AGRONOMY'S ROLE IN SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE:
INTEGRATED FARMING SYSTEMS1
Peter E. Hildebrand2
The agricultural systems that have been built up over the past few decades have
contributed greatly to the alleviation of hunger and the raising of living standards.
They have served their purposes up to a point. But they were built for the
purposes of a smaller, more fragmented world. New realities reveal their inherent
contradictions. These realities require agricultural systems that focus as much
attention on people as they do on technology, as much on resources as on
production, as much on the long term as on the short term. Only such systems can
meet the challenge of the future. (WCED, 1987, p. 144)
The world is becoming a smaller place. Phenomena which only a few decades ago we
may never have known about are today transmitted live and instantaneously around the world via
satellites in space. The WCED report, cited above and often referred to as the Bruntland report,
makes an interesting observation on space:
In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time.
... From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity
and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils. Humanity's
inability to fit its doings into that pattern is changing planetary systems,
fundamentally. (p. 1)
It is, perhaps, a quantum leap from farming systems to planetary systems. However, to
put into perspective the relationship between sustain- ability and farming systems, we need to
make at least most of the leap.
Concern with sustainable agriculture, and by extension, sustainable development, did not
originate only in Florida, for example, where we are contaminating the ground water with
agricultural chemicals and wastes nor in the High Plains of Texas with the depletion of the
Ogallala aquifer. It has been influenced powerfully in recent years by the burning of the
Amazon rain forest, the desertification of the Sahelian region in Africa, and by the denuded
hillsides in Haiti. The concern spans the globe, if not the planetary system, and is directly
related to the pressure put on this planet's natural resources by a burgeoning human population.
These phenomena are being reported widely by all forms of media. Who amongst us has not seen
articles about the depletion of the tropical rain forests in everything from the New York Times to
our local newspapers, the Scientific American or the Economist. And it may be surprising how
many of us have heard of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper from the western Amazon rain forest,
who was killed because he was the head of a group trying to protect part of the rain forest as an
1 Presented at the American Society of Agronomy meetings in Las Vegas,
Nevada, October 16, 1989.
2 Professor, Food and Resource Economics Department, University of
Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.
The term 'sustainable agriculture' is difficult to define because it means different things
to different people at different times. For example, it is possible to think of sustainability in
such terms as economic, political, social, cultural, institutional, and ecological. Yet many people
use the term sustainable agriculture, so it apparently is intuitively comprehensible. For this
reason, let me raise some questions about the sustainability of several farming systems without
defining the term, but to put into perspective some of the difficulties associated with its use.
Is the farming system of a rubber tapper who collects rubber and Brazil nuts from wild
trees on perhaps 250 hectares of Brazilian rain forest and produces crops or pasture on only a few
hectares sustainable? Or is the farmer in a colonization project in the same rain forest developing
a more sustainable system? What about the small farmers in Peru and Bolivia who produce coca
leaves for the incredibly lucrative illegal drug market? Is their system sustainable? What about
citrus producers in Central or Southwest Florida where tourist attractions and urban
concentrations are expanding explosively? Or the small grain and livestock farming systems in
the near desert, rainfed areas of Morocco? Or, for that matter, the mixed farming systems found
in north Florida or the corn/soybean cash grain farms in the midwestern US?
Most of these systems have something in common. They are in a state of flux and
changing, or subject to change, quite rapidly. For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, as the
rubber tappers organize and break the hold of the traditional rubber barons, they begin to
produce more of their own food and may sell a little surplus. They also begin to need animals to
provide their own means of transport. Hence, slowly their holdings begin to look more like some
of the colonists in the same area who tend to farm more land, and would like to become
cattlemen, but also harvest the wild rubber and Brazil nut trees left standing on their 50 hectare
holdings. In turn, the colonists are always tempted to sell their cleared land to the larger
ranchers, who, most people argue, have a farming system that is not sustainable with present
Sustainable agriculture, therefore, is not a constant state. Nor, as some would argue, is it
a return to a former state. Similarly, it is not necessarily low input. There have probably been
more grain combines and square straw balers sold in Morocco in recent years than in the United
States! If we consider biological sustainability as the length of time a particular system can be
maintained, then we must consider that chemicals can substitute for rotations or fallow, at least
for some time. The coca farmers use chemicals and probably have systems that are biologically
sustainable for a number of years. However, given current events, they may very well be
concerned with the short term economic sustainability of their systems. The ranchers in the
Brazilian rain forest are becoming concerned with the political sustainability of their system.
And farmers in the United States and Europe are becoming concerned with the ecological
sustainability of their farming systems.
