Co-learning, Co-innovation Between Research and Greater Ag Communities with Carol McFarland

Handful of soil

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PNW Farmers’ Network
USDA Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network

Contact information:
Carol McFarland, Senior Extension Coordinator – PNW Farmers’ Network:

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Drew Lyon: Hello, welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

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My guest today is Carol McFarland. Carol is a research associate and the lead coordinator for the [WSU] Farmers’ Network. She learned about the importance of soil organic matter, direct marketing, good conversations, and even a little bit about cows from spending time with her grandfather as a kid, which has subsequently led to a career founded on agroecology, soil science, the importance of community, and all the connections from soil to fork. With degrees from Montana State University and then WSU, where her M.S. focused on soil acidification, liming, and developing outreach materials, she’s worked in several different production systems–but she keeps coming back to the dryland wheat cropping systems. Hello, Carol.

Carol McFarland: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So the Farmers’ Network, how did that get started and how has it changed from its original birthing, I guess, several years back?

Carol McFarland: Great. Yeah. The Farmers’ Network was actually originally created by Dr. Haiying Tao as part of her soil fertility research and extension program, and she recruited me to organize soil health outreach events targeted toward dryland grain production systems. And with her departure, there has been sustained interest in the Farmers’ Network and a collaboration between WSU and the USDA Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Unit. I’ve had the opportunity to work on pivoting this work, at least the part that wasn’t directly tied to Dr. Tao’s research program. My background has me really interested in a stakeholder engagement model that is highly participatory, focused on soil health and related topics. And of course, within these ag systems, it’s all related. So as we rebuild the [Farmers’] Network, we are working to strengthen the connection between the research communities and the greater ag community.

Throughout the year, we’ve been running a soil health coffee hour on Zoom. We’ve been getting a great turnout with that. We’ve been inviting a speaker to discuss a soil health-related topic for around 10 minutes and then the rest of the hour is spent discussing that topic and whatever else is on people’s minds.

Like, you know, if you go to a party and you want to talk about soil health, but nobody else does…This is actually the place for you. So, there’s just a bunch of us soil health nerds getting together once a month and really making the space for that kind of conversation.

You know, everybody has questions on what–maybe we can do something better. And, you know, in the science community, we’re really used to asking questions and trying to think about how best to answer them. And we’re really interested in exploring how we can come together and offer support to growers in the field who are asking those kind of questions–just to get the most out of their projects or out of the questions they’re asking.

And then also, you know, finding opportunities to interact in what we’re calling the co-production of research. And so there’s a range of different ways that that can look with that kind of grower and scientist partnership, as I’m sure you know, Drew, in how to answer some of these really pressing questions we have in our ag systems. So the Farmers’ [Network] has been also a part of organizing SoilCon for the last two years. So we’re working this year on, you know, thinking about going back to basics, principles to practice. It’s been really great to work with that team to put on a good production.

So also with the Farmers’ Network, we’re working on a soil biology-focused video series, so stay tuned for that. We hope to be offering that in association with CCA credits to do courses. And you know, I always have some new crazy idea brewing, especially when folks share with me what they’re thinking about. Well, we work to riff on that. And yeah, that’s kind of where we’ve been and what we’re up to now–or what we’ve been up to lately as we kind of make this pivot.

Drew Lyon: It sounds like you’ve maintained the outreach-extension part of the original Farmers’ Network idea. You mentioned the on-farm research, I know that was a big part of Dr. Tao’s vision for this program, where is that part of the Farmers’ Network?

Carol McFarland: So, it’s still present. It’s just evolved a little bit because the collaborations are looking different, right? So we’re working with, as I mentioned, Dr. Huggins and the group of scientists associated with the LTAR or the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network. And again, just really trying to bridge that connection and in doing useful and usable research with the growers of this dryland wheat producing region.

I work with Dr. Maren Friesen and her microbial ecology work focusing on nitrogen fixation and microbes and, you know, really quite a few other colleagues here at WSU come to me and are interested, “Hey, Carol, do you know a farmer I can talk to about this sort of thing?” So you got to be careful when you chat with me, especially as a producer, because it’s very likely I’m going to try to connect you with a scientist who is doing work you might be interested in.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so how do you see the Farmers’ Network going forward? What do you see it–how do you see it evolving, I guess?

Carol McFarland: Yeah, well, it’s been really great, you know, this last winter to kind of be back doing some of these outreach, you know, and having the Zoom space, you know, gain momentum, allows people to access from anywhere. So kind of mixing up the menu of what we’re offering is something that I think is going to be really core moving forward.

But also, you know, this is a time of kind of change and growth within the Farmers’ Network. So last year, as part of that, I worked to put together reforming the advisory board for the Farmers Network. And really a big shout out to all the folks who did participate and continue to participate in advising and supporting the Farmers’ Network’s work to make sure that it continues to be on track and useful and usable.

But the vision that came out of that was that the Farmers’ Network exists to create a place for those passionate about soil health and cropping systems innovation to share and explore cutting-edge ideas to advance on-farm resiliency and drive relevant research. This network aims to address the soil degradation processes that reduce economic productivity and increase ecological impact in the dryland wheat region of the IPNW or the Inland Pacific Northwest, of course.

Moving forward, we’re really seeking to increase diversity within the applied ag research portfolio. So all of the scientists I know they’re doing this work because they love it and they want to do that useful and usable research. And so, you know, there’s still room, plenty of room for lab bench work. But as we seek to really make sure that we’re doing what stakeholders in the area really need from us, the on-farm research being part of that research portfolio is something that’s really of interest to the scientists that I’ve been working with.

