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STANDARD VIEW MARC VIEW
FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH-EXT~ENSION1
Peter E. Hildebrand2
As associated today with agricultural research and extension, the term 'farming systems'
began to be applied in the mid 1970s to technology development activities oriented to small scale,
limited resource farmers. These activities were underway in several countries around the world
(Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, Philippines and Thailand to name a few) and in both
national and international agricultural research (and to a lesser extent extension) organizations.
The use of the term 'farming systems' as in farming systems research-extension (FSRE) is
different from its use by Ruthenberg (1971) which is descriptive of farming systems in the
tropics. The francophone farming systems concept (Fresco, 1984) beginning in West Africa at
about the time of the Ruthenberg book could be described as lying between the descriptive use of
Ruthenberg and the more pragmatic approach to technology development associated with
anglophone proponents. The anglophone influence on farming systems research and extension
has its roots more in cropping systems concepts such as those which Bradfield (1966) pioneered at
IRRI in the Philippines in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the ecological crop systems work in
the early 1970s at CATIE in Costa Rica (Hart, 1979). Some practitioners use the term in a way
more akin to economists' use of the term 'farm management' (Marz, 1990), or have evolved from
a farm management perspective (Collinson, 1983; Norman et al., 1982; Ruthenberg, 1971). And,
of course, there is the perspective of systems analysis and development (or replication and
innovation as in Spedding and Brockington, 1976) which involves formal modelling of
Obviously, the term farming systems is not applied to a single approach, notwithstanding
that it generally refers to methodologies associated with the diagnosis of farm problems, the
design of alternative solutions or technologies, the evaluation of these solutions on farms, and the
diffusion of the technologies to identified target farmers. In this characteristic, FSRE differs
from farm management which deals with the reallocation of resources with a constant technology
base. Schultz (1964), in arguing that traditional farmers are efficient allocators of available
resources given their knowledge of technologies, set the stage for FSRE which creates
disequilibrium the systems with new technology, thus allowing for reallocation to a higher level
Most farming systems activities are associated with the use of teams comprised of
biophysical and socioeconomic scientists or technicians working with farmers in a collaborative
and integrated effort. This last characteristic of 'farming systems', along with the fact that it is
still an evolving methodology and is being practiced widely, and on all continents, is undoubtedly
responsible for the multitude of interests, points of emphasis and emerging themes associated
with the term 'farming systems' and with 'farming systems research-extension' methodology. In
this paper, some of this rich diversity is discussed from a methodological perspective.
Understanding the system
One source of difference in emphasis is associated with the completeness of
'understanding' of the system felt necessary before suggesting interventions. Spedding and
Brockington (1976) recognize three kinds of experimentation in the study of agricultural systems,
1 Prepared for presentation at the international symposium to mark the retirement of
Professor C.R.W. Spedding: Systems Theory Applied to Agriculture and the Food Chain.
University of Reading, 17-19 September 1990.
2 PrOfessor, Food and Resource Economics Department, University of Florida, Gainesville,
FL 32611, USA
each with an increasing requirement for understanding: A) practical operation, B) repair and
modification to components, and C) replication and innovation (p. 49). Of these, the second, for
which Spedding and Brockington recognize the necessity of multidisciplinary teams, is most
closely related to FSRE efforts today:
Both repair and some modification most frequently relate to sections of a system
and these sections have to be understood in detail. .. it is essential that any change
wrought in a part of the system should be studied in relation to its effect on the
output of the whole system. (p. 48)
Rapid rural appraisal (Chambers, 1985; Khon Kaen University, 1987) or soadeo
(Hildebrand, 1981), and sometimes called informal surveys, are one of the best known features of
farming systems methodology. These provide a rapid means of assessing problems, needs and
constraints in an area prior to initiating intervention. They depart drastically from the more
traditional questionnaire survey procedure which attempts to obtain quantitative information
from a sample of respondents which hopefully represents a larger population. Rapid
reconnaissance tends to use a more conversational approach with informants where the direction
of the interchange can be directed as much by the informant as the interviewer. Proponents of
rapid reconnaissance argue that sufficient information on the component which may be the
subject for intervention (the cropping subsystem), and changes in this system on the whole system
(the farm) can be obtained in a few days and that intervention can be initiated while additional
Overall, the data in this paper support the hypothesis that the informal survey is
an effective and sufficient method for developing an understanding of farming
systems and planning experimental programs for farmers. It also suggests that a
formal survey may be replaced by 1) a slightly longer and more carefully managed
informal survey than would otherwise be conducted, or 2) two or more informal
surveys. (Franzel, 1984, p. 16)
Opponents feel that intervention should be initiated only when a complete knowledge base
has been formed. The difference is in part related to the magnitude of the intervention proposed.
