October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA4

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County Extension Agents and On-Farm Research Work: Results of a Kansas Survey

This paper reports the results of a survey designed to ascertain information about on-farm research, that is, on-farm work (OFW) implemented by county Extension agents (CEAs) in Kansas. The survey collects information on the types of OFW, who was responsible for it, what data were collected, what was done with the results, and attitudes of CEAs toward OFW. The survey results indicate that OFR associated with CEAs in Kansas is fairly common, that CEAs have positive attitudes for OFR and play important roles in initiating, implementing, analyzing, and distributing the results of such work, but major constraints exist to expanding such work.

David Norman
Professor of Agricultural Economics
Internet Address: dnorman@loki.agecon.ksu.edu

Stanley Freyenberger
Research Assistant

Bryan Schurle
Professor of Agricultural Economics
Department of Agricultural Economics
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas

Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station Contribution No. 97-99-J

In recent years, interest has been increasing in On-Farm Research (OFR), not only in low income countries, where it has been associated closely with the farming systems research approach (Norman, Worman, Siebert, & Modiakotla, 1995), but also in the US, where it has been linked with the sustainable agriculture movement. Arguments have been made that considerable complementarity exists between station-based and farm-based research and that ideally these should be viewed as being on a continuum rather than as substitutes for each other (Norman, Frankenberger, & Hildebrand, 1994).

Considerable support and enthusiasm for OFR exists on the part of farmers, as indicated by a 1993 survey of farmers in Kansas. This survey indicated that both conventional farmers and those with an overt sustainable agriculture orientation were supportive of OFR, whether done by themselves or in cooperation with outsiders (Freyenberger, Bloomquist, Norman, Regehr, & Schurle, 1994). However, the support for OFR by farmers with a sustainable agriculture orientation was relatively greater, potentially because of the location specificity of many technologies relating to sustainable agriculture.

Because OFR appears to be quite common and strongly supported by farmers, Extension may have a major role to play in terms of coordinating these efforts and sharing the results. This paper reports the results of a survey designed to ascertain the degree and type of OFR-related work implemented by county Extension agents (CEAs) in Kansas, who was responsible for it, what information was collected, what was done with the results, and what were the attitudes of CEAs toward on-farm work.

In 1993, a survey was mailed through the associate director of Cooperative Extension to all 105 county Extension agents in Kansas. Eighty-one surveys were returned and results are reported here. Parts of the survey involved collecting information about the trials/demonstrations the agents had coordinated on farms, their perceptions of the constraints to involvement in such activities, and some attitudinal information.

Frequency of Trials and Demonstrations

The CEAs were involved with both trials (really OFR) and demonstrations, which together we term on-farm work (OFW). In the survey we tried to distinguish between the two, considering trials as experimental in nature and demonstrations as OFW that involves recommended technologies or final-stage testing of a technology. On average, the number of trials/demonstrations implemented per CEA in 1993 was almost 6 (median 4) with a range from 0 (3.7% of the CEAs) to more than 15 (2.4% of the CEAs). More than 65% of the CEAs implemented between 2 and 6 trials/demonstrations in 1993.

Information on some of the types of trials/demonstrations implemented by CEAs is given in Table 1. By far the majority of the trials/demonstrations could be considered as being demonstration (72%). In terms of the trials/demonstrations for which detailed information was available, the most common were crop related (66%), with those relating to livestock being less frequent (16%).

This finding is consistent with results obtained elsewhere. For example, farmers in Kansas, in their own initiated research, tend to concentrate much more on crop-related issues (Freyenberger et al., 1994). One major reason for this is that OFW with livestock is methodologically more complex than that with crops (Norman et al., 1995).

In terms of crop-related OFW, about 54% of the trials/demonstrations on which detailed information was collected involved evaluation of crop varieties and 88% of these were implemented in a demonstration format. In contrast, those that required more of a systems perspective or were livestock related tended to be implemented in the form of trials.

