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 Research 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.
Farming Systems Research and
by Robert H. Wilkinson
Working Paper No. 9
Farming Systems Research Group WORKING PAPERS
The papers in this series were prepared during the 1980 1981
academic year by members of the Michigan State University Farming Systems
Research Group. Papers one through nine were prepared by individual
members of the group, after much discussion, and were reviewed by members
of the group prior to final revision by the authors. However, each of
the papers represents the author's personal perspectives on Farming
Systems Research. Each paper is different from the others. All papers
are an attempt to answer the following questions:
From the perspective of my discipline what is Farming Systems
What research has been done in my discipline which relates directly
to Farming Systems Research?
What opportunities are there for further research from the perspective
of my discipline?
What assistance would scholars from my discipline need from other
disciplines in order to carry out Farming Systems Research?
Each individual responded to these questions in his own way. Paper
number ten is an attempt to summarize the perspectives of the various
disciplines represented, identifying commonalities and differences. Paper
eleven sets forth the recommendations of the group for further work in
this field at Michigan State University.
George H. Axinn, Chair
Farming Systems Research Group
and Professor, Agricultural Economics
and Assistant Dean, International Studies
WORKING PAPER #9
Farming Systems Research and Agricultural Engineering
by Robert H. Wilkinson*
As each of us operates from different experiences and biases, even common
words and expressions will convey a variety of meanings and concepts to differ-
ent individuals. In an attempt to have the reader better understand my per-
spective about Farming Systems Research, it seems beneficial to clarify my use
of the fundamental terms associated with the concept of Farming Systems Research,
The Overall Objective--or--the'Reason For F.S.R.
The situation that confronts the world today with regard to population,
resources and food availability is one of grave concern. Today there are mil-
lions of people around the world who are starving or who are not adequately
fed. As the population of the world continues to increase and compete for food
and resources, this situation will become more severe unless there is a marked
increase in the available world food supply.
Therefore, I argue that the fundamental and primary objective of F.S.R.
is (or should be) to increase (world) food availability and agricultural pro-
duction and to develop or use resources in a manner that will promote a "better"
standard of living, (as this concept is generally understood) for all mankind.
It is recognized that there will be unusual situations where increased
production may not be in the best short run interest of a Darticular farm group or
country. Likewise, certain individuals or farmers may not accept what is gener-
ally conceived as "best" and will chose an alternative. F.S.R. should have the
*Associate Professor of Agricultural Engineering, Michigan State University
flexibility and understanding to accommodate these exceptional situations with
their modified goals. But, still in the main, the basic thrust of F.S.R. should
remain as expressed above--to improve the life support conditions of the world.
When progress is made by F.S.R. towards this expressed goal, a number of
spin off results may be expected: 1. improved food availability at all levels,
local as well as commercial, will reduce tensions and strife in the struggle
for survival (reductions of hunger and malnutrition); 2. people will be more
content with their conditions for living; and 3. social and political unrest
will be less volatile.
If progress is made in any of these areas as a result of F.S.R., then the
concept of "improving basic life support conditions" can be considered correct
and F.S.R. is on the right track.
Although the title is simple and the words familiar, for the non-initiated
reader, not all that familiar with the concepts and associated jargon, a straight-
forward explanation of some of the common terminology may help minimize some of
the problems of semantics.
The first image that the term "Farming" probably conveys to most persons
is one of crop production, i.e. something that is grown on the land. Although
this is not incorrect, it is not necessarily complete. A more accurate concept
of farming must also include livestock enterprises. As livestock farms become
large, the terms ranch and ranching usually are preferred to farming. One might
argue that the term "agricultural" systems would be a more flexible terminology,
including all types and sizes of farms. This suggestion is countered by the
1. The size of farm units that F.S.R. will be addressing are not usually
ranch size, but fall in the lower end of the size spectrum--thus "farm-
ing" is an accurate term.
2. The term "agricultural" systems may open a larger can of worms, and
suggest areas associated with agriculture such as: support, materials,
supply, processing. Although these areas are related to the production
system, (farming) they are not in the main target area of production
that concerns F.S.R.
3. Once terms are defined, understood and accepted by those people using
them to communicate, the terminology selected is rather unimportant.
However, the less ambiguous the terminology is that is selected for
use, the better will be the communication.
Systems--What Does This Mean.
