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The Grass IS Greener: Dairy Graziers Tell Their Stories

Posted January 1995

The report tells the story, from the perspective of the 16 Wisconsin and Minnesota farm families involved, of their involvement in an innovative research, education, and outreach project about management-intensive rotational grazing. The project was funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and brought together these farmers, CIAS, scientists at the UW-Madison and University of Minnesota, the Land Stewardship Project, and the Wisconsin Rural Development Center.

The text that follows includes our recollections of the project and what we learned from it.

Farmers and researchers find common ground with faith and patience

This was our first attempt to put our key values and principles into practice:

  • multidisciplinary research that involves university scientists, farmers, and rural advocacy organizations as equals
  • a balance of on-farm and experiment station research
  • exploring new ways to organize multidisciplinary, multiprofessional research

These principles and values support the Wisconsin Idea, in which land-grant universities’ boundaries don’t end at the edge of their campuses, and in which experts are on tap, not on top.

A lot of what we learned about organizing research we now use in our own Grazing-based Dairy Systems (GDS) working group. We found it gratifying to see how much we at the university had to learn from the farmers involved, and how generous they were in sharing their expertise, time, and vision.

The organizing principle for this project was “balanced role reversal.” It was important that on-farm explorations be directed by farmers and the nonprofit organizations involved, with advice and assistance from university scientists.

Decisions regarding the experiment station research, on the other hand, were made by scientists, with advice and assistance from farmers.

Outreach and information exchange programs included regional field days, winter workshops, two statewide conferences on rotational grazing and interdisciplinary, farmer-involved teams, and university seminars.

An unusual outreach/networking initiative emerged: CIAS secured full Internet access for about a dozen of the project’s farm families, to give them electronic information access. These farmers were the first U.S. members of the Internet grazing list server, GRAZE-L.

What we’ve learned, can pass on, and are using ourselves

  • Complex, broad-based research teams are a challenge to manage, in part because the human relationship take work to establish. There are different cultures and reward structures among those involved. There is a long tradition of reciprocal suspicion between citizens and university folks. These things take time, patience, faith, and effort to overcome.
  • Some instructive accountability issues surfaced. For example, at first, some of the faculty involve felt a weak sense of accountability to the farmers involved. This emerged especially in parts of the design of the experiment station research, which farmers had felt didn’t make sense…and they turned out to be right. This was a good learning experience all around.
  • CIAS learned a lot about accountability. In our Grazing-based Dairy Systems working group, we’re dealing with these farmer/university mutual accountability issues by doing regular updates of all team members’ activities, making sure the team’s core group has regular meetings, and proposing annual or semi-annual project workshops.
  • The farmer networking efforts were very successful and led to computer networking with the GDS group.
  • Multidisciplinary faculty interaction in the SARE project, particularly between dairy scientists and agronomists, was solid and led to wider interaction in the GDS group.
  • Interaction between scientists and farmers took the form of on-farm research, pasture walks, and farmer visits to the experiment stations. But this interaction was uneven, with the greatest amount happening between farmers and an agronomist doing on-farm research on grass varieties, an economist doing whole-farm economics, and a sociologist doing labor and quality of life studies.

Copies of The Grass is Greener cost $3. To order, send a check payable to “UW-Madison CIAS” along with a note regarding what publication(s) you are ordering and the address where you would like it/them sent. Send your request to the following address:
Trish Haza, CIAS
1535 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 262-5200
email: phaza@wisc.edu