MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY
The Farming Systems Research Group at Michigan State University is drawn from
the departments of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural Engineering, Animal
Science, Crop and Soil Science, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Sociology,
Veterinary Medicine, and supported by the International Agriculture Institute of
M.S.U. and the U.S. Agency for International Development through a matching
strengthening grant under the Title XII program.
Farming Systems Group
Michigan State University
The Farming Systems Research Group at Michigan State University, supported
by Title XII Strengthening Grant Funds from the U.S. Agency for International
Development, and administered by the Institute of International Agriculture,
has included Dr. Jay Artis, Department of Sociology; Dr. Robert J. Deans,
Department of Animal Science; Dr. Merle Esmay (and Dr. Robert Wilkinson),
Department of Agricultural Engineering; Dr. Eric Crawford, Department of
Agricultural Economics; Dr. Russell Freed, Department of Crop and Soil
Sciences (also representing Horticulture); Dr. Al Pearson, Department of
Food Science and Human Nutrition; Dr. Tjaart Schillhorn van Veen, Department
of Veterinary Medicine; with Dr. George Axinn, International Studies and
Programs and Agricultural Economics, Chair, and Ms. Beverly Fleisher,
graduate research assistant.
AN M.S.U. APPROACH TO FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH
by Beverly Fleisher and George H. Axinn
Working Paper No. 10
THE MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH GROUP
WORKING PAPER SERIES
Farming Systems Research and Agricul-
Farming Systems Position Paper
Livestock Systems and Animal Health
Issues in Farming Systems Research --
an Agronomist's Perspective
Farming Systems Research As It Relates
To The Animal Sciences
Farming Systems Research Position Paper
The Farming Systems Research Approach in
the Agricultural Engineering Field
Issues in Farming Systems Research --
a Multidisciplinary Behavioral Science
Farming Systems Research and
An M.S.U. Approach to Farming Systems
The M.S.U. Farming Systems Research
A Working Bibliography on Farming
Systems Research August, 1981
Social Impact, Economic Change, and
Development -- with illustrations
Tjaart Schillhorn van Veen
Robert J. Deans
Merle L. Esmay
George H. Axinn
Robert H. Wilkinson
Beverly Fleisher and
George H. Axinn
George H. Axinn and
Nancy W. Axinn
AN M.S.U. APPROACH TO FARMING SYSTEMS RESEARCH
Beverly Fleisher and George H. Axinn
In September of 1980, a small group of faculty members at Michigan State
University, representing various disciplines, met to examine the renewed world-
wide interest in farming systems research. The group was provided with some
financial support from the Strengthening Grant to the University under Title
XII of the Foreign Assistance Act through the U.S. Agency for International
Development. Irving R. Wyeth, Director of the Institute of International
Agriculture at M.S.U., organized the team. Each individual and his respective
department agreed to give approximately one quarter time during the 1980-1981
academic year to review the current literature, invite visiting scholars,
prepare and exchange papers, and meet regularly for in-depth discussion. All
of us have learned much from the readings and seminars. Each of the partici-
pants has become aware of the others' perspectives on the world--on science,
research, on systems, and on farming. To this extent, the principal bene-
ficiaries of the first year were the participants themselves.
It is hoped that the benefits will extend further in the near future--to
the departments, to the institution, to others concerned with farming systems
research, and perhaps even to the farm families themselves. We have already
made plans to initiate field explorations and project activities in Africa,
Asia, and Latin America. These will build upon the conceptualizations which
have been identified, developed, and which continue to evolve. Simultaneously,
each of the involved scholars, and others at M.S.U., are continuing their
individual research. Some of that will be reflected in additional working
papers. The list at the beginning of this paper includes only those papers in
process by July of 1981.