Those who favor rapid reconnaissance are usually inclined toward intervention in components of
subsystems (varieties, fertilizers, etc., or Spedding and Brockington's B level). Those who insist
on a complete knowledge base often have in mind major changes in the system (new crops or
cropping systems, or Spedding and Brockington's C level). Systems modelers appear to fall into
an intermediate group. They require quantitative data, but are willing to use estimates where no
real data exist because their interventions tend to affect only computer solutions or units isolated
on experiment stations, and not, directly, farmers themselves.
Soprce of knowleily
Another area of divergence in emphasis radiates from concern with the source of the
knowledge base. Some persons argue for an increase in farmer participation in not only
diagnosis, but also in the design, evaluation and diffusion steps in farming systems methodology
(Rhoades and Booth, 1982; Chambers and Ghildyal, 1984; Richards, 1979; Lightfoot et al., 1988,
to name a few). This concern stems largely from the socioeconomic influence on
multidisciplinary FSRE teams, but it is also recognized by such preeminent biological scientists as
The knowledge system should involve the producers -- not merely as the targets
of advisory exhortation, as pupils at farming training centers, or as the passive
victims of development done to them by remote government from afar: they have
much to tell about soils, weather, crops, animals, diseases and pests, as well as
about their own purposes and difficulties. .. How many of us, who are so wise in
international gatherings about what other people should do, could emulate them in
winning subsistence, survival, dignity, and fortitude in the face of calamity from
the meager resources of traditional rural society in tropical environments? (p. 8)
The source of knowledge aside, the nature of the interventions proposed to "improve" the
systems under consideration are influenced by 1) the degree to which the users or clients are
allowed to participate and have a voice, 2) the flexibility of the intervenorss", partly related to 3)
the mandate of the organization or institution from which the interveners originate, and 4) the
magnitude of the proposed change. Rural residents, whether or not they are farmers, are often
more interested in improved sources of water than in a new variety of one of their staple crops.
However, persons involved in development, and in particular FSRE, more often than not come
from national or international organizations involved in the development of agricultural
technology, and often with a specific crop mandate. These factors have an obvious bias on the
nature of interventions designed.
The CIMMYT (International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat,
headquartered in Mexico) farming systems program in East Africa has been active for many
years, but mostly in farm systems in which maize is a component. Their influence on national
programs with which they collaborate is also, of course, related to maize. Whether or not farmers
would put top priority on maize technology, this is the kind of intervention they will be exposed
The bias introduced by institutional mandate is powerful, yet attempts are made in most
farming systems efforts to incorporate the farmers -- men and women -- into the technology
development process. Some form of rapid reconnaissance is nearly always included. However,
there are those who argue that this process does not go far enough: "Rapid rural appraisal has
been developed to understand the circumstances of resource-poor farmers but does not help
farmers to identify issues for experiment." (Lightfoot et al., 1988, p. 302)
An interesting and not atypical experience is related by Maurya (1989):
For the moment I wish to stress that even in the absence of on-farm research
involving outsiders, farmers regularly innovate and make their own selection of
appropriate technologies. Sometimes, indeed, they select technologies which have
been rejected by official research. The most striking example is the paddy variety
Mahsuri which was introduced into India from Malaysia for tests during 1967-68.
After two years of work, this variety was rejected by rice breeders on account of
its lodging behaviour. But somehow the seed reached some villages through a
farm labourer in Andhra Pradesh. Farmers who tried it found its performance
excellent. As a result, it spread from Andhra to Orissa, and then to West Bengal,
Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and part of Madhya Pradesh. As a result of this 'farmer-to-
farmer' extension, Mahsuri is now the third most popular variety among Indian
farmers, after IR8 and Jaya Dwarf rice. (p. 10)
Evaluation and/or Exoerimentation
Most farmers are experimenters and the degree of their participation in on-farm research
has been a concern for a number of years with social scientists urging more and the biological
scientists resisting the loss of control associated with too much farmer participation. An often
used model has several stages of on-farm research with decreasing researcher control and
increasing farmer participation (Hildebrand and Poey, 1985). Others argue that this process
requires too much time before farmer participation is sufficient to have an impact, or that it
ignores the farmers' natural ability to experiment (Lightfoot, 1987). The difference affects both
the nature of the intervention and the evaluation process.
