ROLE, POTENTIAL, AND PROBLEMS OF FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH
AND EXTENSION: DEVELOPING COUNTRIES vs. UNITED STATES
Peter E. Hildebrand
Prepared for presentation at the Farming Systems Research Symposium
"Small Farms in a Changing World: Prospects for the Eighties"
Kansas State University, November 11-13, 1981
Food and Resource Economics Department
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida
ROLE, POTENTIAL, AND PROBLEMS OF FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH
AND EXTENSION: DEVELOPING COUNTRIES vs. UNITED STATES
Peter E. Hildebrand1
In the Farming Systems approach it is not possible to separate
research from extension; hence, extension has been added to the original
title of this paper. The two components of the Farming Systems approach
cannot be separated for the following reasons:
1) Farming Systems Research is applied research,
2) without an intimate extension connection, applied research is
3) in the Farming Systems approach with heavy emphasis in on-farm
research, research is extension and extension is research.
There are those who may argue that upstream FSR (Gilbert, et al. 1980)
is exempt from this connection. But this implies a separation of up-
stream from downstream research. Contrary to what the names imply,
upstream FSR flows from downstream FSR, receives its orientation from it
and supports it. Hence, it is really part of the same thing.
THE ROLE OF FSR/E
The most productive role of FSR/E is to help improve the agricul-
tural well-being of small-scale family farmers as they, themselves
define the concept of well-being. Agricultural well-being is distinct
from health, nutrition or educational well-being, as examples. The bias
is intentional and probably will not create much animosity from those in
this audience or from others who might read these words. Those who are
interested in FSR/E are predominately interested in agriculture.
Nutrition, health and education are not excluded from our interests, but
we are not, predominantly nutritionists, medical doctors nor educators.
1Professor, Food and Resource Economics Department and
Coordinator, Farming Systems Program, IFAS, University of Floriday
The small-scale family farm provides the focus for FSR/E, not
because the approach should be restricted to this type of farm, but
because comparative advantage is here rather than with large scale,
commercial farms. The latter respond to conventional research and
extension -- they are business oriented, they have full-time managers,
and they have the political and economic status to make their needs
known to the research/extension establishment. Furthermore, research
stations much more closely resemble large-scale, commercial than small-
scale, family farms. It is reasonable that technology generated under
experiment station conditions is more appropriate to large-scale
Although much research is purported to be scale neutral (see, for
example, Carter, et al. 1981), a large proportion is not applicable to
the conditions found on small-scale, family farms. An example is a corn
cultivar developed and selected under irrigation with high levels of
fertility, protected by pesticides and harvested at physiological matu-
rity to be machine dried. These conditions are frequently found on
large-scale, commercial farms and it is true the cultivar will perform
equally well in a large field as in a small field if all these condi-
tions are met on both fields. However, on most small farms, corn
suffers from no irrigation, little fertilization, uncontrolled insect
and disease damage, competition from weeds, from having been planted at
the wrong time and from having to stand in the field subject to bird,
insect and disease attacks until there is time to harvest. In other
words, the small farm differs from the large farm in more than size
Conventional research fails to consider the importance of many of
these constraints faced by small family farmers. This is where the
Farming Systems approach has made an impact.
Although the family farm is, and must be, a business, it is first a
home, a source of food, and a way of life. Family farm managers (more
usually, husband and wife co-managers) not only are frequently part-time
managers, but also must be concerned with much more than the biological
and economic aspects of the farm as an entity. The sanctity of the farm
as a home makes the family farm manager much more risk averse, particul-
arly with respect to credit, than the manager of a strictly commercial
operation. A source of off-farm income to assure cash-flow may be a
necessity. Being a part-time manager means that decisions are not al-
ways made and actions taken expeditiously. Being small means that
sources of labor, markets and information are restricted. Requirements
of the manager's and operator's time for family affairs means that low-
management, flexible enterprises are more attractive than high-level
technology with rigid time schedules. We all "know" these things, but
too often we ignore them.
Working in the Farming Systems approach with a multidisciplinary
team makes it less comfortable and less possible to ignore aspects of
the family farm which are not directly related to our own disciplines.