Basically a "system" is a group of components (two or more) having regular
interaction or working together towards a common objective. The system may be
any size or degree of complexity from the extremely simple to the complex. A
pencil sharpener is an example of a simple mechanical system; the solar system
or the telephone system are examples of large complex systems.
In the context of farming, systems may also cover a wide range of size
and complexity. Simple systems may be subsets of a larger system. Examples
of simple farming systems are the method used to punch a hole and plant a seed
(the planting system) or the fork and cart used to move manure from the shed
to the field (the waste handling system). A complex production system is
illustrated by the development of hybred seed, distribution to the farmer,
tillage, fertilizer and pesticide application, planting, cultivation, harvest
cleaning and drying, storage, marketing and export. Obviously, these components
are subset systems of the larger system and interact together and have a direct
effect upon each other. A change in one will have reprecussions on another in
much the way that squeezing a filled balloon at one point will cause an outcrop-
ping someplace else.
Research--(Can it Really be Done on the Farm?)
Although the term research is commonplace in our everyday language, there
are wide variations in its meaning to different persons. The fundamental idea
described by the word "re-search" is to "search again" or, to study a situation
or phenomena with sufficient depth or intensity that a reliable conclusion can
The confusion or controversy associated with the term research stems pri-
marily from the level or sophistication of the investigation being undertaken.
On one side are those scientists and researchers who argue that to be classed
as research an investigation must be tightly controlled, addressed to the study
of facts and basic knowledge, and may be an end in itself. A contrasting posi-
tion is taken by those who hold that any carefully done study that leads to a
reliable conclusion can be called research.
In engineering these differences are recognized and described as:
1. Basic (or pure) research, typically a scientific or laboratory study
where knowledge is sought for its own sake.
2. Applied research, the use or application of basic knowledge in situa-
tions that will directly benefit mankind.
The response to the question "can research really be done on the farm?"
obviously depends on semantics or what definition one accepts for research.
From an engineering perspective, research can and most certainly is done on
the farm. Although basic research is unlikely to be done there, it is not
impossible. On the other hand, applied research is done routinely, and is
one of the strengths of the agricultural college. A strong case may be made
that agricultural research done off-the-farm may be less valid than research
done on-the-farm in much the same way that something can be "precise" but not
necessarily "accurate". Off-farm (laboratory) research may be precise, but
the real world situation of on-farm research makes these results "accurate"
even though they may be less precise.
The Farming System--Definition.
A farming system consists of all the components, material resources and
personnel which interact and affect the decisions and activities of a given
operational unit that results in agricultural production (crops and livestock).
The harvesting, drying and processing of the product are also directly
related to the system that produces them. The farm system is composed of many
subset systems that interact and affect the unit. Although the farm unit (or
system) itself may be part of a larger system, it is the relationship within
that particular system itself that is of primary concern. Modifying one part
of a system directly affects the other parts of the system with which it inter-
acts. How the other parts of the system function after the modification and
the ability of the total system to operate and accomplish its purpose is a vital
The term "farming system" can be correctly applied to the full spectrum
of size and type of farms from the smallest and most simple family units
involved in producing some agricultural commodity to the most complex of
agricultural production organizations. Thus, it is important to know how the
term is being used and to what it refers.
Farming Systems Research--What is it?
F.S.R. is a systematic study of a farm system (agricultural production
unit) designed to reveal the interaction and effects upon the system components,
when modifications are made on part or parts of that system.
Modifications imply changes that are intended to "improve" the farm system.
Let the reader understand that improved may be any objective that the farmer
feels is in his best interest, i.e. higher production (or lower production),
less weather hazard, reduced labor, higher efficiency, etc.
As most farming systems are complex and involve a wide variety of inter-
acting components, expertise in a number of key areas or disciplines is needed
to predict, understand and evaluate cause and effect of changes that may occur
when the system is modified. If and when a system is so limited that only one
discipline is all that is involved in the "changes" in the system, counsel or
evaluation from other disciplines probably would not be necessary. An example
might be the replacing of one machine by a newer improved model that does basi-
cally the same job but functions with greater ease and safety.
In the general case of farming systems, a few or many distinct disciplines
may be involved and collaboration by all may be necessary to effectively evalu-
ate the system. An example of this complexity might be the introduction of a
new crop. Any number of effects may occur such as: changes in the product and
the total yield; different soil and fertilizer requirements; changes in mechani-
zation; variation in water needs and labor requirements; greater or lesser
insect or disease susceptibility; a difference in animal acceptance of the pro-
duct; market difference and sociological changes. Such a wide spectrum of
involved disciplines and the related changes, would require an interdisciplinary
team to effectively analyze the system and the changes in its ability to
How F.S.R. Relates to Problem Solving in Agricultural Engineering.
