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THE FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH APPROACH TO DESIGNING APPROPRIATE AGRICULTURAL
TECHNOLOGIES: A Background White Paper in Support of AQ Enhancing Farming
Systems Research and Training Capacity at UF/IFAS
As the world moves into the 1980's, agriculturalists are faced with an
impressive array of problems and challenges which demand/require fresh
approaches to developing improved agricultural technologies. In the indus-
trialized nations concerns about energy availability, environmental quality,
national resource conservation and a general slowing down in the rate of
productivity increase, has led to a growing appreciation of the need for a
more holistic, problem oriented approach to developing the next generation
of agricultural technology. In much of the developing world, population
continues to be at least equal to the growr~th in food production, with a
significantly larger food deficit in prospect for the next decade (Ref IFPRI 3).
The failure of the initial phase of the Green Revolution during the late 1950's
and the 1960's to reach farrners in significant numbers outside a relatively
few ecologically well endowJed regions further underlined ;;he need for a more
comprehensive understanding of a wide variety of environments and their
accompanying farming systems.
Historically, agricultural scientists, encouraged by the availability
of seemingly unlimited supplies of cheap energy and inputs, have sought ways to
mold the environment to the demands of higher yielding plants using irrigation,
fertilizer, machinery and pesticides. Throughout the world, the research task
is now increasingly to mold plants and animals to an often hostile
and unpredictable environment; to search for disease resistance, biological
controls of pests, enhanced nitrogen-fixing qualities a~nd resistance to
temperature and water stress.
These challenges have encouraged a number of agricultural research
establishments, particularly in the tropical world, to complement tradi-
tional disciplinary and commodity oriented agricultural research programs
with various multidisciplinary efforts including what has come to be called
farming systems research. A recent review of Farming Systems Research at
the International Agricultural Research Centers carried out by the Techni-
cal Advisory Committee of the Consultative Group for International Agricul-
tural Research strongly endorsed the farming systems research approach as
a means of better understanding existing constraints to increasing agricul-
tural productivity and subsequently designing and testing appropriate
technological improvements. A growing number of national programs in the
developing world are also utilizing farming systems research approaches to
select and adapt improved technologies to local requirements.
Agricultural scientists and social scientists from the University of
Florida/IFAS have been assisting agricultural research, training and devel-
opment efforts in the developing world for more than 20 years and in some
instances have participated directly in the development of farming systems
research programs in various countries.
Now, as Florida is faced with the need to develop new technologies
to meet the rising cost and reduced availability of traditional energy
sources as well as seek ways to better serve the low income/11mited re-
source farmers of the state, the University of Florida/IFAS can draw upon
the experiences of other countries and institutions in applying a farming
systems research approach to thess issues. Rarely has there been a more
compelling example of the complementarity between IFAS's responsibilities
to Florida agriculture and its desire to assist agricultural development
The following paper is an introductory statement in support of the
formal initiation of a multi year effort to enhance farming systems re-
search and training capacity at the University of Florida/IFAS.
Section II briefly defines a farming system and farming systems re-
search. Section III discusses the principal applications of FSR with
particular reference to Florida agriculture. Section IV outlines the
major components of a proposed program in FSR at UF/IFAS. Finally sec-
tions V and VI review resource requirements and possible institutional
II. What is Farming Systems Research (FSR)?
An understanding of FSR requires an appreciation of the areas im-
plied by the term "farming system". Discussions at UF have utilized a
modified version of the definition contained in the recent review of
FSR at the International Agricultural Research Centers.l
A farming system is alcomplicated, interwoven mesh of
resources and agronomic, economic, environmental, tech-
nological, cultural and social factors which to some
degree results from decision making on the farm, where
the particular farm family attempts to increase their
utility with respect to their own preferences, aspira-
tions, knowledge and agro-socio-economic constraints.
The farmers~sbunique understanding of the environment,
both natural and socio-economic, produces their farm-
Farming Systems Research at the International Aqricultural Research
Centers, TAC/CGIAR, Sept. 1978, p. 8.
The need to work with farming systems and to utilize FSR approaches in
developing appropriate technologies arises from a lack of understanding of many
farm problems by agricultural scientists and planners. The general scientific
concentration on single commodities by specific disciplines is often inappropriate
and inadequate especially in reaching and understanding small farmers in order to
design and extend appropriate technologies.
