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 theTitle 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 (andDr. 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.
The Farming Systems
in the Agricultural
by Merle L. Esmay
Working Paper No. 7
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
The Farming Systems Research Approach
in the Agricultural Engineering Field
Merle L. Esmay
This paper attempts to define and discuss Farming Systems Research (FSR)
in a somewhat narrow sense as to how the MSU Task Force may be able to pro-
gress in a meaningful and practical manner. Of particular concern is how
professionals from the existing discipline may play a role in FSR. Regard-
less of what may develop in the future as to the interdisciplinary nature of
FSR, or on the other hand the development and training of FSR specialists;
the movement to FSR must start from where we are now in the various pro-
First, it should be recognized that FSR consists of an interdiscipli-
nary approach to development. The term interdisciplinary is used rather than
multidisciplinary to differentiate that specific disciplines are necessary in
contrast to a broad generalized array of disciplines. In the arena of Agri-
culture and food production, in which Title XII is involved, there are basic
requirements for professionals from four disciplines; (1) biology (2) physi-
cal technology, (3) economics and (4) sociology.
Second, the FSR approach is focused towards the farm family and the
I would like to narrow this to a focus on small farms in developing countries.
Small farms are defined as average sized farms and smaller in whatever country,
region or district one might be concerned. It is the author's belief that
FSR evolved mainly because of the need to cope with the problems of small
farms for which other educational, extension and developmental approaches
and institutions have experienced various degrees of failure. The develop-
ing country constraint was placed on this FSR definition because of the in-
ternational focus of the Title XII strengthening grant that is being used
to support the MSU FSR task force. This is not to argue that FSR cannot be
applied to large farms in any country, but rather to focus more specifically
on how FSR might help solve the burdensome problems of the small farmers,
particularly in developing countries.
Third, it should be recognized that FSR has a positive connotation of
improvement and development. It thus, should not be interpreted as a pro-
gram designed to maintain the status-quo of the small farmers in their
lock-in subsistence existence. FSR has the general objective of improving
the quality of life of small farm families, but specifically in the sense of
improving food production and financial returns through the application of
My definition is then that FSR consists of an interdisciplinary approach
to the development and introduction of improved technologies for increased
food production appropriate to the needs and circumstances of small farmers.
New technologies are necessary as farmers have pretty well maximized outputs
from traditional inputs and methods. An increase in production is assumed
as the principle way to increase income and thus enhance the quality of
life for the farm families. Production is interpreted to include all pro-
duction and post production operations and activities. Producing more has no
benefit if it doesn't reach the consumer as a high quality product. Also
the production should be studied and evaluated with respect to equal benefit
to all. This is the reason for the focus on the small farmers as they have
traditionally received the short-end of returns from new technologies.
Heady (1973) stated that a structure of research is needed that will
facilitate a synthesizing, integrative, team-oriented outlook rather than
one that is analytical, compartmentalizing and disciplinary. A successful
FSR approach should do this. Dillon (1976) stated that before the advent of
systems thinking, scientists tended to derive understanding of the function-
ing of the whole from the mechanical structure of the parts. He called this
reductionism and mechanism; and suggests that expansionism,teleology, and
synthesis are necessary modes of thought in understanding the world. The
functioning of the whole must first be considered and understood before
dissecting it into parts. A system is more than a sum of its parts. The
teleological or means-ends approach is recognized as a valid scientific method
for the study of social systems or systems with social effects. Goal seeking
and goal-setting are intrinsic parts of such research.
The Green Revolution
Technologies may be either biological, physical or social in nature.
Considerable emphasis has been given to biological breakthroughs of high
yielding plant varieties (HYV) of the important food crops of rice, wheat,
maize and others. During the early phases (1950's and 60's) of such develop-
ment, referred to by some as the green revolution", there was an associated
need for new and different inputs to attain higher yields. Many of these
inputs, even though prescribed by biologists, were physical in nature, such
as; the application of fertilizers and pesticides (the manufacturing of them
was also a physical process), water control (irrigation and/or drainage)
the development of a plant growth micro environment through soil manipula-
tion processes of primary and secondary tillage. Weed control has generally
been a physical process prior to the advent of chemical control and even
then must be properly applied as to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
When some or all of these physical technologies were not carried out accord-
ing to prescription the early HYV's did not yield as much consistently as
the old indigenous varieites. This introduced a risk factor for the planter,
as well as an increased investment for inputs particularly if all of the
prescribed practices were not followed. The more recent emphasis on HYV's
has been for the crops to produce more under the traditional environment of
the old indigenous varieties.