Farming Systems and Technology Adoption
The concepts of sustainability aside, it should be obvious that farming systems,
themselves, are very complex. Individual farming systems result from combining the resources
and time available to farm managers into a set of enterprises and activities that provide for the
needs and desires of the farm families (or corporate or government entities) who control the
resources. The set of enterprises that form a farming system results from the environment within
which the farms operate. On family farms (as opposed to corporate or government farms), this
environment is influenced as much by socioeconomic factors, such as competing family needs for
available cash, as it is by biophysical factors such as soils and climate. The environment in an
individual field is also influenced by socioeconomic, as well as biophysical factors. For example,
a field that is prepared and planted late provides a poorer environment for a crop than an
otherwise identical field that was prepared and planted on time. It is for these reasons that farms
and fields vary a great deal from one another.
Over the last few decades, in industrialized countries farmers were able to use
technologies that could overcome these field and farm differences. These technologies were
broadly adaptable because many of our farmers had the resources and the capital to be able to
dominate the natural components of their environments with irrigation, chemicals and/or
mechanization. Furthermore, our agricultural policies, supported for many years by the
philosophy that farmers "should get big or get out", encouraged wide adoption of this kind of
technology. Recently, with rising concerns for a more sustainable agriculture, there is pressure to
reduce the use of fossil fuels, the amount of irrigation water, and off-farm produced chemicals.
Policy makers are beginning to change the incentives which encouraged the use of broadly
adaptable technologies. These factors will influence the kinds of technologies farmers will be
able to use. In the future, new technologies will have to conform with the environments where
they will be used, not dominate them. This means there will be an increasing need for location-
specific solutions to emerging farm problems. These, then, are the challenges to agronomy in the
Agronomists ply their trade today in an institutional setting that has responded to the
same forces that molded farm environments over the last few decades. Associated with
environmental changes affecting farms and farming over this time period has been an
institutional drift toward specialization. Many agronomists work in a Land Grant university or
similar setting with research and extension, as well as teaching responsibilities. Beginning,
perhaps, in 1962 with the publication of Roger's Diffusion of Innovations, the definition of
clientele began to shift from that which was the basis of the establishment of the Land Grant
system. We started to look at who was adopting the new technologies being produced. We called
them "innovators" or "early adopters" as opposed to the "laggards" who did not adopt the
technology. We studied the characteristics of the adopters and began to consider them as our
clients for whom we developed more technology. This created a drift toward technology
requiring heavy capital inputs, one of the characteristics of the innovators and early adopters.
One of my colleagues reminded me recently that in north Florida, many of these innovators had
the least sustainable systems during the last decade and a high proportion no longer farm.
As technology became more sophisticated, researchers and extension workers became
increasingly specialized. Increasing specialization created communication problems as each
specialty developed its own vocabulary. In agriculture, this specialization, or narrowing of focus
away from the whole farm and toward its components, fomented a drift away from farmers as
the primary clientele group. Specialized agronomists, an increasing number without farm
backgrounds, 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 -- those within the specialty group and the only persons with whom
there was easy communication.3 The most evident manifestation of this orientation is the
emphasis on journal articles rather than technology adoption as a criterion for professional
advancement. A more subtle result is that much research is designed to have a high probability
of statistically significant results, therefore more readily publishable. Practical significance takes
a back seat, as does research directly applicable to solving farmers' problems. Perhaps even
worse, this situation foments a proprietary attitude toward data, inhibiting collaborative efforts.
3George Axinn (1978) describes an institutional development cycle which
involves the degree of specialization. A certain amount of specialization can
create efficiency, but increases communication requirements. At some point an
institution reaches optimum development. Beyond this point, further
specialization generates increasingly severe communication problems until
communication, and therefore, collaboration is no longer possible. At this
point, the institution moves into a decline or negative development phase.
The pressure is particularly great on young faculty needing tenure and promotion who almost
inevitably take the least risky alternative to a sustainable job!
The dilemma facing agronomists in a world increasingly concerned with sustainable
agriculture is that they face a need to solve urgent, location-specific problems in an institutional
setting that places more emphasis on journal articles, and therefore the statistical significance of
obscure results, than on the importance of the results to the industry. If that were not bad
enough, it is becoming increasingly obvious that in sustainable agriculture it is necessary to work
collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams, in an institutional structure that rewards persons so
highly specialized they have difficulty communicating, sometimes even with persons in the same
discipline or department.
Agronomy's Role in Sustainable Agriculture
Agronomists are in the front line in the battle to create a more sustainable agriculture; an
agriculture that meets our needs, but is kinder to the environment and reduces the drainage on
non-renewable resources so we will not jeopardize the potential for future generations to satisfy
their needs. To accomplish this task will require some shifts in methods, habits and incentives
that have been built up over several decades.
Many agronomists will need to return to the farm. Because of the location-specificity of
farm environments and the need to formulate solutions more in tune with these environments, it
will be necessary to carry out first-hand assessments of farmers'conditions, problems, needs and
desires in order to understand their environments. These assessments should provide orientation
for research and extension programs so investment in them is more effective and efficient.
