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AGRICULTURAL TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT AND FSR/E:
PAST PROBLEMS AND NEW DIRECTIONS
James D. O'Connor, Chris O. Andrew, and Peter E. Hildebrand*
Farming Systems Research and Extension (FSR/E) has enjoyed a high level of interest
and exposure in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, relatively
limited inroads have been made toward introducing farming systems approaches in the United
States. At the University of Florida, which has served as an important part of the non-
domestic promotion of farming systems, some efforts have also been directed at domestic
implementation. To date, those efforts have encountered difficulty stemming from institutional
inertia and resistance to change: a common feature of any large institution which has evolved
historic, and often very narrowly defined approaches to new problems. By contrast,
developing countries often are not burdened with complex histories and relationships between
agricultural research institutions, clients, and professional disciplinary societies which together
tend in the U.S. to limit the responsiveness to "real world" problems.
The objectives of this paper are to 1) provide a conceptual framework for institutional
analysis and discuss key issues for institutional change in agricultural research, 2) review the
Florida experience with farming systems, and 3) suggest some directions for domestic farming
systems which may improve the adaptive fit between farming systems approaches and the
institutional structure and incentives of the Land Grant agricultural college.
*Research Assistant, and Professors respectively, Food and Resource Economics
Department, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.
The Institutional Research System and Farming Systems
Public research institutions, such as agricultural colleges, may be envisioned as having
internal structures and incentives, and an external environment which interact with each other
to determine the nature of information and technology produced. Internally, each research
institution is composed of a variety of interacting organizations such as individual disciplinary
departments, administrative units, and decentralized research centers throughout the state.
The internal structure and incentives of the institution are critical in determining the type of
technology and information that will be produced. The mix of disciplines, the relative
financial support for disciplinary departments, and the level of adherence of those disciplinary
departments to the academic values of the disciplines as formulated by national professional
societies are important. The adherence of disciplinary departments to the values of national
professional societies is solidified by research administrators who often base the incentives for
tenure and promotion on publication in professional journals.
The external environment for a research institution is dominated by professional
disciplinary societies and by individuals and groups which seek to influence research funding
in the socioeconomic and political spheres. As the number of farms in the U.S. has decreased
and concentration into larger land holdings has occurred, commodity producer groups have
become the major source of political support for the funding of research institutions. Part of
the manner in which academic disciplines have evolved, and the development of new disciplines
has occurred, relates to the ongoing process of concentration in agriculture. Generally, in the
Land Grant system, emphasis in agricultural research has been placed on production oriented
problems from a micro-biological perspective, while the social and ecological problems
associated with the concentration and high-input use of agriculture have been de-emphasized
It is argued here that the relationship between academic disciplinary values and the
needs of producer groups has coevolved to some degree and mutual advantage. The
agreement revolves around the mutual focus on increased yield per acre as the scientific goal
of the researchers and the business goal of the producers. The results of a survey of 1400
publicly-sponsored agricultural researchers suggest:
Scientists overwhelmingly emphasize the creation of disciplinary knowledge and the
increase in agricultural productivity as the most important goals for agricultural
research. (Busch and Lacy 1983, p. 233)
Continued support for production enhancement research comes from commodity producer
groups. The potential clientele (e.g. farm workers, environmentalists) for other types of
research appears: 1) in the case of sociological research, not to have the political power or
organization to make its needs felt at the institutional level and 2) in the case of ecological
research, not to recognize the role of publicly funded institutional research in promoting
technologies with adverse environmental consequences.
The reason that the relationship between academic disciplines and the producer groups is
sometimes conflicting relates to the power of the journals of the national disciplinary societies
which often reject research that is "too applied" or "parochial". "Too applied" refers to
research which attempts to solve a specific problem by crossing disciplinary lines or relying
on existing research results. Problem solving takes second place to disciplinary "values".
. today the criterion for promotion is publishing in scholarly journals. In turn
people are self- and peer-oriented. They do not feel a responsibility to the
institutional mission of solving society's problems. They do research to advance
knowledge, publish for peers, and earn consultancies. Generating and applying
knowledge to solve today's social and economic problems are not given sufficient
priorities. (Schuh 1986, p. 6)
The conflict between institutionalized disciplines and farming systems is obvious.
