Deciding where to invest soybean checkoff research dollars can be a daunting task for a checkoff board. The facts of the situation are that (1) farmers on checkoff boards do not routinely work in a research environment and so do not keep up with the current state of science and (2) research leaders routinely make decisions based on long-term career research goals, the necessity of securing grants funding from external agencies, and principles that are native to university culture. It is to some extent remarkable that farmer leaders and university scientists can achieve the consensus on priorities necessary to allocate sizeable sums of checkoff money to research. What research to fund is probably the biggest conundrum addressed by farmer-governed checkoff boards. Establishing clear cut priorities is the appropriate first step. There are several facets to this decision:
(1) Should research priorities reflect the state of industry or the state of research? Despite a reputation for conservatism, farmers on checkoff boards probably respond quicker to economic, market and technological cues than university researchers who are often engaged in multiyear projects to address fundamental (career) research questions. For example, the trans fat labeling issue (a policy issue) prompted checkoff-funded research investments into improving seed composition for healthier soy oils. University faculty members tend to have their own research agendas that are motivated by curiosity with basic research questions, career goals, and to some extent outside stakeholders. In addition, faculty member undertake the important role of producing the graduate students who will in future be hired into industry and academia and provide scientific leadership. The value of the professionalization function of the research community is often underestimated by checkoff boards.
(2) Should farmer priorities focus on practical agricultural projects or basic research? Farmers certainly appreciate work that generates practical knowledge that can be used on their farms. Think variety demonstrations, product trials, and tillage demonstrations as examples. Discoveries here certainly help industry be profitable and sometimes change the way farming is done, as has been the case with widespread adoption of no-till production systems. Basic research into fundamental principles of biology, chemistry and physics leads to industry-altering discoveries but it generally takes more time. Checkoff boards may have more difficulty deciding to invest in basic research programs because of the fundamental nature of the outcomes, but this research is at the core of university mission and culture down through the departmental level, and practically speaking it pays for much of the cost of faculty, labs, equipment and graduate students.
(3) Is yield the most important consideration? Many farmers earn revenue based on yield per acre but marketing opportunities have arisen in some areas for certain qualitative characteristics. On an industry-wide scale, the farmers are selling into a pure commodity market so more beans generally equals more money. If research decisions are primarily driven by yield considerations, then checkoff boards need to ask (1) is research supposed to focus on increasing the yield of the soybean plant AND /OR (2) is research supposed to focus on protecting the yields that are achievable with the currently available varieties? Investments in both areas are certainly possible. Annual expenditures to support plant breeding and plant physiology work aimed at increasing yields can grow quite large. Getting to a variety release often takes years of work in the field. Research on protecting (or enhancing) current yields probably requires less of a total investment and produces quicker results. Because experiments can be repeated annually, it provides for multi-year data sets that increase credibility.
(4) Is composition the most important consideration for the board? If so, a checkoff board should consider partnering with regional or national programs to augment work on new oil and protein traits. The scope of work on qualitative traits is simply too big for an individual state board to accomplish much. Some of the auxiliary components of such work will have stand alone value, for example feeding trials to gain understanding of animal metabolism or even consumer surveys where traits for human consumption are under development.
(5) How do farmers learn about the outputs and outcomes of research projects? This is probably the most neglected aspect of checkoff board research considerations. Farmers want to know about the beneficial results of their checkoff investments, which are after all for the purpose of generating and improving on-farm technologies. Most research findings are published in annual research reports, and perhaps are published in academic or industry journals, presented at professional conferences, or are presented in slide shows at checkoff board or committee meetings. None of the above especially appeal to farmers. The best method to share technology is to show it to farmers in the field. Research demonstration plots and field days are the most exciting way to involve farmers in the outcomes of research investments made with their checkoff dollars.