Engaging across the research scale with Dr. Garett Heineck

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USDA-ARS Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit

Long-Term Agroecological Research Network (LTAR)

Long-Term Agroecological Research and Extension (LTARE)

PNW Farmers’ Network

Ralston Project

Contact information:

Dr. Garett Heineck, garett.heineck@usda.gov, 608-397-9207

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Episode transcription:


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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Drew Lyon:  My guest today is Dr. Garett Heineck. Garett is a USDA-ARS cropping systems agronomist in the Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit and is stationed in Prosser, Washington. He received a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in plant breeding and genetics, focusing on perennial grass seed production systems.

In his current role, he will be adding his expertise to a diverse team of ARS researchers working together to improve the sustainability and profitability of agroecosystems throughout the PNW dryland region. Hello, Garett.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Good to be back on the show, Drew. Thanks for having me.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for coming in today. Can you talk a little bit about your research objectives in this unit?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yeah, for sure. I think I went over them a couple of times, well once, in the last podcast, but I’ll give you a quick update. Might kind of prime this podcast here.

So, I have three facets that I’m working on. One is intercropping–you may have remembered Isaac Madsen’s peaola. I’m also doing garbola, which is garbanzos and canola. And then I also focus on perennial grains. And this is in partnership with The Land Institute. So, we’re trialing Kernza® at several locations across eastern Washington and hopefully stretching out into northeast Oregon as well soon.

However, I don’t really have a ton of data or conclusive data yet to speak to either of those two projects. So, what I would like to talk to you today about is the third facet of research, which is farmer co-innovation and co-production, and kind of how does the ARS work with farmers in conjunction with our university partners.

Drew Lyon: So, can you broadly kind of describe what capacities you engage with farmers?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Oh, sure. Yes. So, it’s been a really an interesting journey that I’ve taken over the past about two years now. And it kind of started out with me just reaching out to folks, people that my research unit had worked with previously, or folks that maybe just had approached me or I had met through chance as I drove around eastern Washington.

And so, the approach initially was just to have an open mind, you know, and see what happened. And as things have progressed, what I’ve really been finding out is that the questions that the farmers are asking really drives the kind of research approach and methodology that needs to be employed. And so, if you can kind of think about the engagement that the ARS and perhaps even WSU or OSU have with their stakeholders, I think of it as a continuum.

On one side, you have farmer-driven research where the farmer is really driving their own research on their ground and they may only engage with the scientists at field days. We might have winter meetings, but they’re the ones in the driver’s seat, quite literally, getting the field set up, maybe even taking their own data. And whether they want to share that data with us as part of a research project is really up to them.

As you slide across that moving research scale, depending on the question, you get closer to things like on-farm strip trials, things like the Ralston project, which my predecessor initiated quite a few years ago, and it’s still going on today. And then further, as you slide over, you have things like I would say like more like variety trials or smaller agronomic trials where you’re going into the farmer’s field, but you have very specific small plot ground that you’re working on. And then even further, we get to our research on our research and extension sites and our research farms, like the Wilke Farm, and then all the way down to lab-based work where you’re really working in a very controlled environment to answer very specific questions.

And so, as I work through this, that’s kind of the model that I’m trying to build is when we interact with farmers initially, how do we assess the questions that they’re asking and which part of that continuum do we need to be working on to address their questions?

Drew Lyon: Okay. I imagine there’s lots of different questions out there because there [are] lots of different farmers. How do you take the input you get and decide which of those issues you really want to dive into or need to dive into?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Oh, that is a great question because one thing that I identified right away is that I’m not I’m not an extension agent–even if I was one, I wouldn’t be a very good one. And so, it’s good that I’m not.

And so, how do you take all of this input from all these different, very diverse operations–they have to be diverse because they’re across a huge rain gradient. And the equipment’s different when they’re putting the crop in. What the crop is is all different. And so, what our research unit has been trying to invest in is a network of university staff and faculty that work with these people so that they can kind of be the vanguard to start to assimilate all the questions and the input from farmers.

So, for example, Carol McFarland recently started working with our research unit and we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we facilitate the engagement with farmers. I know Carol has been on the podcast before and so if you’re more interested in how we’re engaging in that capacity, I would say go back and listen to her podcast because she’s really on the vanguard as far as my research goes in engaging upfront with farmers and then figuring out, well, how can we, if at all work with them–if that’s what they would like?

So that’s really how I’m taking all that input and kind of moving it around. So, thank you for that question.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so how does this tie in with both the ARS and the WSU research objectives that are out there? Both institutions have their objectives, each individual researcher has their objective–how do you tie all this into those?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yeah, it’s really kind of a challenge, right? And it’s something that we’re still working through. I think it will take quite a few years to figure out. But I can say that ARS typically–we are not an extension organization, we’re a research organization and so we 100% need to be reliant on our university partners to really facilitate these interactions and then also disperse the information that we’re gathering to our stakeholders across the state.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I know one thing—ARS and universities are kind of funded a little bit differently. In the universities, we tend to rely on two-, three-year grants that we get and the ability to do longer term research is a bit limited, whereas the ARS funding tends to be there, right? So you still need some grants to support some of your work, but you don’t have the constraints at university. So longer term type of research seems to be something that falls to the ARS maybe a little more than university. Is that something–have you worked on any long-term projects or are you thinking of any long-term projects that you’re taking on?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Yes, so I’ll kind of hearken back to my original thought on that continuum of research. And these long-term trials can fall anywhere on this spectrum. Really, if the farmer wanted to, they could have their own long-term trial and we could coordinate with them. But really, I think that generally speaking, we’re talking probably about like strip trials or like a farm, like the Cook Agronomy Farm, where we’ll have long-term research and the ARS is well set up to conduct that research, because we are fairly well hard-funded organization through federal dollars.