A biological characteristic that was apparently overlooked in the early
development of higher yielding rice varieties was the resulting easy shatter-
ing nature (separation of the seed kernels from the plant panicles). This
change of a biological factor compared to the old accustomed indigenous
varieties necessitated numerous physical changes in harvesting methods and
post harvest operations to minimize what would otherwise be excessive losses.
Once the harvested rice plant (which includes some portion of the plant
stems) is to be threshed, ease of separation (high shattering character-
istic) of the seed from the rest of the plant is desirable (although mechan-
ical threshing technology does overcome). The problem lies in the necessity
of harvesting the HYV's early enough, while the seed moisture content was
still at least 20 percent (wet basis) or above, to minimize pre-harvest
in-field shattering. Then the harvested crop (stalk paddy) must be handled
in such a way to minimize harvesting, drying and transporting (shattering)
Possibly some early collaboration between the biological and physical
scientists on the shattering problem would have made the introduction of the
new biological technology more successful. One can extrapolate the HYV
example further to imply that if agricultural economists had been more involved
early on, there would have been a better understanding (possibly before the
introduction) of cost and returns as related to risk; particularly for the
small subsistence farmer who traditionally has had neither input investment
resources nor the capability of risk without suffering dire circumstances
(possibly hunger) of a crop failure. Social-cultural scientists could have
helped provide an early understanding of the small subsistence families as to
constraints, capabilities, aspirations and traditions.
I use the example of the early HYV's and the "green revolution" not to
emphasize its' negative characteristics, as I give it an overall rating
of "successful". We, however, live in an imperfect world which means there
is always room for improvement. The "criticism" should be used for construc-
tive discussion in the search for improved introduction processes through
the application of the Farming Systems Research approach. I do not enjoy
researching projects after the fact (the introduction of them) in order to
determine how unsuccessful they were in terms of income distribution, labor
utilization, migration, etc. We must, however, learn from experience in
order to improve future programs. The greatest challenge is to develop new
programs that will stand the test of time and subsequent investigations.
The Farming Systems Research approach can help identify problems before
Holistic Approach to FSR
Farming Systems Research (FSR) should be holistic in its' approach,
but not necessarily designed to change the entire system. A FSR approach
might be partitioned to study the development and adaptation of a particu-
lar type of technology, but with a holistic understanding of the farm
system. (Rohrbach, 1980).
For discussion purposes I will describe a post rice production (in-
cludes harvesting as well as post harvest operations) technology and losses
in a Southeast Asia program in which I have been involved for the past
five years with a number of Doctoral students. One of the first procedural
decisions made was that studies and measurements would be made strictly on
farmer operations. Different methods and technology would be studied in
so far as they were now being used by some farm operators.
Existing technology was identified and evaluated as to losses, labor
utilization, possible harvesting delay constraints and other cost and re-
turn factors. A part of the evaluation phase was to formulate computer
systems models to simulate in so far as possible the utilization of tech-
nology under farmer operation conditions. Simulation studies were then made
to identify comparative advantages, constraints and undesirable features.
The systems modeling was flexible to the extent that other technology
systems could be introduced for simulation studies if and when desirable.
The study of new technology would depend mainly on the availability of rep-
resentative operational data under farmer conditions. Although some sur-
vey data were obtained in each study to describe farmer conditions, they
fall considerably short of a true FSR approach in which understanding of
the farm families and all of their constraints and incentives would be
given primary attention.
The Nature of Change
The doctoral dissertation research projects did not follow through
with the verification and acceptability of new improved technology in the
conventional sense of adoption. A central Java study by David Gaiser in
1979-80 provided some insight on a harvesting technology change that was
taking place. The farmers (rice producers) were breaking the old traditional
ani-ani harvesting system in favor of a 79 percent more labor efficient
sickle cutting system by selling their pre-harvested rice crop to traders.
The out-of-village traders would then move in with sickle cutting crews
and harvest the crop quickly and move it out for threshing, drying and
milling (possible storage) someplace else.
