Institutionalizing the farming systems approach to research

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Institutionalizing the farming systems approach to research
Norman, D. W.
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Subjects / Keywords:
Farming ( LCSH )
Agriculture ( LCSH )
Farm life ( LCSH )


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1. Topics

a) Introduction, objectives, and layout
b) Farming system determinats
c) Defining the farming systems approach to
research (FSAR)
d) Functions
e) Components including funding
f) Boundaries

2. Introduction, objectives, and layout

2.1 The farming systems research is a
product of the 1970s. It developed due to
frustration over partial or complete failure
of other approaches in developing technology
relevant for farming families located in rela-
tively unfavourable environments.

2.2 However, there is considerable confusion over
how a farming system is defined and what the
farming systems approach to research (FSAR) is.
It is important to have a consensus of what
these are in order to address central objectives
of the paper. At the moment, the term FSAR is
used too loosely.

.2.3 The FSAR is still evolving and, therefore, conven-
tional wisdom for solving methodological and im-
plementation problems has still not developed.
However, some general guidelines are emerging, but
these ere likely to be modified in the light of
further experience.

2.4 Layout of.paper. After defining what a farming
system constitutes the FSAR, the foundation is
laid for a consideration of the various topics
assigned to this paper; functions, components
and funding, and boundaries. These topics, how-
ever, are not mutually exclusive; therefore there
is some overlap in the discussion.

3. Farmina system determinants

3.1 In developing countries, there is considerable
overlap between the unit of production and the
unit of consumption. Therefore, the means of
livelihood and household are intimately linked
and cannot be separated (Figure 1).

Lto dB~ iD.'. Norman. Invited for Africa Sureau Agriculture and Rural
Development Officers WIorkshop, IITA, Ibaden, Nigeria, May0O-13.
No citations are made in the paper; therefore, many of the ideas
expressed in the paper cannot be solely attributed to the writer.


3.2 A farming system adopted by a given farming house-
hold results from its members with their managerial
know-how, allocating the three factors of production
i.e., land, labour, and capital, to which they have access,
to three processes (crops, livestock, and off-farm
enterprises)in a manner which, within the know-
ledge they possess, will maximaze the attainment of
the goals) they are striving for.

3.3 The farming system is determined by the environment
in which the farming family operates. The "total"
environment in which it operates can be divided
into the technical (natural) and human elements.

3.4 The technical element refl,:ts what the potential
f arming system can be and, therefore, provides
the necessary condition for its presence. The
technical element can be divided into:

a) Physical factors water, soil, solar
radiation, temperatures, etc.
b) Biological factors crop and animal
S. physiology, disease, insect attack etc.

Technical scientists have been able to modify the
technical element to some extent.

.3.5 The human element has often been neglected in
traditional research approaches to development
of improved technologies, which accounts for
their often being rejected or, at best, being
differentially adopted, thereby resulting in
an inequitable distribution of benefits. The
human element, providing the sufficient condi-
tion for the presence of a farming system,
determines what tha actual farming system will
be being a subset of the potential defined by
the technical element.

3.6 The human element can be divided into two com-
ponents or groups of factors. The exogenous.
factors the social milieu in which the farm-
ing household operates are largely out of
the control of the individual farming house-
hold, but will influence what its members are
able to do. They can be divided into three
broad groups:

a) Community structures, norms, and
b) External institutions or support systems.
This is often provided by government,
both on the input (extension, input dis-
tribution) and product (direct and in-
direct intervention) sides-.
c) Miscellaneous influences location,
population density etc.
On the other hand, endogenous factors land,
labour, End capital, along with management -
which are under the control of the individual

3 3
9- -

'. 'derive a farming system consistent with their goals)
S subject to the boundary conditions laid down by the
technical element and exogenous factors. The en-
-:dogenous factors can. under certain circumstances
/ be complemented and supplemented in quantitative and
qualitative terms through the influence of exogenous
factors such as capital through a credit program,
management via extension, etc.

4. Defining the farming systems approach to research (FSAR)

S4.1 The primary aim of the FSAR is to increase the
overall productivity of the farming system and,
therefore, hopefully the welfare of individual
farming families in the context of the en-
tire range of private and societal goals given
the constraints and potentials imposed by the
determinants of the existing farming systems.