A farmer makes decisions on combining certain resources and inputs (land,
capital and credit, crops and animals, fertilizer, pesticides, labor, etc.) in
order to achieve certain desired results. Small -farmers and traditional farm
family decision making also involved socio-cultural factors, risk avoidance, off-
farm income opportunities and objectives that rarely mesh with the typical narrow
technical and economic analyses aimed at efficiency and profit maximization.
There are six steps in the basic farming systems research approaches.
1. Analysis of existing farming systems (in a region or nation) including
understanding the resources, technology and decision making at the farm
2. Identification and ranking of the major constraints in order of their
effect on agricultural production and feasibility of their removal
taking into account national objectives, such as increasing productivity
and production of food or cash crops, increasing rural employment, and
equitable distribution of income.
3. Design of possible measures for removing the constraints drawing upon
existing knowledge and carrying out additional research to adapt
existing solutions to local conditions.
Lt. Testing improved practices on research stations or local sub-stations
and then on farmers' fields, first with and then without supervision
by research personnel. Infrastructural solutions will obviously follow
a different path here. Farm managerial and social organization solutions
will be tested by farmers and local organizations
5. Initiation of extension or action program to communicate these~ tested solutions
to the farming population.
6. Evaluation of the whole process to determine the extent to which the
original constraints have been removed and the national objectives
satisfied. The evaluation includes an analysis of the new farming
system that has emerged, so that the new constraints may be addressed
to continue the process of continual development.
Farming systems research focuses on understanding existing situations;
developing and testing appropriate technologies for these situations, and communicating
these results to farmers. This research provides a comprehensive structure to integrate the
disciplinary contributions of many scientists. Scientists from different disciplines
can see where their various insights and energies fit together, and the farming
systems model demands that scientific attention focus on the specific conditions of
particular small farm situations.
The basic FSR\ approach 'is designed to produce results tailored to the needs of
a specific area and group of farmers who share a common farming system. Variations
of the FSR approach involving the design and testing of prototype solutions to
specific problems (such as limited availability of water) which are shared by farmers
in a broader geographic region are practiced by a number of the international
Agricultural Research Centers. FSR at the national and local levels is a means of
selecting and where necessary, modifying such prototype solutions/technologies to
suit local requirements. Further, local FSR programs and related agricultural develop-
ment efforts provide vital "feed back" to regional FSR programs which aid in
determining research priorities.
Farming systems research should not be regarded as a new program, but rather as
an integrative dimension, complementing existing research and extension activities.
Virtually all the activities encompassed by FSR are currently practiced in some form
by IFAS. The critical differences lie in the sequence of activities (including the
way in which the research problem is identical) and the ways in which researchers of
different disciplines, extension workers and farmers relate to one another.
ill Applications of FSR
In the context of Florida agriculture and its links with the tropical world,
two major areas of application of FSR have been identified:
1) Improving the effectiveness of research and extension programs in service
of small and low resource farmers;
2) Providing a context in which to organize interdisciplinary efforts to
address key constraints or problem areas such as energy, water availability,
soil fertility/plant nutrition and pest management.
The core activity of FSR involves interaction between researchers, extension
workers and farmers in understanding existing farming systems and subsequently
designing and testing possible improvements. The sequence of steps is described in
the previous section. The elements include: 1) researchers working together as a
team through all phases of the program; 2) communication and feedback from farmers
and extension workers throughout the process of analysing the existing situation and
designing and testing improved practices.
To an important extent fairly effective communication links already exist for
larger commercial farm operations. The larger commercial operators often have direct
and frequent contact with both extension personnel and with agricultural scientists
and serve as an important source of problem identification and evaluation of technologies.
In a sense, large commercial farmers operate their own individual farming systems
research program and draw selectively upon the extension and research services as
required. Large farmers identify and articulate their problems and frequently are
involved in the testing of possible solutions. They will provide researchers and
extension workers with "Feedback" in the form of an assessment of whether or not a
particular innovation can be effectively integrated into their farming system and possibly
even indicate what specific modifications may be required. They may even cooperate in
making the necessary modifications.