Few farmers have the capability to analyze complex experimental designs such as those
used by plant breeders selecting from a large number of genetic lines. At initial stages in the
selection process, it is simply not practical for farmers to participate. However, farmers' effects
on the nature of the technology selected is important and too often is ignored until late in the
selection process. A danger of not creating a mechanism for farmer participation in evaluation at
an early stage is that some materials which farmers might have selected for further evaluation
may already be rejected by the time they are able to evaluate what is left. As stated by Maurya
et al. (1988):
As a result of the divergences in conditions and evaluation criteria between farms
and research stations, the selections resulting from breeding programmes have
commonly exhibited two types of inadequacy, even in relative homogenous
irrigated areas. First, much of the material officially released has been of limited
relevance to farmers; second, breeders have rejected material which has
subsequently found wide acceptance among farmers. (p. 314).
Before farmers can effectively evaluate more complex technology such as the use of an
herbicide, it is necessary for them to learn to use it. The more simple the technology, the more
rapidly farmers can become proficient with it (Wake, et al., 1988). Simple changes are therefore
more readily evaluated and adopted by farmers. This fact guides many farming systems
practitioners into the direction of simple methods as well as simple technology.
In an excellent review of farmer participation in agricultural research (FPR), Farrington
and Martin (1988) state:
Considerable confusion has arisen over the relationship between FSR and FPR. .
.some proponents of FPR seek to distance themselves from conventional
agricultural research institutes which are seen as defending the status quo in
relations between researcher and farmer, and ultimately, in the imbalance between
rich and poor farmers in ldes. On the other hand, even in its earliest
formulations, FSR stressed the need to involve and learn from the farmer in
research, and where departures from this principle occur, they are generally
attributable to poor interpretation of FSR's objectives or to funding constraints (p.
They conclude that, "farmer participation is not, as some might claim, a substitute for FSR but a
complement to client-oriented ('problem-focussed') research and development, which, in turn, is
one component of the agenda for research in ides".
On-farm technology evaluation in which researchers, extensionists and farmers work in
close collaboration provides for the natural merging of technology development, evaluation and
diffusion (Hildebrand, 1988). Farmers who are actively participating in evaluation by hosting
on-farm trials are moving along the learning curve through first hand experience. Neighbors and
others such as extension agents who have not had previous knowledge about the technology, can
learn through observation. Researchers or technology developers can help adapt the technology
to local conditions through the familiarity gained by their participation in this process.
Though this process seems logical and efficient, it is surprising that institutional inertia,
in many countries, both developing and developed, and in the international sphere, can suppress
it. One of the most frequently leveled criticisms of farming systems is that there is little or no
effective collaboration between research and extension organizations even though some of their
functions may be blended by those working in the field (McDermott and Bathrick, 1982). The
institutional separation of functions is even perpetuated by such international organizations as
ISNAR (International Service for National Agricultural Research) which was established by the
CGIAR "for the purpose of assisting governments of developing countries to strengthen their
agricultural research." This institutional mandate even has an impact on the terminology used.
For example, ISNAR uses ". .. the generic term 'on-farm, client-oriented, research' (OFCOR) as
distinct from 'farming systems research' (FSR) because the latter has come to have too many
different and confusing meanings." (Merrill-Sands, 1989, p. iii). Because of its limited
commodity focus, CIMMYT (International Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat) has
coined the term "on-farm research with a farming systems perspective". Both of these
international institutions emphasize the research, but not the extension of FSRE because of
One can argue successfully that FSRE is as old as the Land Grant University system in
the United States. Farmers were the focus and technology development was the activity. Most
researchers were farm raised and had a farming perspective and capability to communicate with
farmers. Later an extension service was created to facilitate transfer of technology to wider
audiences. As technology became more sophisticated, researchers and extension workers became
increasingly specialized. Increasing specialization created communication problems as each
specialty developed its own vocabulary. This narrowing of focus away from the whole farm and
towards its components fomented a drift away from farmers as the primary clientele group.