And as part of that research portfolio, we really want that increased presence of farmer-driven experimentation, particularly within this USDA LTAR group. So again, making sure that we’re trying to answer the questions that growers are asking.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so how do you go about achieving this vision you have for the Farmers’ Network?

Carol McFarland: Well, certainly not alone. With this type of model, as with many things, the more support and engagement we have, it allows us to do more. The core of this work really is in strengthening the community and partnerships around soil health and cropping systems innovation and the on-farm experimentation. So sometimes I like to use the buzzwords– especially when, you know, I published a little paper in an Extension journal–so I really like to think about co-learning and co-innovation.

Earlier you mentioned kind of outreach and extension, and you know, I think about that a little bit more, you know, education. That implies a little bit more of like, you know, me standing up in front of a room giving a PowerPoint presentation and then you get to take home and kind of do with it what you will. With the model that I’m mostly interested in is how we get the ag community together in one room where everyone knows something. I mean, everyone has vital information to contribute to, I don’t want to call them problems, but just, you know, there’s always something in our ag systems that we’re facing and these big questions as we seek to address them. I think there’s power in doing that together as we each bring our own knowledge and experiences to the table.

Sometimes, if you’ve been to some of my stuff, it’s not always the most comfortable because I kind of make people do stuff like talk to people they don’t know. Which, you know, it’s funny because I get a lot of reluctant like, “Yeah, that wasn’t so bad. It was actually pretty good meeting people and making a new connection. And, you know, this collaboration is actually going to come out of it.”

So it’s pretty fun and it’s really great to hear that kind of feedback. But yeah, so input, particularly in the collaborative space–this co-learning and co-innovation again between growers, scientists, conservationists, ag industry, CCAs–I mean they’re all vital parts–and landlords–I mean they’re all of these players are really vital parts of the ag community. And again, I think that we are more likely to have success when we go together toward this kind of co-production of research, you know, and again, in collaboration with Dr. Maren Friesen’s group, the LTAR unit, and scientists and many of whom you’ve actually interviewed on your great podcast here.

And yeah, we’re just really excited about exploring more innovation in the practices for ag production systems as part of the LTAR mission and strategic plan. And then this emphasis on on-farm experimentation to increase the production and enhance geographic representation, that sort of thing, with this useful and usable research.

So as a land-grant university, with WSU being a land-grant university, and then again with this collaboration being so closely tied to the USDA-ARS, these are publicly funded institutions and we are charged with doing problem-solving science. These questions we really feel need to be driven by stakeholder priorities. Our goal is to have a positive impact on stakeholders’ lives by offering data-driven decision-making support. The research done in this kind of space allows for different kinds of questions and solutions. You know, there’s naturally roles for all kinds of different research in the applied ag sciences and these strategies can really complement each other.

But with this LTAR model, we can really look at the impact and diversity of outcomes that result from long-term practices. This work is well-suited to the public sector because it enables us to assess more of the full array of potential practices and the benefits and tradeoffs within the agroecosystems. Like The Cook Farm has been going for over 20 years–and that whole time, you know, soil carbon has been measured, emissions have been measured, earthworms are measured. But there’s not a lot of spaces where that kind of research can happen. And so we’re just really excited to, again, kind of broaden that mission even more into the questions that stakeholders really want to know and really what’s on people’s minds. And we’re excited that the Farmers’ Network can hopefully be a big part of that.

Drew Lyon: All right. You know, I know many growers are very interested in soil health. The topic of soil health and all the different things that go into that. Who should be in the Farmers’ Network?

Carol McFarland: Everyone. So our focus is definitely on the dryland grain producing region of the Inland Pacific Northwest. But, especially with some of our online stuff, we’ve had folks from around the Northwest and beyond join our events, especially those who do have an interest in soil health and cropping systems innovation. When we talk about the co-production of knowledge, it means everyone has something valuable to contribute. And I was kind of talking about this before with everyone having something valuable to contribute, and we’re all in this journey to do locally relevant work, trying to push the needle on how we can meet production goals within the constraints of our system and maybe build back some soil along the way.

To be part of the [Farmers’] Network, the most important thing to do is to show up, join our events, bring a friend. You might be a little uncomfortable being nudged to talk to some of the folks you haven’t met before. But again, I’ve had good reports on the learning and connections that result. We’ve had really great feedback on the professional connections that have been made at some of these events–collaborations, new research ideas coming out of the work so far–and we’re just really excited to keep building and growing that.

Drew Lyon: So if somebody wants to join in or learn more about it, where can they go to learn more about the Farmers’ Network?

Carol McFarland: Well, unfortunately right now the website is down still as part of the transition. So that’s as soon as kind of the height of the event season kind of wraps up, I’ll be able to put more full attention into rebuilding the website and some of our social media presence.

But right now we’ve got a great mailing list. So I send out a few emails a month letting folks know what’s going on with the Farmers’ Network directly from my email at And yeah, so if you want to know what’s going on, reach out to me. I also just love to get emails hearing what is on people’s minds too.

So again, that’s I always do love a good visit, so definitely come say hi if you see me at an event that I’m not hosting or send me an email, give me a call. I always love to hear from folks.

Drew Lyon: All right. Well, thank you, Carol. You know, I think this co-learning model is really very exciting. So I’m going to be interested in watching how that develops and maybe borrowing some of those ideas for some of my programing down the road.

Carol McFarland: Thanks, Drew. I always do love to collaborate, too, so definitely keep in touch about that.

Drew Lyon: Well, thanks for being my guest today. All the best to you. We’ll have you on again sometime.


Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.