Probably agricultural engineering has been taken-to-task as much as any
discipline for the unwise and inappropriate introduction of mechanization and
technology into developing countries. Whether these ill conceived "mechaniza-
tion programs" were the work of agricultural engineers or someone else is not
really important. The important thing is that it is now rather clearly recog-
nized that simply transplanting a known technology from one culture to another
without due consideration as to how it will integrate into that different
culture, is risky--and usually leads to problems. The literature is full of
reports about well-intended mechanization programs that failed for a number
of reasons such as: advisors selected implements that were incompatible with
the soil type; parts and support systems for tractors and tools were not avail-
able; operators were not trained; people had cultural biases against the tech-
nology; credit and financing were not available; people were put out of work
by machines and became a social unemployment problem, etc.
As mentioned previously, agricultural engineering technology (primarily
mechanization) is usually introduced to reduce labor requirements and/or to
increase productivity. Very little can usually be done about the soil types,
climatic conditions, field elevation (location), etc. The things that can be
altered that will effect production are generally related to the management of
the crop, i.e. crop selection, fertilizer, mechanization, water control, harvest-
ing and storage losses, etc. When an effort to improve a system is contemplated,
a careful diagnostic study will reduce the chance for a blunder or unexpected
result that would jeopardize the total project. This diagnostic study should
involve an interdisciplinary team that can relate to all the major parts of
the system being considered. When the interactions of the crucial areas have
been considered and provision made to cope with potential difficult points,
a suitable research team may be designated. This research team may be con-
siderably smaller in size than the diagnostic team, containing only those
researchers whose expertise is needed as shown by the diagnostic study. This
is basically the strategy used in many diagnostic--corrective efforts that we
see used in everyday life.
As an illustration, consider the "hardware" example of a tractor that
needs repair and is brought into the repair shop by the farmer. The farmer
explains the problem to the repairman as the farmer perceives it. He may or
may not have diagnosed the problem correctly. (This is analogous to the far-
mers in a farming system giving a prediagnostic description of what they per-
ceive as the main problems) with their system). The repairman will then use
a wide variety of special diagnostic equipment to check the tractor and deter-
mine what part or parts actually need repair. The engine is checked with an
engine analyzer to show the condition of the carburation and ignition system,
a compression tester is used to reveal valve and ring conditions, a dynamometer
is used to reveal problems with the clutch and power train, etc. (This is
analogous to the diagnostic study made by the interdisciplinary team to actu-
ally determine the problem areas and needed corrective measures). Once the
problems) have been isolated by the diagnostic study, the specific skill and
tools necessary for the repair can be used effectively. Obviously if the
transmission needed repair but was not diagnosed correctly and the repair was
done on the engine, the result would not correct the problem. (In similar
fashion, once the diagnostic interdisciplinary team determines the problemss,
the specific discipline needed to work in that area can be arranged).
Basic Principles and Concepts in Agricultural Engineering Regarding F.S.R.
It has been suggested that in relationship to farming systems and develop-
ment, agricultural engineering is basically concerned with improving production
efficiency--(improving the "output--input" ratio). As true as this is, it
does not give the complete picture. One might ask, to what does the efficiency
refer? Is the reference made to the use of time, or the use of money, or labor,
or resources (machines or land and energy, etc.) or what? An accurate answer
would have to say that it depends upon the particular situation being considered.
The agricultural engineers'concern with efficiency (input-output) may deal with
any of these areas under different circumstances.
However, there is another dimension to which most agricultural engineers
would give high priority--and it is that bag of feathers labeled: "quality of life."
In agricultural engineering this concept is often referred to by such phrases
as "reduction in drudgery" or "labor saving" etc. Machines, technology or
methods that reduce the physical labor requirements by the farmer would gener-
ally fall in this category.
Strictly from the economic or efficiency point of view, it may not always
be possible to justify some labor-saving techniques or equipment that could be
introduced into a farming system. If there is no alternative use of the time
(or labor) saved by the labor-saving method, that shows up on a "dollar account"
or efficiency ledger, it may appear to be a questionable practice to promote.