4.2 Increased productivity is achieved through two
types of developmental strategies:

a) Farming systems research (FSR) invol-
ving the development and dissemination
of relevant improved practices (tech-

b) Farming systems perspective (FSP)
involving influencing the development
of relevant policies and support sys-
tems (external institutions).

4.3 Both developmental strategies have a "micro -
macro" or "bottom-up" orientation compared
with the more "top-down" or "macro to micro"
orientation of research work that starts
at the experiment station or in the upper
echelons of planning ministries.

4.4 Given the right institutional setting and link-
ages, both FSR and FSP are possible. However,
in general, because FSR programs have usually
been located in agricultural research institu-
tes primarily crop oriented often with poor
linkages to planning or policy-making agencies,
the FSP has usually not been operative. Thus,
the support systems have been considered papa-
meters (implying a submissive approach to them
on the part bf the FSR teamn) rather than
variables amenable to manipulation (implying
an interventionist approach on the part of the
FSR team). An interventionist approach permits
a wider range of possible improved technolo-
gies to be considered in the research process.



4.5 The term FSR has often been used very loosely.
There are ,programs called FSR that are not FSR,
and.there,are programs not called FSR that are
indeed FSR. The following characterizes FSR:

a) "The farm, as a whole, is viewed in a
comprehensive manner.

b)' The choice of priorities for research
reflects the initial study of the
whole farm.

c) Research on a farm sub-system is legi-
timate FSR provided the connections
with other sub-systems are recognized
and taken'into account.

d)' Eialuation of research results explicitly
take into account linkages between sub-

... .. Using the above cherecterization, as.lpng-as
the concept of the whole farm and its environ-
ment are preserved, not all factors determi-
Sning the farming system need to be considered
as variables some may be treated as para-
meters. Therefore, FSP may be called FSR "in
the small" (low ratio of variables to para-
meters) or FSR "in the large" (high ratio of
S variables to parameters). Incorporation of
FSP into FSR increases the ratio of variables
to parameters. However, methodological and
implementation issues become more complex as
the ratio of variables to parameters increases.
In.addition to the methodological issue, the
scope of the FSR program ,-ill be partially
determined by the mandate of the institution
in which it is located, the effectiveness of
linkages with other institutions and agencies,
resources available, i.e. time,skill, finances,

4.6 As well as FSR programs being differentiated on
the basis of the ratio of variables to para-
meters, they can be classified cs follows:-

a) ."Upstream" types of FSR programs have a
developmental orientation and usually
do not provide results for immediate
adoption by farming.families. Perhaps
more aptly called resource management
research, "upstream" FSR programs involve
using a systems approach to provide pro-
totype solutions on experiment stations
to major constraints to crcp or agri-
cultural improvement, e.g. watershed
management, intercrcpping etc.

5/ *..* *.

t t-



/ .'. '


Along with results from commodity research
programs reductionist research they
contribute to the body of knowledge
S' (Figure 2) and are:available for feeding
into the "downstream" FSR programs.

b) "Downstream" types of FSR programs, which
are presumably the main concern of this
paper, have an applied orientation and aim
at developing and introducing strategies
that will improve the productivity of
farming systems for target groups of farm-
ing families now and in the short-run.
This requires selectively drawing upon
available information, i.e., body of know-
ledge in Figure 2, in the process of design-
ing practices or recommendations for a
: particular farming system on the basis of
an analysis of the constraints of that
system. Therefore, recommendations are
produced which are suited to a specific
local situation. This involves working
directly with farmers, i.e. on-farm
Sresearch,-end as a result, reducing to
a minimum work on the experiment station.

4.7 There are four stages in applied or "downstream"
FSR (Figure 2):

a) The descriptive or diagnostic stage in which
the actual farming system is examined in
the context of the "total" environment -
to identify constraints farmers face and
to ascertain the potential flexibility in
the farming system in terms of timing,
slack resources, etc. An effort is also
made to understand gjals and motivation of
farmers that may affect their efforts t.
improve the farming system.

b) The design stage in which a range of stra-
tegies is identified that is thought to be
relevant in dealing with the constraints
delineated in the descriptive or diag-
nostic stage. Heavy reliance at this stage
is placed on obtaining iformaticn from the
"body of knowledge."

c) The testing stage in which a few promising
strategies arising from the design stage
are examined and evaluated under farm ccn-
ditions, to ascertain their suitability
for producing desirable end acceptable
changes in the existing.farming system.
This stage corsists of two parts: initial
trials at the farm 12vel with joint
researcher and farmer participation
(researcher managed), then farmer's tes-
ting with tctal control by farmers them-
selves (farmer.managed).