Left to their own devices, an entomologist will see insects as the main
problem on a small farm, a plant breeder, a disease resistant variety as
the major need, and an economist, a more optimum allocation of inputs as
the major solution. Get them together with an anthropologist and force
them to look for the single most pressing problem and chances are it
will be completely different from any of the individual conclusions.
The Farming Systems approach, with its use of multidisciplinary
teams, receiving their orientation from a first-hand understanding of
the clients' situations and searching for solutions under these same
conditions, is more appropriate for working with small-scale, family
farms than the conventional research/extension establishment that labors
in disciplinary isolation, with an orientation dictated by the disci-
pline and whose methodology requires strict control to meet disciplinary
requirements for publication.
The primary role of an FSR/E program, then, is to help small-scale
family farmers search for solutions to their problems. Within this
scope there are two levels of operation: 1) on-farm solutions that take
policy and infrastructure as constraints, fixed in the short-run, and 2)
solutions involving changes in policy and infrastructure. The first
level involves the FSR/E practitioner directly, in a search for tech-
nology, via technology generation, or adaptation and validation of
existing technology. Later he promotes the technology found to be
acceptable to the clients. The second level is indirect. The FSR/E
practitioner can serve as an important source of information and orien-
tation for national agricultural policy decision makers and can inform
them of the need for and potential effect of certain classes of
infrastructure (Hildebrand, 1980). It is the direct application of the
Farming Systems approach (on-farm solutions that take policy and infra-
structure as fixed) that will be addressed in the remainder of this
POTENTIAL OF FSR/E
What is the potential of the Farming Systems approach for ac-
complishing its role as a purveyor of solutions to the problems of
small-scale, family farms which operate in an environment that
encourages large-scale, commercial and specialized farm firms and dis-
courages small-scale operations? If compared to conventional research
and extension and measured in terms of technology adopted by small-
scale, family farmers, it will have to be found both cost and time
efficient. Unfortunately, it will be very difficult to measure these
criteria, because 1) few FSR/E programs have been in existence suf-
ficiently long to be able to detect changes in technology adoption, and
2) even where changes can be detected, there is no adequate control
group generally available against which to measure the difference
between an FSR/E program and conventional research and extension.
The FSR/E program at the Institute of Agricultural Science and
Technology (ICTA), in Guatemala, has been working in some areas of the
country since 1974 and some progress in technology adoption by small-
scale, family farmers is measurable (Hildebrand, 1979). However, no
control area is available. ICTA is the only research institute in the
country charged specifically with technology generation (National
University also conducts research, but it is largely academic in
nature), so where ICTA is not active, virtually no research is
operative. On the other hand, ICTA was created because the conven-
tional research and extension entities existing at the time were not
affecting small-scale, family farmers who produce the majority of the
basic grains in the country (Waugh, 1975). One should be able to con-
clude that if progress is now being made, the FSR/E approach developed
and practiced by ICTA must be at least partly responsible.
The potential for reaching small-scale, family farmers exists
because the FSR/E approach works on more holistic solutions (not in the
sense of complete technological packages, but in the sense that the
solutions take into consideration all the conditions on the farm), and
therefore solutions that are more acceptable to the farmers for whom
they were designed. In turn, because the solutions are acceptable,
extension is easier because extensionists are not forced into the role
of having to "sell" something that the client really does not want or
cannot use very well.
Most important in cost and time efficiency, the FSR/E approach
tends to develop technology beginning at the farmers' present level and
not at some theoretical level which they "ought to be able to
achieve". It may take years before sufficient modifications have been
made in high level or complete package technology that farmers are
willing to "give it a try". And if farmers are not willing to experi-
ment with it, the new technology will certainly not be adopted. In its
initial efforts, the Caqueza Project in Colombia, amply recorded by
Zandstra, et al. 1979, is an example of this approach. Zandstra learned
by this experience and was able to significantly improve his methods in
later years at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI.
In its earliest years, ICTA also utilized complete technological
packages, but soon learned that small-scale, family farmers reject such
complicated changes (Hildebrand, 1979). As the number of components in
the package was decreased from 8 to 2, acceptability and adoption in-
creased significantly. Other examples could be cited to show that small
farmers are much more apt to experiment with and adopt simple changes
than complex ones.