Communication links with small/Iow resource farmers tend to be less effective,
Large numbers of small farmers are not reached at all, or in only a cursory fashion
through various mass media. In most instances the specific improvements/technologies
which are extended to small farmers have not been developed with the specific resource
endowment problems of snMll farmers in mind. Rather the innovations are usually the
product of interaction with large commercial operators as described in the proceeding
paragraph. There is limited feedback from small farmers to researchers which might
otherwise stimulate some modifications in innovations in order to adopt them to the
specific requirements of small farmers. The failure of small farmers to adopt specific
recommendations or to get the envisioned results is often attributed to the reluctance
to change or a failure to understand the message in the first place. These may be factors,
but such assumptions divert attention away from possible needed modifications in the
The FSR approach builds communication among researchers, extension workers and
farmers directly into the process of design and testing of technology. Direct
communication with all or e~en the majority of farmers is obviously not practical
either in Florida or countries in the developing world. However, the FSR approach can
be applied to a representative sample of farmers drawn from a population of farmers who
share a similar farming system. While the farming systems of the population will not
be identical they will share a common set of constraints and resources, a factor which
distinguishes small and large farmers and influences the nature of innovations/direction
A multidisciplinary group of faculty (from the departments of Anthropology,
Agronomy, Food and Resource Economics and Vegetable Crops) are currently exploring
ways of applying the FSR approach to small/Iow resource farm development problems in
Northern F lor ida The program would be run in cooperation with IFAS and FAMU extension
staff and may involve graduate students from various departments who participate in a
planned seminar in FSR methodology scheduled for the Spring term. Should the approach
prove beneficial, it would be extended to other areas in the future.
FSR has been a feature of three Florida International projects in El Salvador,
Bolivia and Ecuador. A forthcoming project in Malawi to assist the development of
agricultural research in that country will have a major FSR component. The IFAS
International Programs office has recently submitted an expression of interest to
USAID in connection with a project titled Social Science Criteria for Agricultural
Research (SECAR) which essentially involves application of FSR approaches in the
Latin American region.
Since there are important similarities in the basic methodology, the domestic
applications of FSR are benefiting considerably from the participation of faculty who
have gained experience in international programs. Further some of the participants
in the FSR program for Northern Florida are planning to join the Malawi project at a
later stage thus providing a feedback into the International Program activities.
A variation of the FSR approach may provide an effective means of focusing and
systematically relating broadder research efforts in such areas as energy conservation.
Once again the starting point is an analysis of the characteristics of individual
farming systems, only in this case one looks at the array of different farming
systems represented in the region under consideration with a view to identifying common
constraints or problems around which research programs can be organized. integrated
Pest Management (IPM), nitrogen fixation and biomass conversion are examples of such
programs already in operation which have focused on general problems common to a range
of farming systems. It is suggested that these programs might benefit from a farming
systems component or perspective. In the case of IPM such a perspective would allow
researchers to more directly relate their efforts to pest problems and control measures
as currently perceived and practiced by farmers and to involve a representative sample
farmer in the testing of improved practices. Once again, these activities already
form part of the IPM to some extent although the sequencing and relationship of the
activities may differ.
FSR can be an important component in developing strategies for reducing energy
consumption in Florida agriculture while maintaining or increasing yields. By
studying the entire system of production, all points of energy utilization can be
identified. Conservation practices and the adaptation of alternative sources of
energy to the specific system can be more efficiently carried~ out when the entire
farming operation is understood.
By utilizing the FSR approach, research will be better able to identify major
constraints to a production system. These may involve physical or biological stress,
transportation or marketing difficulties, inability to use higher energy technologies
for drying crops, manipulating natural resources or other types of constraints.
There are limited amounts of time, money and personnel with which to examine all
the areas of: production that now use energy. Those areas utilizing the larger amounts
of energy should be given research priorities. Unless analysis of the entire system
of production is made, it is difficult to determine which aspects of that system use the
most energy and/or cause the greatest constraint in production. Such identification
is important to direct the resources of IFAS towards their most efficient use.
In determining the nature and extent of utilizing the FSR approach in dealing with
su~ch region wide questions as energy conservation, it is proposed that UF/IFAS dr~aw
upon the experiences of the various IARC's with ongoing FSR programs which address
similarly broad issues. The international Programs Office of IFAS has already made
contact with IRRI, IITA, ICRISAT, CIAT and CIMMYT with a view to exploring possible
areas of cooperation specifically in the area of FSR. These centers have expressed a
strong interest in such cooperation and made specific suggestions in most instances.