Page 6

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a) FSR, or helping tc generate relevant impro-
ved technology, is the primary fucus.

b) FSP, or 'helping to develop relevant agri-
cultural pbl'icios/support systems, is the
primary focus.

.c) If linkages arn good between research and
planning/implementation institutions, some
mix b~twCer the two may be possible i.e.

However, at the mcnent, the major thrust is on de-
veloping relevant improved technologies for the
crop sub-system. Th.s is in part because most
FSR-type,programs are Iccated in agricultural
research institutes- whose mandates revolve around

5.3 FSAR-type programs help generate and communicate
information in the following ways:

a) Through provid:.nq a rrans for farmers to
communicate th.3ir neecs to researchers
(FSR) and planning/implementation
agencies (FSP) which has often been
lacking in the more conventional "top-
down" approaches.

b) Through bringing ebc'it linkages between
farmers,' extensions personnel, and
researchers (F.;R), and farn;ers, extension
personnel,'and picnning/implementation
institutions (FSP).

5.4 FSAR-type programs prcvi~ :. 'practical component"
in the on-the-job trr-irn.-ng cf researchers, ex-
tension, 3nd:plenniin perscrinel. In fact, much
of the skill obtained to rdiio in FSAR-type ac-
tivities has teen derived from longevity in the
field rather than through frmnal training pro-
grams. Although forrcal degree training is not
available in this general area, short courses
in the interdisciplir.ary characteristics of FSAR-
type activities are being developed at a number
of international (CI.MYT, IRRI), regional (CATIE),
and national (ICTA) institutes.

5.5 In these various functions, FSAR-type activities
perform a facilitatirg or intergrating role
rather than initiating role. Therefore, these
types of activities should rot come right at
the beginning of The dcv3loF:nent process unless
funding agencies .r3 ;,.llinc to accept a long
gestation period in tirmi of achieving.results.
For example, FSR proce:as ore likely to have low
immediate return if the "bcdy of knowledge"
(Figure 2) is poo:1y -evflopFd. FSR activities
ore not a substitute for ex;erimnnt station based
commodity research.


5.5 Such national research programs can (providing
understandable inhibitions are overcome) benefit
from linkages with CRSFs and IARCs which oan
provide expertise in deficient areas and pro-
vide critical masses of staff and resources for
looking at complex problems ("upstream" or deve-
lopmental FSR).

6. Components:

6.1 Because of the locational specificity of FSAR-type
activities, the future-particularly of "down-
stream" or applied activities -must lie within
national programs.

6.2 Problems within national programs that make in-
troduction of FSR activities difficult include:

a) Staff constraints:

relative immobility of staff within
national settings sometimes dis-
courages changes and encourages
maintenance of the status quo, there-
fore resulting in opposition to "new"
FSR programs.

interdisciplinary FSR activities
require the interaction of both tech-
nical and social science disciplines-
the latter are usually lacking in
technical agricultural research in-
stitutes in Africa.

b) Organizational/operational constraints:

national research programs used to be
organized along discipline lines
which have more recently given way to
programs organized along commodity

however, FSR programs involve crossing
both discipline and commodity lines.

c) Research resource constraints:

financial and manpower constraints are
both common in national settings.

therefore, although experiment, station
based research programs, and applied
FSR programs are conceptually com-
plementary, they are often perceived
as being competitive in terms of using
limited research resources.


d) Locational specificity of applied ("down-
atream") FSR programs constraint. This
constraint end the fact that FSR programs
work with limited numbers of farming fa-
milies (hopefully representative of much
larger numbers) add to the perception of
some, of the expensive nature of such re-
search. In arriving at such conclusions,
sunk costs involved in developing ex-
periment stations, and low returns from
other pas research endeavours, are likely
to be heavily discounted or even ignored.
Because of the complementarity of "down-
stream" FSR activities and other research
approaches, there appears to be little
value in comparing the benefit-cost ratios
of different research approaches. Howe-
ver, a challenge does exist in minimizing
the costs of "downstream" FSR activities

seeking ways to reduce the time to
move through four research stages.

S maximizing the returns from such
research by making results as widely
applicable as possible.

seeking better, but not necessarily
best solutions to farmers' problems.