However, even though the efficiency or the economics look poorer, the reduction
in drudgery, or time now available to invest in the family, etc. may make this
method highly desirable in a real life situation.
Some painful lessons have been learned from the attempts of some to over-
mechanize or introduce inappropriate technology into a developing county. Where
people were not trained to operate the equipment or the culture was not adapt-
able to the new technology, well intended efforts have been disastrous. There
are reports of balers being abandoned when they ran out of twine (stopped tying
bales) and there was no one to service them; expensive tractors and equipment
have been parked and left to deteriorate when they stopped because minor main-
tenance was not available; large numbers of people used for harvesting have
been put out of work by combines, etc. As a result of experience like these,
agricultural engineers have become quite sensitive about what, how much and
where technology should be transferred. Just because "we know how to do it"
does not mean it's the best way to proceed.
On the other extreme, because of same bad experiences, some people have
condemmed all mechanization as undesirable and are very reluctant to introduce
any new technology. The proper position is someplace between these two extremes.
Technology should be chosen and machines introduced with care and consideration
for the complete system. Where timeliness is a factor or where the job cannot
be done except by engine power, mechanization has a vital place and will increase
the agricultural production and increase jobs for human labor. For example,
tractors can plow and prepare the fields for planting where human tillage could
never get it done in time to plant for best yield (or possibly not at all).
Having a greater area planted will provide cultivation and harvesting work for
laborers and increase total yield for their consumption. Irrigation by engine
driven pumps will improve yield far beyond those of no irrigation or hand
The basic concept or realization that appears to be emerging in agricul-
tural engineering with regard to F.S.R. is that the introduction of mechaniza-
tion or engineering technology into a cultural system must be done with careful
consideration for the effects on and the interactions with that system.
Where human labor is available it must be recognized as a resource that
cannot be ignored and arbitrarly replaced with machines. When selected mecha-
nization is introduced, support systems for parts, service, repairs, fuel must
be available. Consideration must be given to the financial capability of the
farmers to purchase the technology as well as its effect upon their social
structure. When careful consideration is given to the interaction of all the
parts of the system, and where the technology introduced has a minimum con-
flict with local ecology, it will have the best chance of acceptance and
Agricultural Engineering in F.S.R.
Although "Farming Systems Research" is a rather recent expression and thus
does not appear with great frequency in agricultural engineering literature,
the concept has been of interest and the subject of articles for some time.
Thierstein and Kampen (1978) engineers with ICRISAT-(India) have presented
work on "New Farming Systems for Agriculture in Semi-Arid Tropics" in which
they have demonstrated systems for improved yield and decreased risk.
Ray Wijewardene (1978, 1980) with the IITA in Sri Lanka (formerly with the
Nigeria program) has produced many works that center on the theme of farming
systems that maximize output while minimizing the resource input.
Giles (1975) has presented work that shows the relationship between the power
per hectare available and the productivity in different countries (farming
systems) around the world. He suggests that 0.5 horsepower per ha is a minimum
power requirement for developing countries. The U.K. and Japan have the highest
HP per hectare (approximately 1.6 to 2.0) and the highest productivity (Kg/ha).
This reference as well as others are cited in the book Agricultural Mechan-
ization in Developing Countries, Shin-Norinsha Company Ltd., edited by Carl
Hall and Merle Esmay (1973).
Possibly one of the most interesting areas where agricultural engineering
is being applied is in the area of Appropriate Technology as it relates to
developing countries. There is a great opportunity for agricultural engineering
technology to be carefully selected (and usually modified) and applied to
agricultural situations in underdeveloped countries. A conference on agri-
cultural technology for developing nations (1-10 ha farms) was held at the
University of Illinois (1978) that dealt with this topic. This technology
will do many of the things that have been eluded to in this paper, i.e. reduce
labor, save time, do something easier or safer, cost less, improve the product,
etc. Where technology can be offered to a society as a system that is simple,
affordable, compatible with their social customs and local ecology, it has an
excellent chance of being accepted. Numerous groups are addressing themselves
to this area of "appropriate technology". The Intermediate Technology Group
(England), VITA (USA), World Neighbors (USA), Canadian Hunger Foundation
(Canada) are just a few of these groups.
What Agricultural Engineering Needs From Other Disciplines in Order to be
The overall or basic objectives) of F.S.R. as I perceive them, (presented
earlier in this paper), are to improve the satisfaction and quality of life and
in general to strive for the betterment of all mankind. This involves the
increase in food production and availability on a world-wide basis, and a
lessening of harsh or severe living conditions. I assume or infer that as
these objectives that are generally considered desirable, are achieved, world-
wide tensions and unrest, social and political instability will be reduced and
a better world will result.
