Research Resources

The Placebo Effect

There’s an interesting thing in pharmaceutical research about the placebo effect.  For certain classes of drugs, over 80% of the response to the drug is due to a placebo effect.  It makes me wonder if we in agriculture are susceptible to the placebo effect when it comes to crop inputs.  If you heard that your neighbours were boosting their yields by 15% by applying Product X – and you tried it – would you tend to believe you got a benefit?

If you have something in mind you want to try next season, but you don’t want to fall for the placebo effect, you’re probably thinking of doing a simple trial in your fields.  While you’re making your 2015 plans, why not plan to get the most out of your on-farm trials by following a few guidelines to ensure you get reliable, meaningful results from your extra effort?

Three of the most important aspects of on-farm research are replication, replication, and replication.  The more replications you have the more likely you can pick out real differences, and avoid being fooled by field variability.  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Try to figure out a simple, practical way to set up several test strips in the field.

Don’t forget to take a few minutes for recordkeeping when you set up the plots – and throughout the season, too.

And as busy as you are during harvest, commit the time to take yield measurements.  The value of this data in helping you decide if the treatment has made you money or cost you money is worth it.  Many times, we justify the use of new treatments as “cheap insurance”, but “cheap insurance” can add up to a lot of time and money.  Some treatments may even reduce yield (I’ve seen it happen) – but you’ll never know unless you measure.

There are some excellent resources on on-farm research online.  The University of Illinois has an On-Farm Research Guidebook (pdf) that is very practical and helpful.  At AGSTATS02, there is an online calculator where you can enter your data and get all the math and stats done for you with a click of a mouse.

You can find more by searching “on-farm research” online.

1 comment on “The Placebo Effect

  1. What a timely article. In apples, we are applying more and more foliar nutrients, with no data to indicate whether they do anything or not.

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