm experimentation by the Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit, where USDA-ARS scientists continue to use the experimental process to increase understanding around questions most relevant to our region’s grain-based systems.

On-farm research and experimentation graphic shown as a scale or continuum.
On-farm research opportunities in the form of a scale or continuum.

Cropping systems co-innovation’ is what happens when the regional work of different sectors of our ag community come together to push the system forward. In the iPNW, there is so much variation that there is no ‘one-size fits all’ formula for crop production, which means there is a lot to learn and a lot of new ideas to try. Many innovators from every part of the iPNW ag community including producers and researchers have a long history of doing this work.

The mission of the PNW Farmers’ Network (PNWFN) is to contribute to building up the space within the iPNW ag community for learning from each other and ‘co-innovating’ towards increasing resilience in the region’s grain-based production systems. If you are a person who likes to try things, is still working to get the most out of what you are trying and learns from your tractor seat–check out the new podcast On-Farm Trials with the PNW Farmers’ Network. It’s the podcast that puts growers at the center of innovation, as they share their experiences around their experimental processes and adventures–from new crops and livestock integration to new equipment. We have conversations with growers about their own on-farm trials and how some are working in collaboration with the research community to gain a deeper understanding of some of the broader questions within the iPNW’s grain-based cropping system. Hear more about the new podcast in the latest episode of the Wheat Beat where PNWFN’s lead research associate Carol McFarland describes the podcast and why there’s something there for everyone!

Head over to to check out the archives and the latest episode of the On-Farm Trials Podcast, join the PNW Farmers’ Network for the monthly Soil Health Coffee Hour on Zoom, find @PNWFN on X (formerly known as Twitter), check out the YouTube channel and partner resources, and sign up for the mailing list to stay up to date on upcoming events from both the PNWFN and our co-innovation partners.

A big thank you to the PNWFN Advisory Board for their ongoing contributions to the co-development of ideas around on-farm experimentation across the research continuum.

Carol McFarland professional headshot.

For questions or comments, contact Carol McFarland or the PNW Farmers’ Network via email at