Table 1
Numbers of Trials/Demonstrations Implemented
Tr/De Whose Details Were given*
Type PercentPercent Trials
Crop related:50.4  
Variety 53.711.8
Agronomy 8.572.7
Protection 3.555.6
Livestock related:13.0  
Breeding 2.333.3
Husbandry/nutrition 5.860.0
Health 1.940.0
Not commodity specific:23.3  
Record keeping 1.920.0
Erosion control 1.20.0
Water related 1.90.0
Mechanical 1.233.3
Pasture/brush control 11.850.0
Total: Percent100.071.828.2
*CEAs were asked to give details on up to 5 trails/demonstrations with which they associaed, thus only those reported (257 of 484) are classified in greated detail.

Trials and Demonstrations: Design and Implemetation Issues

In the survey, a number of questions were asked concerning the dynamics and responsibilities in suggesting, designing, and implementing the trials/demonstrations. A consolidated summary of some of the major issues is given in Table 2. The results clearly show that much of the initiative for suggesting and designing trials/demonstrations with which the CEAs are associated comes from the agents themselves, but that their implementation requires the cooperation of the farmers, who play a major role in providing necessary equipment. Farmers also collaborate with CEAs in monitoring the trials/demonstrations and in collecting data.

Table 2
Responsibilities for Issues Relating to Design of Trials/Demonstrations (Percent)
Design IssuesImplementation Issues

Part of the survey was designed to ascertain the intended purposes of trials and demonstrations. Results indicate the CEAs' perceptions of the trials/demonstrations with which they were associated. Yield was the focus for 33% of the trials and 49% of the demonstrations. Providing visuals for field days were the most important stated intentions of 40% of the demonstrations and 27% of the trials. Experiments were the focuses of 7% of the demonstrations and 37% of the trials. Other criteria were of only minor importance.

The use of OFW to provide a focus for field days has merit, given the findings of the farmers survey that other farmers were major sources of information (Freyenberger et al., 1994). Farm tours and field days provide opportunities for contact not only with CEAs but also with other farmers.

Results indicate that field days were held for nearly 70% of the trials/demonstrations but were more common for demonstrations (77%) than for trials (49%). Given the predominance of demonstrations related to crops, field days were held for 80% of the crop-related OFW compared to only 32% for livestock-related work. On average, attendance at field days was 55 persons, and the CEAs expressed purpose of such field days was to provide farmers with a visual perception of the technologies being evaluated. This is consistent with the intention underlying OFW discussed earlier.

However, the results indicate that another important reason for such field days is to provide an opportunity for meetings, something that seems to be important, particularly for livestock- related work. Meetings can provide a very important forum for obtaining farmers opinions, not only on technologies that are shortly to be, or are being, recommended (i.e., demonstrations) but also for those that are still in the developmental stage (i.e., trials). OFW researchers see the latter as an increasingly important purpose of OFW that allows incorporation of a systems perspective and ensures consideration of the multiple evaluation criteria underlying farmers' decisions (Norman, Frankenberger, & Hildebrand, 1994, Norman et al., 1995).

Trials and Demonstrations: Evaluation and Result Dissemination Issues

The survey also provided information on the types of data collected from trials/demonstrations and responsibility for their analysis. No data were collected for 21% of the trials/demonstrations, which is consistent with the notion that the basic intention of many of the trials/demonstrations is to provide a focus for field days. However, such trials/demonstrations represent a lost opportunity in terms of transmitting detailed information on the results to others who were not present at the field days. Also much of the data collection emphasized only technical data (i.e., 42% of the trials/demonstrations), and only 14% involved the collection of both technical and economic information.

Once again, this represents a missed opportunity in the sense that OFW, in contrast to the more artificial environment on experiment stations, provides an operational milieu in which results can be interpreted from both the technical and socio- economic viewpoints, which are both critically important in a farm production environment. The major responsibility for analyzing data from trials/demonstrations falls on the CEAs themselves (68% of the time).

Farmers appear to have little involvement in this exercise by themselves (2%), although in 11% of the cases, they worked with the CEA in data analysis. Data analysis provides opportunities for farmer-farmer interactions and close working relationships with the CEA, which OFW practitioners recognize as a way to maximize the payoff from OFW (Norman et al., 1995).