In the life of most agricultural development projects, with evalua-
tions or change of personnel every two years, a wait of 5 or more years
to see results is expecting too much. Conventional research and
extension projects may well suffer from this delay before seeing any
effect if adoption by small-scale, family farmers is a criterion. Most
probably, the project will be terminated before that time for lack of
measurable results. The potential of the FSR/E approach is to shorten
the time between project initiation and the utilization of the
technology by small-scale, family farmers.
PROBLEMS WITH FSR/E
There are four primary problem areas associated with an FSR/E
program: 1) professional or disciplinary, 2) institutional or adminis-
trative, 3) technological, and 4) training. Each area presents unique
kinds of problems, but none are insurmountable if an institution is
serious in its desire to establish a program.
Professional or Disciplinary
Disciplinary traditionalism can be more of a barrier to the
adoption of technology by small-scale, family farmers than is the much
maligned traditionalism of small farmers, themselves (Hildebrand,
1981). Disciplinary tradition affects orientation of research topics,
research methodology and professional evaluation of research
personnel. None of the above are immediately amenable to the kind of
research required in an FSR/E program where orientation comes from an
intimate knowledge of the farmers' situation; methodology suffers from a
lack of precision and thoroughness plus a need for urgency and practi-
cality; and evaluation for promotion, tenure and/or recognition is
hampered by a shortage of books, bulletins or articles in professional
journals which have not been written because the FSR/E practitioner
spends too much time in the field.
The tradition of academic freedom and individualism in many profes-
sions hinders participation in team efforts. Persons tend to think,
"What interests me?", instead of, "What can I do to improve the product
of the team?". An overriding concern with self-interest impairs contri-
bution to a team and has a negative effect on team effort. Self-
ional evaluation, but it can as often be triggered by the comfort of
working without pressure within the confines of one's own discipline.
Institution or Administrative
A number of institutional or administrative problems must be over-
come for an FSR/E program to be effective. Organizational flexibility
(Shaner, et al. 1981) is a necessary condition. In the first place,
research and extension are separate entities or separated parts of a
common entity in most situations. Many times they do not work well to-
gether and petty jealousies are not uncommon. In countries where both
groups exist, it is probably optimum for some from each to come together
to form an FSR/E team, but this may also be the most difficult to
achieve. More probably one group will initiate FSR/E efforts, to be
joined later by the other. In the Guatemalan case, ICTA, the research
group, initiated FSR/E efforts and little by little extension is joining
in. Another alternative is for a new group to initiate FSR/E efforts.
At the University of Florida, new personnel with joint
research/extension appointments are gradually pulling both research and
extension personnel into the FSR/E program in the northern part of the
Personnel appointments can be a problem in departmentalized organ-
izations because of the multidisciplinary nature of FSR/E. At the
University of Florida, it took a year to formulate hiring procedures
when a specific departmental affiliation is not predetermined. The
procedure is now operative. To alleviate problems with personnel
evaluation, FSR/E personnel at Florida have joint appointments heavier
in extension than research, so there is less pressure on professional
publication and more on farmer contact and technology adoption.
Logistical support can present special problems both because of the
multi-departmental nature of an FSR/E the program and because much of
its work is located on farms and not on experiment stations.
Flexibility in making purchases and sales must be created because
farmers will not understand bureaucratic delays in planting or
harvesting crops. Transportation is always a difficult item to obtain,
but must be available to an FSR/E team. Fortunately, the additional
expenditures in transportation are offset by reduced expenditures on
Technical problems in an FSR/E program exist because of the
location of most trials on farms and in uncontrolled conditions.
Experimental design and the analysis and evaluation of results of farm
trials are different than for experiments on stations. A regional
response with a high level of variance or experimental error is of more
value than a single site response with great precision. Intuition and
lay (farmers') opinion become as important as statistical analysis. New
methods have been required and are being developed (see, for example:
Zandstra, 1979 and CIMMYT, 1980).