But we come up short in some points where the university systems come up a little stronger, right? So oftentimes, if a professor writes a grant and brings on a post-doc or a student, then we can essentially talk with them—what is the student or the post-doc interested in doing? And then we’ve got these long-term sites. [So] let’s think about a question–a very specific question–that they can dive into and try to address within the context of our long-term sites.

But we have long-term sites. There’ll be one starting up soon in the Horse Heaven Hills. Of course, we have the Wilke Farm is a long-term site that I work. I work with Aaron Esser on the Cook Farm, the Ralston project near Lind and then Lind itself. So, there’s just a whole plethora of long-term sites.

And again, we’re still trying to figure out, you know, how are we actually going to do all this work? But the possibilities seem to be almost limitless.

Drew Lyon: In a previous life, I was a dryland cropping system specialist in western Nebraska and long-term studies–I’ve always been in favor of trying to keep those going because in any given year, anything is possible in the dryland. But you know what’s possible over the long run is really takes long-term investment of research dollars and commitment by researchers. So, just a pet project of mine is to make sure we continue some of those, and particularly in dryland areas like eastern Washington.

So, what is your method of engagement with growers and how do you drive your research question in this engagement?

Dr. Garett Heineck: That’s another really pertinent question, thanks, Drew. Because it’s a lot of work actually to derive the question. And I think you’ll be talking with Nick Bergman in another podcast. And what I’ve learned with working with him, which I’ll elaborate more on this, is we what I rely on is actually people who really specialize in facilitation, especially for talking about the way left side of the spectrum–the first point I was talking about with larger on-farm trials, it can get pretty complicated, right? You get a group of growers, they’re going to be talking about everything from crop insurance to what the weather was like last week. And so how do you sit down and really have a really good discussion, not drive the discussion, but co-facilitate that discussion between the researchers and the farmers and then get at the questions that are most pertinent to that entire group.

And that requires someone who’s, to be honest, skilled in that. And so that is one of our foci is trying to figure out who can actually do this kind of facilitation and how it’s done and where does it fit in the research portfolio? Because it’s a complicated question. If you don’t get it right, I think you miss out on a lot of really important things because the farmers know what needs to be done more than I do. We just have to get that information from them in a manner that represents certain groups of farmers depending on where they are.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, I could see possibly investing a lot of time and money answering the wrong question too.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Exactly. Yeah. We don’t want to go down the wrong path, and we need representative questions, too, that are going to be impactful for many years, especially when it comes to long-term research. So, you don’t want to invest in the wrong question, that’s for sure.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, what does the future hold for your on-farm research portfolio?

Dr. Garett Heineck: A lot of driving, I think. [I’ve] got a nice big truck.

I think honestly it is a lot of investing in actually getting to each site and really seeing what the farmers are working with and really understanding where they’re coming from. It’s just been completely–it’s almost mind boggling, all of the variability that these producers work with. And when I speak with–I was just meeting with a farming family this morning before this recording and talking about where they need to get their farm to in the next five years. And then you go west and it’s a totally different story depending on the weeds, depending on the markets, depending on what they can grow or what they can’t grow.

So, the short-term future is for me to keep learning about how we can do research. Long term, I think the long-term research that you just brought up is going to be something that I’ll keep heavily investing in from a research portfolio standpoint–but then being able to set those projects up so there can be some wiggle room as the questions change.

So, I think it’s really going to be a lot of getting a lot of input in, having a lot of good discussions, and then long term developing the methodology to answer those questions, whatever they might be, right? We’ve got to have that whole suite of research methodology at our disposal–from really great lab people who can answer things on a very specific scale to facilitators who are able to work with large groups of farmers–in any area of our long-term research site, which is a vast area.

I think I’ll just quickly mention that our LTAR covers about 26 million acres, so it’s very large. And so, we have to address growers in all of those regions. And so just thinking about all of the questions that they might have and how we can answer them.

Drew Lyon: And LTAR stands for?

Dr. Garett Heineck: Oh yes, the Long-term Agroecological Research Network.

And this is a little bit different than the LTARE. It’s very similar in concept, but we’re tied in with the national ARS group. So this gives us a lot of power from the standpoint of doing research and collaborating with other researchers from around the country.

So as we move forward long term, that will be another thing that we’ll be working on–not just growers in our region, but making sure we’re able to share our results with other researchers from could be the Midwest or the South or wherever it may be.

So that’s all on the horizon. And we’ll continue to build and grow as we move forward.

Drew Lyon: You know, I see the cropping systems in eastern Washington and the diversity as both a blessing and a curse for you. It’s great to have such diverse environments to try different things out and see how they work. But it does require a lot of difference.

You mentioned the Horse Heaven Hills, which is, I believe, perhaps the driest wheat producing area in the world–at least Bill Schillinger used to say it was, and if it’s not, it’s awful close. And then you come over–parts of the Palouse probably wouldn’t even qualify as dryland because they get over 20 inches of rainfall a year on average.

So, it’s very diverse, great opportunities. But definitely, as you mentioned, a lot of work.

Wish you well, we’ll be following what you’re doing. I think this on-farm work, the whole spectrum, it’s the way to go. And I’m glad to see ARS collaborating with WSU scientists to get to the answers that the growers need. Thanks.

Dr. Garett Heineck: Thank you, Drew.

 Drew Lyon:


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 lyon@wsu.edu — (drew.lyon@wsu.edu). You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu 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.

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