In explanation, the ani-ani system included more than the physical
technology of cutting the individual stems of rice with a small knife in
one hand and gathering in the other. It also carried with it the social
priviledge of all local disadvantaged family members (the landless) to
come in and harvest all the land owners rice crops for a share (generally
around 10%). The change to the HYV rice crops made the ani ani systems
much less appropriate technically because of the higher yields (many more
panicles), shorter stems and higher shattering nature (higher harvest shat-
tering losses). From the farmers standpoint the traditional ani-ani system
was completely outside of the farmers control. In some cases large numbers
of people would move into a farmer's field, many of whom he might not know.
Their incentive to harvest all of the rice with a minimum of loss was not
particularly high. In contrast to too many harvesters Gaiser's central
Java study indicated that rice farmers were experiencing delays of
many days before ani-ani harvest crews were available.
Socially, within the village, farmers seemed constrained to not hire
their own sickle cutting crews even though delays in harvesting were occur-
ing. However, to break the system farmers began selling the standing crops
to "outsiders" who apparently had no qualms about bringing in the sickle
cutting crews. The unfortunate aspect of this type of a "forced" change
rather than a more desirably planned one is that the traders brought in
outsiders to cut the crop which entirely eliminated any local labor. Also
the traders moved the harvested stalk-paddy crop out of the area for
threshing, drying and milling. All of these value adding operations were
thus lost to the local labor. Individual farmer control, particularly
through the cutting, threshing and drying stages, would benefit local
laborers as well as the farmer, and in general keep the returns of these
value increasing operations within the villages.
In summary of the post rice harvest changes taking place in Indonesia
most social planners saw the substitution of the 78 percent, more-efficient,
sickle cutting as an undesirable change. Unfortunately, when change was
left to the farmers, who are not necessarily social conscious, the local
labor was cut out of nearly all of the post harvest operations. Also the
traders will tend to mechanize the cutting, threshing and drying as soon
as feasible (cost return wise) regardless of village labor unemployment
conditions. A thorough Farming Systems Research approach to this problem
at an early stage might have been able to provide recommendations and
planning guidance to direct change into a more overall favorable direction.
Now changing the established trader system will be most difficult. An
early FSR study would have developed an understanding of the farm families
and also the disadvantaged family members in order to consider the aspira-
tions and goals of all concerned.
Land Preparation Mechanization
Another example of where and how Farming Systems Research (FSR) might
have been beneficially applied is with reference to the question of
mechanizing rice paddy land preparation in Indonesia. Some mechanical
power was introduced for the primary tillage operation during the past
few years Indonesia, particularly the island of Java, has a dense popu-
lation; therefore, the problem of providing meaningful employment for all
of the people is critical. Mechanization that displaces people from labor
intensive operations is not necessarily desirable. The appropriateness
of any agricultural mechanization is thus questionable.
The question of appropriateness of mechanization for rice land prep-
aration in Indonesia is presently polarized along professional lines into
the "anti" group and the "pro" group. The "anti" group tend to be mainly
the agricultural (Socio) Economists and the "pro" group the Agricultural
technologists (Engineers). I doubt if many of the professionals of
either group feel comfortable in being classified as absolutely "anti" or
"pro". The lack of communications between the two professional groups
has, however, allowed if not stimulated the extreme positions taken by
There is a great need for a true FSR approach to the evaluation and
planning for appropriate agricultural mechanization in Indonesia. Unfortu-
nately such a program has not been formulated. Instead an extensive sur-
vey has been undertaken, mainly by Agricultural Economists, to prove that
mechanization is uneconomical to the tractor owners (buyers). A paper
was presented at the Regional Seminar on Appropriate Mechanization for Rural
Development with Special Reference to Small Farming in the ASEAN countries
in Jakarta January 26-31, 1981. The evaluation project and the title were
entitled "The Consequences of Land Preparation Mechanization in Indones-
ia: South Sulawesi and West Java". The paper was presented by Ir. Mamum
and the project is headed by Dr. R.H. Bernsten of IRRI/CRIA Bogor, Indo-
The project and paper title is quite appropriate, but the approach
presented in this first paper based on one years preliminary data was to
prove financially that the mini-tractors in South Sulawesi and power til-
lers of West Java were uneconomical to the owners. The numerical analysis
made was based upon unsupportable assumptions of cost of operation, length
of life, day length, and total time of operation of tractors per year.