Specialized agriculturalists were less able to communicate with farmers who were unable to
understand the specialized vocabulary. As a result, the new clientele group for those in the Land
Grant system became their own peers -- the only persons with whom there was easy
communication. This institutional drift has made it difficult to generate an FSRE program in the
Land Grant system of the US today.
The first two decades of FSRE activity has seen a heavy emphasis toward intervention in
annual crop systems. This in part reflects its cropping systems antecedents which concentrated on
annual crops. It also reflects the relative ease of on-farm research with annual crops as distinct
from perennials or animals. Though some argue against the use of the term 'farming systems'
when it applies to the process of technology development for annual crops only, it is merited
because attempts are made to understand the impact of the annual crop subsystem or
technological modifications in this subsystem, on the farm as a whole.
Livestock were not being ignored. As early as 1978 a Bellagio conference was organized
to study the integration of crop and livestock production in developing countries (McDowell and
Hildebrand, 1980). A conclusion was ". .. that animals form an integral and essential part of
small-farm systems in most of the developing countries and that efforts should be made to create
awareness of the importance of this integration among training institutions and government
agencies." (p. 63) In 1985 a workshop was held at ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural
Research in the Dry Areas) in Aleppo, Syria on research methodology for livestock on-farm trials
(Nordblom et al., 1985). More recently Winrock International and the International Development
Research Centre (Canada) have published a book on conducting on-farm animal research (Amir
and Knipscheer, 1989). A number of workshops have been held in Africa on livestock and on-
farm research with emphasis on animal traction. This aspect has become an important component
of the West African Farming Systems Research Network (WAFSRN) now headquartered in
Ougadougou, Burkina Faso.
In retrospect it is hard to believe that through many early years, women on farms and
women farmers were ignored by farming systems practitioners who were espousing a 'holistic'
systems methodology. Nor were many women included in the research and extension groups who
were working with farmers. This latter short sight began to be rectified with the creation of the
efforts variously described as Women in Development (WID), Women in Agriculture (WIA), and
Women in Agricultural Development (WIAD):
The WID field, similar to FSR/E, began with a concern for the distribution of
development benefits. Like farming systems, women and development is far from
a unified field of knowledge. Not only does it include many strands of research
and practice, but the field has evolved rapidly over the approximately 20 years of
its existence, since economist Ester Boserup published her ground-breaking work
Women's Role in Eqqngmic Development in 1970. (Poats, et al., 1988, pp. 2-3).
Early contact between those concerned with the inclusion of women in farming systems
was sometimes confrontational. However, through the efforts of the Farming Systems Support
Project (FSSP) with its worldwide networking activities and other groups, an historical conference
was held on the campus of the University of Florida in 1986. Confrontation was absent as the
participants concentrated on methods for incorporating gender issues into farming systems at its
various stages. Case studies, developed with the collaboration of the Population Council, were
also evaluated at the conference. "The Conference offered an excellent opportunity for exploring
and testing new ideas and successful approaches for incorporating gender sensitivity in
agricultural research and development" (Poats et al., 1988, p. xix). Improved means of gender
analysis are now an accepted procedure in virtually all farming systems projects.
Farming systems research and extension methods evolved from a concern with the
distribution of benefits from the national and international investment in agricultural research
and extension efforts. It has required a blending of the disciplinary methods used by plant
breeders, agronomists, anthropologists, economists, animal scientists, geographers and others. In
the diverse areas of the world where it is being used, local conditions, varying severity of budget
restrictions, institutional base, and the individuals involved have all placed their impact on it. In
a very real sense, FSRE is not a method, but rather a philosophy with a number of common
methods and one common goal. Perhaps this view can best be expressed by the recently
organized Association for Farming Systems Research-Extension, itself a very diverse group. The
AFSRE is "An international society organized to promote the development and dissemination of
methods and results of participatory on-farm systems research and extension. The objective of
such research is the development and adoption through the participation by farm household
members -- male and female -- of improved and appropriate technologies to meet the
socioeconomic needs of farm families; adequately supply global food, feed, and fiber
requirements; and utilize resources in a sustainable and efficient manner."
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