Because sustainable technology will be less able to dominate environments but will need to fit
into them, we will encounter more treatment by environment interaction in our experiments than
we are used to. This will make it critical for much more research to be carried out on farms and
under farm conditions than in the past. Simply moving experiment station conditions to a farm
will not suffice -- the purpose of on-farm research is to help us understand and work with real
farm environments and variability. Research must be designed to help us understand
environmental interaction and farm to farm variability so we can make recommendations for
specific environments. This approach will also have a positive impact on biodiversity, a priority
of many concerned with the loss of genetic variability. Research must also be designed so
farmers can help evaluate results, not just observe results in a demonstration. Well designed on-
farm research can serve demonstration purposes, but most demonstrations serve poorly for
Closer contact with farmers and on-farm research will require that agronomists work
more closely with persons from other disciplines including economics, anthropology and animal
science, as well as horticulture and pathology. Multidisciplinary on-farm research and extension
will require more than simply having joint projects. Failures of multidisciplinary efforts
frequently result because teams are organized more as committees that meet occasionally to
'coordinate' efforts but in which the crop work is left to the agronomists, the surveys to the
anthropologists and the desks to the economists. In these cases there is not a single identified
product but rather several products or reports purported to be concerned about the same problem.
Agronomists should work with anthropologists and economists to assure that these social scientists
have an adequate understanding of the crop components of the farming systems. They in turn
will help assure that agronomists understand the human elements and their impact on the crop
systems. Animal scientists need to interact with both the social and plant scientists to assure an
adequate understanding of the plant/animal interaction and of the interaction of these
components with the human element. Close multidisciplinary team collaboration will help assure
that relevant problems are researched and appropriate evaluation criteria are utilized in the
analysis and interpretation of data. Evaluation criteria will be more location specific than we
have become accustomed to with the use of kg ha-1 as a universal (although not necessarily
universally valid) criterion. A criterion such as kg of a product per hectare of forest destroyed
may have meaning in the rain forest, but not in south Florida where gallons of milk produced per
unit of phosphate leached would be more appropriate.
On-farm research has a number of benefits that cannot be achieved with fixed-location
station research. It can help us avoid the selection of technologies that perform well under
controlled conditions but fail or perform poorly under real farm conditions. More important, it
can help us avoid rejecting technology which might do well under farm conditions but does
poorly in the superior environments we create for research purposes on experiment stations. If
we know farmers are watching and evaluating our research, we are more apt to use evaluation
criteria that are important to them and not use only criteria that are important to us as
researchers. With the selection of a wide range of environments, it is often possible with
appropriate design and analysis, for example, Modified Stability Analysis (Hildebrand, 1984) to
reduce substantially the number of years of testing required before recommendations can be
made or plant material named and released. And during the testing, on-farm research can be
used for demonstration as well as evaluation purposes.
Administrative structures and professional evaluation procedures will need to be modified
to reflect new responsibilities and methods if agronomists are to accept this role in sustainable
agriculture. On-farm research does not preclude publishable results nor publishing. But because
the orientation for on-farm research is development and testing of technology for sustainable
agriculture, less time is available for the tasks associated with publishing. Multiple authorship
can also be a problem particularly in multidisciplinary teams and when priority for professional
advancement is placed with single author articles or there is concern with "senior authorship".
The most appropriate audiences for many articles are not necessarily those who read the mainline
professional journals. Choices may have to be made between readership and disciplinarity.
Travel budgets will have to be increased, but these costs can often be offset by the investments
farmers make in on-farm research. Farmers usually provide land, machines, labor and other
inputs for research that interests them. This can be a significant savings compared to station
research. Provision should be made to provide Principal Investigator status to multidisciplinary
teams instead of to individuals. This provides more assurance that participation in a team effort
will reap at least as much reward as individual effort.
In closing let me repeat a statement made by Congressman George E. Brown (1989, p.
103) at these meetings last year:
Sustainability is a useful concept for focusing agricultural research because it
captures a diverse set of concerns about agriculture as an economic system, an
ecological system, and a social system.
Agronomy's role in sustainable agriculture is pivotal. As problem solvers, agronomists
face a new and rigorous challenge. The world's human population is burgeoning. The
technologies developed over the past few decades, as successful as they were in feeding the
world, are consuming resources and contaminating the environment at rates which promise doom
for future generations. We must use all our scientific capacity and innovative genius to devise
new, more sustainable farming systems. We must continue to feed the world. But in doing so,
we must find ways to do so with less destruction to earth's biosphere which is home to us all.
Axinn, George H. 1978. New strategies for rural development. Rural Life Associates. East
Brown, George E., Jr. 1989. The critical challenges facing the structure and function of
agricultural research. J. Prod. Agric. 2:98-102.
Hildebrand, Peter E. 1984. Modified stability analysis of farmer-managed, on-farm trials.
Agron. J. 76:271-274.
Rogers, Everett M. 1962. Diffusion of innovations. The Free Press. New York.
World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). 1987. Our common future.
Oxford University Press. Oxford.