Farming systems stresses:
The use of scientists and technicians from more than one discipline as a means of
understanding the farm as an entire system, rather than isolating components within
a system. (Hildebrand and Poey 1985, p. XI)
There is a clear disparity between the "values" of a given discipline and the "values" of
farming systems research. Researchers have an enormous financial and personal investment
embodied in the use of a disciplinary approach to research. Further, the evolving but
traditional structure and incentives of the research institutions are not very hospitable to
users of farming systems methodologies. Similarly, farming systems projects tend to be
"institutional orphans", not fitting into any established department. Rewards to researchers
for farming systems work are less easy to achieve within the system than for subject matter
and disciplinary work. In sum, farming systems sometimes may be conceptualized as a
"bacterium" entering the institutional "body" where it is seen as foreign and is often rejected.
Farming systems, however, could have a beneficial impact on the research institution by
providing a basis for applied problem solving.
Farming Systems Research/Extension in Florida
Farming systems methodology has been, and is currently being, utilized in Florida. Three
efforts at introduction are discussed in this section: 1) an early attempt to institutionalized
farming systems in North Florida (North Florida I), 2) an ongoing interest in employing
farming system methods at a newly expanding research and education center in South Florida,
and 3) a renewed interest in reintroducing farming systems to North Florida (North Florida
II). While individual personalities do play an important role, this discussion will be limited to
administrative structure and incentives.
North Florida I
The Farming Systems approach was initiated in North Florida to 1) develop technology
for the small scale, limited resource farmers who predominated in the area, 2) assess the
farming systems methodology that had been developed in the Third World as a tool for use in
U.S. agriculture, and 3) modify the methodology as necessary if it was found to be useful in a
developed country context. The program was supported by state funds as well as from a
USDA grant. This farming systems effort was but one of several projects (primarily subject
matter in nature) located at the Live Oak research center.
Early in the program, a multidisciplinary team (the North Florida Farming Systems Team)
designed projects jointly and approved budget expenditures based on group decisions at weekly
or biweekly meetings. However, as the program matured and became institutionalized (and as
the USDA funds were depleted) natural institutional "drift" toward disciplinary research
reasserted itself. The evolving administrative structure gradually took both project design and
state budget expenditure decisions out of the hands of the multidisciplinary team. As a result,
the funds began to drift away from the problem solving research which was the purpose of
Aside from the internal institutional difficulties, the clients in the North Florida region
were receptive and stood to benefit greatly from the farming systems approach.
Characteristics of the clientele were:
1) gross farm income under $40,000, 2) tobacco and peanut acreage under 10 and 15
acres respectively, 3) high reliance on farm labor and reciprocal exchange, and 4) a
high proportion of off-farm income use. (Schmidt 1984, p. i)
This characterization is similar (in relative terms) to the farming systems found in developing
countries were the methodology has been successful in coming to terms with all the
socioeconomic and biophysical influences on agricultural technology. The clientele was
struggling financially and was open to viable technological and crop alternatives.
The introduction of farming systems in South Florida i.e. southwest Florida Research and
Education Center at Immokalee) has been ad hoc, adopting some of the key principles without
an overt recourse to the methodology (O'Connor 1988). The approach involves a strong client
orientation and a commitment to on-farm research. The client orientation has been provided
for administratively by: 1) having each faculty on at least 50% extension appointments, and 2)
creating commodity group advisory committees which have a strong role in the development of
the center and the research agenda. On-farm research is greatly facilitated by the nature of
the clientele which is composed of large scale producers who are able financially to provide
resources for on-farm trials. Early indications are that the on-farm trials will be an
important part of the research at the center. There does not appear, however, to be a
mechanism (such as a multi-disciplinary coordinating committee) for promoting
multi-disciplinary research. The definition of the clientele is narrow (i.e. only commodity
groups), and excludes other key elements in the region (e.g. environmentalists, farm workers).
As a result, the prognosis for a full systems perspective is poor because problems are being
defined by a small proportion of those affected by agricultural technology.
North Florida II
Continued financial difficulties for producers in North Florida have provided a context
for the reconsideration of farming systems there. The major innovations in the new endeavor
are that 1) funding will be sought, and administered, by a multi-disciplinary steering
committee, and 2) the District Extension Director for seventeen North Florida counties has
been named Director of the Live Oak research center which was the focus of North Florida I.
Apparently the committee, as a steering body to the Director, will solicit and screen projects
to insure a significant multi-disciplinary component and applied problem orientation as well as
provide a broad perspective in project identification. It is hoped that the committee will
arrest the inevitable tendency to drift toward disciplinary research. By controlling the
funding of individual projects the committee will exercise some influence over researcher
incentives, although researchers will also need to attract external funding as a component of
their research programs.