This working paper attempts to capture the utility of the first year in
its most practical and applied dimensions. We present some of the definitions
developed by the M.S.U. Farming Systems Research Group. The statements reflect
agreements on terms and research strategies. These understandings are necessary
as each discipline develops different conceptions and methods. The group reviewed
over a hundred papers, books, articles, and fugitive materials produced by others
who are thinking and writing about farming systems research to achieve a consensus
on the meanings of terms. A matrix which evolved in response to the literature
review is presented here. A full bibliography of those materials, and others
which have been collected since, is available in this series as Working Paper
We have agreed to view a farm as any tract of land or water consisting of
one or more parcels devoted to the cultivation of plants and animals under the
management of a tenant or the owner. The raising of domestic or other animals
and the cultivation of aquatic life forms can also be included in this definition.
A system is seen to be a group of defined components (which may be further
subdivided) from the point of view of their recurrent interactions. These inter-
actions are assumed to be more frequent than those occurring between components
inside and outside the system. The interactions are open, but are sufficiently
inelastic such that a change in one interaction will have a "ripple" effect
through the whole system. Other characteristics of a system include inputs and
outputs, boundary determination and maintenance, and equilibrium tendencies
A farming system is a unit consisting of a human group and the resources
it manages in its environment, involving the direct production of plant and/or
animal products. Factors such as climate and weather, land tenure, land quality,
and socioeconomic variables are included. It is an ecosystem in which all of
the components--land, operators, hired labor, crops and cropping systems, animals,
and machinery--are considered together to produce goods to meet the requirements,
for food, clothing, and shelter; or, to exchange for goods to meet part or all
of those needs.
A farming system is always a part of a larger social, political, economic,
cultural, and political environment, which has impacts on everything that happens
within the farming system. Thus, it can be said that the next level of analysis
upward can be a rural village, a compound, or some physical unit of space which
includes several farming systems.
Farming systems research (FSR), in its broadest sense, involves the applica-
tion of the systems perspective to the study of a farm. The purposes of such
research could vary from a broad understanding of system functions to under-
standing a narrow subset of particular interactions. Thus, it encompasses
any research concerned with a farming subsystem or the whole farm system. In
both instances, the primary goal is well within the traditional scientific
purposes of explanation and prediction. However, FSR is thought to have special
utility in the more applied area of increasing food production. On the one hand,
it is viewed as a diagnostic device that can quickly locate the "system"
constraints on food production; on the other hand, it is viewed as a method
for speeding up the development and diffusion of "system alterations" to limit
What Others Are Doing
A review of the literature of FSR suggests three fundamentally different
types of research approaches. One type could be characterized as baseline
studies, in which selected farms are studied in great detail over a period of
time in order to understand the fundamental mechanisms and interactions
operating within the system and between the system and the outside world.
A second type can be thought of as traditional research station work, with
added attention to how the results will be applicable to farmers. A third
type is one which could be characterized as being interventionist, where a
farming system is examined with the purpose of discovering where improvements
can be made and solutions to diagnosed problems are developed. It is this
latter type of research that will be the major focus of this paper.*
A system which classifies programs on the basis of scope and purpose can
be of use in illustrating where the majority of effort is currently concentrated.
Such a classification may also be misleading because of the iterative nature of
farming systems research and the tendency for policy statements regarding
purpose not to reflect accurately on current activity. The broadest goal of
FSR is to better understand the problems and needs of the farmer and deliver
technology to meet those needs. However, the international, national, and
regional centers at the forefront of farming systems research are constrained
by their mandates, resources, and the expertise and expectations of staff
The constraints have resulted in farming systems research focusing on
agricultural production, or more specifically, crop production. Other aspects
of farming, such as the nutrition of animals, receive peripheral attention as
a result of this orientation.
*Sociologists and anthropologists have done extensive research on farms and
rural systems. This work is often not included within the current rubric of
farming systems research. Papers, books, and miscellaneous materials studied
by the group are listed in a bibliography, which is Working Paper No. 12 in
A narrower, but possibly more realistic view of farming systems research,
sees it to be a method of finding the area of overlap between the farmer's
and the research stations' production goals. This should not be surprising
given the commodity-specific nature of most of the agricultural research
systems and that farming systems research developed in response to low levels
of acceptance of much of the research work conducted earlier.