Farming Systems Research methodology, particularly at the level of dealing with specific,
constraints/problems on a region wide basis, is in need of further development. The
University of Florida/IFAS with its considerable scientific resources, variety of fields
of specialization and subtropical climate is well equipped to work on various FSR
methodological issues to the benefit of Florida and the tropical world in general.
IV Complementary FSR Related Activities:
The key to enhancing FSR and training capacity at UF/IFAS lies in having faculty
members gain first hand experience with it in the context of domestic or international
programs as discussed in the preceding section. In addition, there are a number of
complementary activities, some of which are already in progress, which can assist in
developing UF/lFAS capacity in this field. These activities include:
1. Preparation of a comprehensive plan for enhancing Farming Systems Research
and Training Capacity at UF/IFAS:
A proposal to provide support for a planning exercise in FSR extending over an
18 month period has been informally submitted to BlFAD for consideration. it is under-
stood that BlFAD will be formally requesting proposals for a planning grant focusing
on FSR from various interested US institutions during the current fiscal year. A formal
resubmission is planned at that time which will cover prospective activities at Florida
as well as possible cooperative arrangements with other institutions in this field.
2. Formation of an Interdepartmental Working Group on FSR:
While a spearate institutional entity to handle FSR is not envisaged, it is
important that there should be a small campus-wide Interdepartmental Working Group
which takes responsibility for developing a plan and coordinating activities in FSR.;:
A prototype already exists of such a group and includes representatives from 9s
Agricultural Engineering, Agronomy, Animal Science, Anthropology, Center for African
Studies, Center for Latin American Studies, Food and Resource Economics, Food Science
and Human Nutrition, Plant Pathology, Poultry Science and Vegetable Crops. This formal
group would be responsible for managing activities during the planning period, while
three members from different disciplines would act as coordinators. They would have
primary responsibility to implement the major tasks, including drafting the final FSR '
plan and day-to-day administration supporting the various activities during the planning
period. The work group itself would probably require a full time secretary/administrative
assistant, preferably with bibliographic experience, with the additional duties of
ordering and circulating FSR material and publications.
3. Contacts With Other Institutions Involved in FSR:
UF seeks to develop continuing relationships with FSR programs in other
institutions. The intent is to establish a network of associates in IARC's, national
programs and other universities with whom the FSR program at UF would share materials
and ideas. These contacts should help in defining UF's role in identifying specific
research and training activities. UF already has an ongoing relationship with ICTA
in Guatemala and has initiated correspondence with a number of IARC's.
4. Workshops of FSR Methodology:
UF proposes to host workshops on different aspects of FSR methodology during the
planning period. The purpose of these workshops is to define a number of the specific
research tasks which might involve the UF. The workshops will include participants
from other interested U.S. institutions as well as overseas centers.
5. Collection of FSR Materials:
UF already has some library holdings on FSR topics and has recently initiated
a bibliographic study on multiple cropping and small farm development. it is proposed
to collect additional key materials related to FSR, including such items as working
papers from institutions overseas, particularly for use by faculty involved in FSR
activities. Selected materials would be circulated to interested faculty to stimulate
involvement in FSR activities.
The collection of FSR related materials would encompass descriptions of farming
systems and basic data relating to agriculture in the tropical world. The International
Center of Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and the International Institute of
Tropical Agriculture (llT~A) in Nigeria have both approached the University of Florida
on possible cooperation in collecting and reviewing data on tropical farming systems
with view to aiding them in making classifications of these systems for use in more
sharply defining research priorities.
6. Review of Existing Degree Proqrams to Incorporate FSR:
It may be necessary to modify some of the present degree programs and add some
new courses in order to serve the students interested in FSR, although no major
alterations are planned. FSR-related courses are now being offered in Agronomy and
Anthropology, and some departments offer degree program options that may be utilized
by students interested in FSR. The members of the Interdepartmental Working Group
will be responsible for reviewing the present programs and course offerings in their
individual departments. Several of these members could act individual ly or as a team
as thesis advisors for students wishing to work in FSR.
Research & Extension
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