It remains to be seen whether the steering committee will be able to overcome the
problems of a lack of an administrative "home" for farming systems and the powerful
institutional appetite for disciplinary research. However, the farming systems effort now
assumes broad and pervasive status within the overall research program in the Live Oak area
and enjoys program status with integrated research and extension direction.
Institutionalization continues to evolve.
The problem orientation of farming systems would seem to address the recent criticism
(e.g. Schuh 1986, Batie 1988) of the Land-grant agricultural colleges. This is essentially a
two-pronged criticism: 1) that the colleges are not addressing real problems but are absorbed
in disciplinary-defined exercises of limited relevance to the public (Schuh) and 2) that the
colleges' historic pursuit of production goals has helped create a set of problems which are
not now being addressed (Batie). Batie states:
The public's contemporary agenda does not include an abundant domestic food
supply, it addresses instead the social problems that have partially and indirectly
been generated by past Land Grant successes--environmental pollution, bankrupt
farmers, or poor human nutrition. Colleges of agriculture need to demonstrate
efficacy in addressing these issues." (p. 2).
This criticism amounts to saying that the agricultural colleges have satisfied their historic
task of production enhancement but, instead of attacking new problems (e.g. ecological
protection), they have tended to turn on each other in disciplinary competition. The farming
systems perspective might be welcomed by critics of the system and by clients who have been
disappointed by the decline of applied problem solving activities in the Land Grant college
However, farming systems as a perspective has also demonstrated weakness in terms of
identifying applied problems in the U.S. and enhancing the Land Grant approach. Little
emphasis has been placed on the policy or regional context for the development of agricultural
technology. Farming systems largely has an "inside the farm gate" perspective and is in
practice still production-oriented: sort of a "micro-socioagronomy". The socioeconomic
aspects that are considered are viewed as constraints to production, as if production was the
only objective of the farming system. This reductionism may still be a carry over from
disciplinary training. The overall goal of agricultural development, however, cannot be
attained by attempting to solve many specific micro-problems. The individual farm unit must
be viewed in the broader socioeconomic and biophysical context of a region or nation.
Numerous cumulative effects may take place which are not considered from the micro-
perspective, such as the flooding of markets resulting from many individuals adopting a
recommendation for production of a specialized crop or the compound ecological impact of
widespread increased chemical application. In its neglect of concerns "outside the farm gate",
farming systems is misusing the term "systems".
If farming systems is to be used in a domestic context it would seem imperative to
include research on environmental and distributive equity problems. A realization of these
problems comes from widening the boundary of analysis to local community, regional, state and
national levels. Farming systems should not further the production needs of a small group of
large-scale producers at the expense of wider communities. If the clients are not
representative of the wider society, then the problems that are identified are, only by
coincidence, social problems. Both client and problem orientations are necessary, but by no
means sufficient, conditions for a socially beneficial research and extension program.
As is being done in North Florida there are some organizational innovations which may
be employed to promote farming systems research within the existing institutional structure.
The multi-disciplinary research and extension steering committee represents a good possibility
(perhaps a necessary condition) for sustained change. The impact of the committee is greatly
strengthened if it guides funding allocations and also achieves status and legitimacy from the
research institution. The advancement of farming systems may rely heavily on the interest of
tenured faculty who are not dominated by the institutional pressures for the production of
For the success of farming systems in the U.S., it would appear important to meet client
needs which are not now being met thereby attracting political and financial support. Because
of its heritage in developing countries, farming systems is often thought to be appropriate
only for depressed areas (North Florida) and not for dynamic areas (South Florida). It can be
equally effective in both areas. Farming systems, however, needs to be much more rigorous in
determining whose problems to solve in the social interest and what the broader impacts of
those solutions will be.
Batie, S.S. "Agriculture as the Problem: New Agendas and New Opportunities." Dept. Agr.
Econ. Staff Paper No. 88-6, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1988.
Busch, L. and W.B. Lacy. Science, Agriculture, and the Politics of Research. Boulder:
Westview Press, 1983.
Hildebrand, P.E. and F. Poey. On Farm Agronomic Trials in Farming Systems Research and
Extension. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., Boulder, Colorado, 1985.
O'Connor, J.D. "Agricultural Technology and Regional Ecosystem Protection: The Role of
Publicly Funded Research". Ph.D. Dissertation, Food and Resource Economics Department,
University of Florida, 1988.
Schmidt, D.L. "Synthesis of North Florida Farming Systems Project, University of Florida
1981-1984." Department of Food and Resource Economics, 1984.
Schuh, G.E. "Revitalizing Land Grant Universities: It's Time to Regain Relevance." Choices