Specific methods used to conduct farming systems research vary from
program to program; however, most follow the same general series of steps from
diagnostic surveys through the dissemination of results. These programs can
be differentiated by the broadness of their approach, or how many factors they
consider at each step. The matrix in Figure I places the five steps and four
levels of scope on opposing axes.
The five steps common to most "interventionist" farming systems research
are: description and diagnosis; development of prototype solutions; adaption
of solutions to specific situations; farmer testing of adapted technologies,
and; dissemination of adapted and approved technologies. The first step --
description and diagnosis -- involves specification of the recommendation domain,
background information collection, pre-surveys, formal surveys and interpre-
tation of the results. "Development of prototype solutions" may be done on or
off the experiment station or may involve selecting from among a set of existing
technologies the ones which are most adaptable to the recommendation domain.
This development of prototype solutions could alternatively be classified as
traditional International Agriculture Research Center research, basic research,
or "upstream" farming systems research.
"Adaption of solutions to specific situations" acts as a bridge between
the development of prototype solutions and farmer testing. This may involve,
among other things, levels testing on a farmer's field or the modification of
some attributes of an existing technology to make it more appropriate to the
needs and constraints facing the target group. "Farmers' testing of adapted
technology" tests the previous three steps. While previous farmers' field
testing or levels testing was conducted with a high degree of control by the
researchers from the experiment station, farmer testing involves minimal super-
vision beyond initial instruction on the use of the new technology. The dissemi-
nation of adapted and approved technologies has traditionally been seen as the
task of extension agents. However, many research centers have initiated efforts
to involve researchers in this phase as well as integrating extension personnel
into previous ones.
The matrix in Figure I shows four levels of scope: system component; partial
system; total farm system; and rural system. We will consider a system component
to be a single commodity, although it can be disaggregated into smaller components.
Examples of research at the system component level are studies of pests on wheat
or development of new varieties of rice. What distinguishes system component
research from partial system research is that the former considers the commodity
in isolation from the rest of the farming system. Research at the partial sys-
tem level looks at two or more of the system components and their interaction.
An example of partial system research would be multiple cropping research or
an examination of the effect of a new crop variety on farm labor demand.
Total farm system research involves all of the components of the farming
system and their interactions. The best examples of this type of research are
baseline studies which examine farming systems over time. Although many
diagnostic procedures used by centers conducting "interventionist" FSR tend towards
a total farm system approach, their lack of coverage of the animal components of
the system tends to preclude their attainment of this scope.
SPECIFIC SITUAT IONS
DESCRIPT --- ION
Research at the rural system level can take two forms. One is a considera-
tion of all of the components of the farming system as well as their interaction
with each other and with other farming systems and institutions in the rural
sector. Another form looks at the farming system as the lowest level of dis-
aggregation and considers the interaction of the systems and rural institutions.
The M.S.U. "Difference"
The M.S.U. Farming Systems Research Group has developed a conceptual framework
to analyze farming systems from a perspective which attempts to consider the most
critical variables in understanding such systems. The focus starts with the
family farm eco-system itself, and addresses the major components within it.
For certain problems, it is appropriate to divide these internal components into
sub-components for further analysis. In some situations it is appropriate to
analyze the linkages between the farming system and the components of its near
environment. In other cases, it is also appropriate to analyze the linkages
between the farming system and components of the larger social-economic-political-
agro-climatic system of which it is a part.
General Strategy and Style
The general strategy we propose starts by analyzing the family farming
system from the perspective of the values and the goals of the members of that
family. All identifiable factors which impinge on the farming system can then
be considered as possibilities for further analysis. The question of what to
study depends on the proportion of the variance which is accounted for by each
potential factor. Any factor -- completely outside the farming system, in its
near environment, or within one of the subsystems within the farm -- may be studied
if it impinges upon the farming system in a significant way.