6.3 Implications for instituting the components -f a
FSR program in a national program are, therefore,
as follows:

a) Be minimally disruptive in instituting on
FSR activity within national programs. It
is not necessary, for example, to call it
FSR if this is politically unpalatable,
while, in order to encourage intra-
institutional linkages and cc:peration,
it is probably not always desirable -
initially at las t to have a separate
unit for FSR. Rather, improved possi-
bilities for support and commitment are
likely to arise if it is grafted onto an
existing administrative unit, s.g. agronomy.

b) Staff and funding limitations usually re-
quire initial "pump priming" through:

support fr-m dcnLr agencies. This
will mainly have to come from public
rather than private sources.

S- 10 -

Funds and personnel from the latter
source are not likely to be forth-
' :. coming for institutionalizing an
FSR-type'program where the gesta-
S tion period is likely to be lengthy
S. in terms of getting results.

support through developing links
with'relevant IARCs that arc develop-
Sing expertise in "downstream" FSR.

recourse to advice and help from a
central'ccre group of expertise on
FSR activities (such as AID is con-
sidering providing funds for at pre-
sent)'and Title XII Strengthening
Grants in the US universities which
are focusing on FSAR-type activities.

c) Although strong arguments can be made for
locating FSR'teams within current institu-
tions, attention needs to be paid to deve-
loping inter-institutional linkages, thus
improving the possibilities for effective
FSR'activities. Chances for such effecti-
veness can be increased through, for exa-

obtaining somo manpower and financial
commitments jn the part of extension
and planning/implementation agencies.
The involvement of the former in the
research program can potentially help
mend the rift t'"at"'ften exists bet-
ween research and extension Ohile the
latter -provides tU; opportunity for
the inclusion.of an FSP and the pos-
sible source of, at least, agricul-
'tural eccnomist3, cften lacking in
Technical research institutes.

arranging linkages, perhaps essentially
of an informal nature with institutions/
organizations with expertise in "down-
stream" FSR. Since downstreamm" FSR
.*is still evolving, there are many
methodological issues that still re-
main to be satisfactorily resolved.

d) If an FSP is to receive priority in FSAR -
type programs;- a priority that is currently
rare then the logical institutional Ic-
cation of such a program is within a de-
velopment.project, extension program, or
planning unit..

, /

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7. Boundaries:

7.1 As has been emphasized earlier, the mejor ac-
tivities of "downstream" FSR programs in the
future must be within national programs, al-
though linkages with external agencies and
expertise will be important in improving the
effectiveness of national programs, particularly
in solving methodological problems, transferring
results across national boundaries in areas
with similar "total" (Technical and human) en-
vironments, etc.

7.2 Experiment station based research programs are,
currently, usually organized along commodity
lines and have a national focus.

7.3 Two possible ways exist for organizing "down-
stream" FSR-type activities:
a) FSR in the small" emphasizing a couple of
products throughout the country.
b) "FSR in the large" where all products (processes)
are considered as in a regionally focused
program. (Such a program could still be "FSR
in the small" where only the major products
are focused on).

Approach b) is currently being emphasized in
preference to approach a), with regions
being either defined ecologically (more
relevant for an FSR program), or administ-
ratively (more important where an FSP em-
phasis is expected), or some compromise
between the two.

7.4 In setting up boundaries for FSAR-type pro-
grams, it is, however, essential that effec-
tive linkages are maintained between:

a) The various regionally focused FSAR
b). The regionally focused FSAR program
and the experiment station based
research programs, extension, im-
plementing and planning institutions.

This can be facilitated through meetings,
visits of staff to other programs, etc.

8. Conclusion:

FSAR-type activities are not a panacea. They comp-
lement and help integrate and improve the pay-off
of other activities through providing a "botton-up"
approach. The decision whether to introduce FSAR
activities is not an either-or decision, but rather
one that can help improve the performance of other
on-coing activities.

Key: 1R = researcher
F V farmer
M = managed
I = imnilemenLed

I. scriptpi iv /dia Ij I o C

uc'. i ,!ii

CurrentL farnninj Suppolrt sys t lll
systelil (hypotllesis.;. and policy
foriulat ion )

"/ ;.ri !t i
I .

I, ludy of..... "Experiment
.nolowled(le f-roniil t station"

aI I

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