The survey also provided details on dissemination of the results of the trials/demonstrations with which CEAs are associated. Reports were published/produced on about 23% of the trials/demonstrations with the county, with Kansas State University (KSU) as the most popular publisher. KSU appeared to be relatively more popular for trials (50%), whereas the county outlet was relatively more popular for demonstrations (54%). Newspapers also were used as a way of disseminating findings.

The average number of copies of the reports produced was 730. The most important types of report produced were informational fliers or summary reports (50% of the total reports produced). More than one type of report was produced in about 20% of the cases, and statistical reports and detailed descriptive reports were relatively more common for trials than demonstrations (i.e., about 19% compared with 5%).

The major recipients of the reports were farmers (58%) with little difference between trials (61%) and demonstrations (58%). The KSU Agricultural Experiment Station was a more significant recipient of reports based on trials (i.e., 16% compared with 9%), whereas agribusiness was a relatively more significant recipient of results from demonstrations (i.e., 23% and 15%). This is to be expected, given that crop varieties were major components of demonstrations.

Support System for OFW

Because the Program Development Committees (PDAs) have a major influence on the priorities of the different activities of CEAs, information was obtained about them. The PDCs enthusiastically supported OFW (i.e., 90% compared with only 3% who were not supportive), which is consistent with results from the farmers' survey noted earlier (Freyenberger et al., 1994). Based on these results, we can assume that the vast majority of CEAs felt they had a mandate to be supportive of OFW.

However, the perceptions among CEAs was that OFW was not optimal at the time of the survey. Having too many other duties was by far the most important constraint, and together with the lack of adequate equipment, were more important than other constraints. Some concerns existed among CEAs about their expertise in designing and analyzing the results of OFW, but in aggregate this was no more limiting than the lack of a strategic plan for OFW or farmers not being interested in OFW.

CEAs also were asked to indicate potential solutions to the constraints of OFW. The importance of the specific solutions for each of the perceived constraints does differ, but in aggregate, the three major groups of potential solutions were: Kansas State University assistance and training (35%), budgetary increases including hiring extra staff and purchasing necessary equipment (34%), and better planning of OFW activities (16%).

The implication of these findings is that CEAs apparently support greater OFW but that its increased implementation will be very dependent on factors outside their control. The CEAs, who want to expand their OFW activities, obviously feel the need for appropriate support systems in the form of finance and training opportunities.

An open-ended question to CEAs on what they would like to see done in OFW yielded the results given in Table 3. The relatively greater emphasis on crop compared to livestock work would be analogous to what is currently occurring (see Table 2), but greater emphasis within the crops-related area would be placed on topics in agronomy and crop protection (i.e., soil quality, weeds, and insects). Such topics often require more of a systems perspective in designing solutions and thus would be appropriate for OFW, which often can provide a more realistic environment than would exist under experiment station conditions in which to examine such issues and evaluate appropriate solutions.

Table 3
CEA Desires for OFW if no Constraints Exist
Crop Related:
More plot work24.5
Alternative crops4.7
Soil quality17.0
Livestock Related:13.2


The survey results indicate that OFW activities associated with CEAs in Kansas is fairly common, and that CEAs play important roles in initiating, implementing, analyzing, and distributing the results of such work. Demonstrations tend to be more common than trials, and more emphasis is placed on crop-related than on livestock-related work. The CEAs appear to have positive attitudes towards OFW, but major constraints exist in terms of expanding such work.

Given the popularity of OFW among farmers, OFW should be given consideration for priority in the duties of Extension staff and greater support including both budgetary support and training in design and analysis of such work. Extension personnel have a unique opportunity to make the on-station to on-farm research continuum workable.


Freyenberger, S., Bloomquist, L., Norman, D., Regehr, D., & Schurle, B. (1994). On-farm research in Kansas, 1993: A survey of farmers' opinions. Report of Progress No.720. Manhattan: Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

Norman, D., Frankenberger, T. & Hildebrand, P. (1994). Agricultural research in developed countries: past, present and future of farming systems research and Extension. Journal of Production Agriculture, 7(1): 124-131.

Norman, D., Worman, F., Siebert, J., & Modiakgotla, E. (1995). The farming systems approach to development and appropriate technology generation. Farming Systems Management Series Number 10. Rome: Farm Management and Production Service, Agriculture Service District, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.