Early steps may include a survey of the soils, hydrology, and climate.
Such agro-ecological mapping is designed to define the parameters which are
needed to identify possible cropping and livestock patterns. Then, such pro-
duction may be further investigated. In each case, the particular values and
uses attached to each type of plant or animal by the farming family are
We view the farming system as a decision environment. Available courses
of action, possible outcomes with associated evaluations of costs and values,
and the probabilities of choice are only some of the many variables which can
be studied. In addition to agronomic, horticultural, animal husbandry, and
agricultural economic and engineering concerns, we also include an analysis of
the distribution of "social power" within the system. This examines the effects
of authority, class, and status on the operation of the farming system, parti-
cularly in relation to family, community, and state organizations.
This approach to farming systems enables the investigator to ask questions
dealing with the relationship between inputs and outputs, mechanisms of equili-
brium maintenance and restoration, boundary maintenance and intersystem relation-
ships, and relationships between subsystems and the larger system. This approach
also enables consideration of the extent of differentiation in various farming
systems and the extent to which the farming systems are subsistence systems as
opposed to market-oriented systems. The general strategy and style permits one
to analyze the components of the farming system, the critical components of the
near environment, and the linkages to the larger social system.
Critical Components of a Farming System and its Near Environment
Among the components of the farming system are:
1. The Human Component
-- numbers of people by age and sex
-- health, length of life, health care, sanitation
-- diet, nutrition, food storage, food preparation, water
-- learning, education, research
-- shelter, clothing, travel, transportation
2. The Plant Component
-- cereal grains, fruits, vegetables, forages, etc.
-- rotation and cultivation patterns
-- plant protection
-- inputs, outputs, recycling, marketing and supply access
-- climate and weather
3. The Animal Component
-- types and classes of livestock
-- patterns of production and reproduction
-- feeds, feeding, and animal nutrition
processing, storage, marketing, consumption
4. Resource inventories the identification of stocks of resources
held by the household including land, buildings and machinery,
working capital, family labor, and crop and livestock holdings.
5. Resource utilization what are the flows of resources through
the farm system? Such flows include labor use, cash flow,
machinery use, materials and energy flows, and the flows of goods
and services among components within the farm household system.
6. Detailed descriptions of farm production operations and enterprises.
7. Non-agricultural activities, sometimes referred to as "household
production" including food preparation and preservation, crafts,
trading, and'other productive activities.
8. Attitudes and operating procedures
-- household goals, preferences, and standard strategies and
methods of operations procedure.
9o The nature of land availability, including the size and value, the
fertility, the topography, access to water and other characteristics.
10. Additional characteristics such as the management capability of the
farming family, any capital savings which the family may have, know-
ledge and skills involved in the operation of management in the
family system, etc.
Critical Components in the Near Environment
1. Topography, soils, climate, water resources, natural flora and fauna.
2. Capital accumulation and dispersing organizations, marketing organ-
izations, tool operating organizations.
3. Off-farm employment and employment opportunities.
4. Community activities.
5. Marketing relationships the timing and characteristics of items
purchased and sold.
6. Savings and investment behavior.
7. Operating costs associated with production and marketing.
8. Sale prices for farm output and purchases prices of farm inputs.
9. Wage rates for labor.
10. How do markets for resources function -- inputs and outputs, land
and labor, credit, etc.
11. Climate and weather -- irradiation, evapotranspiration, rainfall, etc.
12. Markets including access to storage and processing, transportation,
13. Supply including access to seeds, feeds, fertilizers, etc.
Linkages to the Larger Social System
1. The development of food processing industries within the country.
2. Other industrial development and industrial employment possibilities.
3o Government price policies relating to production of farming system
outputs and import or manufacture of farming system inputs.
4. Alternative investment opportunities for savings or other capital.
5. Out migration opportunities.
6. Formal education opportunities.
7. Patterns of social and political power which impinge upon the farming