Within this framework, agricultural engineering is a means to an end, not
an end in itself. I hold this same perspective in regard to the other disci-
plines. In order to maximize the effectiveness of agricultural engineering
(mechanization),input and interaction from other related disciplies is vital.
A few examples will serve to illustrate: to effectively mechanize a particular
grain crop, help from the agronomist and plant breeder may be needed in order
to have all the grain heads mature together and at a fairly uniform height; a
sociologist may be able to point out problems associated with labor as a result
of changing part of a mechanized system; the economist is involved where mechani-
zation involves available capital and credit and determining the payback ability;
input from the animal scientist is needed as different feeds or feeding systems
are developed. In almost every situation encountered, interaction is necessary.
As all the parts of disciplines of the system interact and are modified so
that the "overall goal" of the farming system is achieved, then Farming Systems
Research is functioning as it was intended.
A Potential Model for Getting Farming Systems Research Started.
One of the main obstacles to making use of the concept of Farming Systems
Research seems to be some uncertainness about how to use it or make it work
even after we understand what it is.
Probably there are numerous techniques for doing research that could be
put under the farming systems umbrella. But in the context of using a multi-
discipline team approach to analyze and propose a research project, I will
suggest one method more or less as a trial balloon. This may get shot down
or modified or whatever. But hopefully, this will stimulate other ideas that
will eventually result in a useful technique to diagnose farming systems and
determine the most beneficial research project that could be developed.
The Farming Systems Multidisciplinary Team.
The number of disciplines that might be represented on the team is not
fixed, but 4 to 7 should be adequate to represent key areas. If the F.S.R.
Task Force at Michigan State University serves as a model, disciplines represented
would be: Crops and Soils; Animal Science; Sociology: Agricultural Economics;
Agricultural Engineering; and Food, Nutrition and Health.
The Diagnostic Tool.
To develop a diagnostic tool, each of the persons with expertise in these
disciplines would develop a list of topics or concerns that they feel is perti-
nent and crucial to their area. For example, in Agricultural Engineering and
Mechanics, the list might include:
Cost of labor
Work level demands throughout the year, peaks and lows
Capital available to the farmer
Land, altitude, slope, size
Mechanization level, etc.
For Crops and Soils, some topics might be:
Type of crops grown
Use of crops
Insect and weed pests
Type of farm
Irrigation or rainfall, etc.
Other areas would each develop a list of criteria that represent the vital con-
cerns of that discipline. The list of fundamental criteria developed by each
team member would then be used as a guide to compare and to evaluate those parti-
cular items in the target farming system (or country). The team expert would
then make a subjective judgment on a basis of 1 to 10 (poor to excellent) for
each of the appropriate items. The topics or items that show the greatest need
or potential for development, would then be singled out and reviewed by the total
The Potential Project.
As the areas from the various disciplines that need attention are brought
to light, they would be collectively evaluated by the total F.S.R. team and
the importance and priorities established for a potential project. The poten-
tial project would be reevaluated by each team member to access the effects of
the expected development upon the system from the perspective of each particular
discipline. If the impact of the potential project is reasonable and contains
no major surprises or disastrous effects, it can be polished and proposed as a
research development project in the domain of farming systems.
1978 Agricultural Technology for Developing Nations Farm Mechani-
zation Alternatives for 1-10 Hectare Farms. Special International
Conference, University of Illinois.
Esmay, M.L. and C.W. Hall
1973 Agricultural Mechanization in Developing Countries. Shin-Norinsha
Co. Ltd. 7.2 Chrome, Kanda Nishikicho Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo 102 Japan.
1975 The Reorientation of Agricultural Mechanization for the Developing
Countires. Agricultural Mechanization in Asia, Vol. VI, No. 2.
Thierstein, G.E. and J. Kampen
1978 New Farming Systems for Agriculture in the Semi-Arid Tropics.
American Society of Agricultural Engineers, Technical Paper
No. 78-5014, A.S.A.E., St. Joseph, MI 49085
1978 Appropriate Technology in Tropical Farming Systems. World Crops.
1980 Energy Conserving Farming Systems for the Humid Tropics. Agri-
cultural Mechanization in Asia.