A final problem is the training of FSR/E teams. All individuals on
the team must be instilled with multidisciplinary tolerance. That is,
they must have some knowledge of the fields of the other persons on the
team, be able to contribute to the other fields and accept contributions
from those in other fields. Agronomists must know how to interview
farmers and anthropologists must understand how to set up, plant,
harvest and analyze data from field trials. They should be willing to
work with each other in these tasks when needed for effective team
Training programs do exist. ICTA, in Guatemala, has an effective
national level training program but it is almost exclusively for agrono-
mists (ICTA, 1978). CIMMYT (the International Corn and Wheat Center in
Mexico) has an excellent multidisciplinary training course, one example
of which is underway in Venzuela at the present time. At CIP (The
International Potato Center in Lima, Peru) social scientists train
agricultural researchers in "investigative and analytic techniques
useful for linking agricultural research more closely to farmer needs
and farm-level conditions" (Werge, 1978). Cornell University, CIMMYT
and The Rockefeller Foundation experimented with a successful
multidisciplinary training program at the Ph.D level (Contreras, et al.
1977), but to my knowledge, it has not been repeated. The IRRI Cropping
Systems Network in Asia has been responsible for the training of many
FSR/E practitioners. The University of Florida has initiated an FSR/E
training program with both degree and non-degree status.
Training multidisciplinary teams does not imply making generalists
of the members. On the contrary, a multidisciplinary team is much more
effective if each is well trained in his own field. The agronomist must
be a good agronomist and the anthropologist, a good anthropologist. But
they must be stretched out of the narrow confines that traditional
training reinforces. The University of Florida does not offer a degree
in "Farming Systems". Rather, it offers a "Farming Systems Minor" for
any agriculturally related master's or Ph.D. degree. All graduate
advisors, however, are not willing to let their students take a multi-
disciplinary minor, just as some students resist taking courses out of
their major field. The Farming Systems approach, obviously, is not for
them. But there is still a big demand from students who feel the need
to have some demonstrated practical application of their otherwise
DEVELOPING COUNTRIES versus THE UNITED STATES
The role, potential and problems of FSR/E in the United States are
very similar to what they are in developing countries. Experience in
establishing FSR/E programs in different developing countries has shown
that each country and each institution requires a somewhat different
approach and presents distinct challenges. However, the situation faced
by small-scale, family farmers is surprisingly similar in most countries
including the United States. Compared with Guatemala, north Florida has
a limited number of small farmers, but they have little voice in public
affairs in either location. In north Florida, the small-scale, family
farmers have limited access to some markets, they predominately utilize
family labor, a significant part of their subsistence comes from the
farm, many have little contact with the extension service, intercropping
farm, many have little contact with the extension service, intercropping
is still practiced by some, the farms are highly diversified and the
farmers very conservative regarding new practices and the utilization of
credit. The same is true of small farmers the world over.
The greatest difference, and the tremendous advantage which the
U.S. offers an FSR/E program is the availability of professional
expertise. The College of Agriculture in a U.S. Land Grant university
has a formidable array of expertise, laboratories and equipment that can
help solve the problems of small-scale, family farmers. Except,
perhaps, for a limited and fortunate few, entire developing countries
cannot match this potential. However, in the U.S. most of this
potential is fully employed in tasks other than those important to the
small farmer directly. So it is not necessarily available to service
the needs of a domestic FSR/E program any more than it is all available
to service the international programs of the U.S. universities in
In summary, after 15 years of working to create multidisciplinary
programs in an array of institutions in developing countries, the author
anticipated relative ease in establishing an FSR/E program in a U.S.
Land Grant university. Alas, the illusion was soon shattered.
Virtually all the same kinds of problems existed as had been encountered
in all the other countries. Nevertheless, after a delicate conception
and a stormy gestation, the baby has been born and is making its pres-
ence felt. It still falls from its makeshift crib from time to time and
occasionally gets its knuckles rapped, but it does have five full-time
positions, an adequate budget, an appropriate clientele, and finally,
general peer support. In retrospect, there is not that much difference
in the role, potential and problems of an FSR/E program in the United
States and in developing countries.
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