Such data could be obtained by studying the experiences of the tractor
owners. But this was not done nor at least the data were not included
in the paper presented. Such a study if and when undertaken would need
to be carried out mainly by technologists thoroughly versed in the physical
knowledge of tractor operations and performance.
On the financial side of the cost and returns analysis presented in
the seminar paper; there was no mention made of the fact that the contract
price for custom work was a "set" price by government, and that the trac-
tors were purchased (obtained) by farmers through a government program
without down payment and with two installments due per year which are
not enforced. Apparently over half of the tractor buyers were default-
ing on their payments. It seems to me that a true economic analysis
should be made which would recognize all of the incentives and constraints
for owning tractors.
I tend to believe that the imported, expensive, complex small four
wheeled tractors are not economical nor appropriate for Indonesia but the
survey approach and financial analysis is not proving it. A coordinated
FSR approach to this problem with a number of disciplines involved could
obtain and present supportable documentation for proving the inappropriate-
ness of the tractor mechanization. Agricultural economists need to e-
valuate the overall economics of the tractors including the effects of
the subsidized prices and set fees; while Agricultural Engineers need to
study in detail the experience of the tractor owners and operators. Other
socio cultural people need to be included in order to better understand
the farmers, laborers and rural conditions.
Under the circumstances of the government program for introduction of
the tractors, I believe that the tractor mechanized land preparation is
probably economical for both farmers contracting for tractor tillage and
for the tractor owners. The fee for tillage is set arbitrarily low to
make it attractive for the farmers contracting for work done. The own-
ers are not paying for the tractors under the "soft loan" arrangements
so ownership is financially favorable for the owners under these fixed cir-
cumstances. Unfortunately these financial conditions are unrelated to the
overall economics and broader effects of mechanization on unemployment
and income distribution in the rural areas.
My bias is that some mechanization of land preparation is inevitable,
particularly in the islands^of Java. There is no way that the rural people
can or should be "forced" to continue to grow rice by human labor in the
mud when the city people are riding motor bikes and automobiles. I be-
lieve that local manufactured, simpler, less costly tractors and machinery
are more appropriate in the long run. Farming Systems Research would, how-
ever, provide guidance so that direction does not depend on biases and
opinions of individuals or professional groups.
Farming systems research plans should depend directly on qualified
professionals from a minimum of the basic technology fields of biology,
physical technology, economics and sociology. There are exceptions when
one person might qualify to cover two of these fields. Such a trend
should, however, be discouraged or the interdisciplinary approach will
be defeated. The excuse today for the single discipline approach is often
that one person feels that he or she can cover 2 or 3 or more fields ade-
"Labor Shortage as a Constraint to Increasing Cropping Intensity,"
Paper presented at the Cropping System Symposium, Los Banos.
Dillon, John L.
1976 The Economics of Systems Research, Applied Science. Publishers
Ltd., England, Agricultural Systems (1).
Gaiser, David and Merle Esmay
1981 Traditional Rice Harvesting Losses and Labor Requirements, accepted
for publication in ASAE Transactions, St. Joseph, Michigan.
1973 Allocations of College's and Economists, American Journal of
Agricultural Economics, 54, 934-44.
Ilangantileke, Sarath, Allan Phillips, and Merle Esmay
1981 Post Rice Production Field Losses, Agricultural Mech. in Asia,
Africa and Latin America (AMA), Tokyo, Japan, Vol. XII, No. 1,
Maimun, Jusuf, and R.H. Bernsten
1981 The Consequences of Land Preparation Mechanization in Indonesia:
South Sulawesi and West Java. Presented at the Regional Seminar
on Appropriate Mechanization for Rural'Development with special
reference to small farms in the ASEAN Countries. Jan. 26-31,
A Discussion of Issues Relevant to the Development and Implementation
of a Farming Systems Research Program. Washington, DC.: USDA/OICD
Saefundin, Yusuf, and Masdjidin Siregar
1979 Mechanization Consequences Study, West Java, Indonesia, Implementation
Report, Workshop on Consequences of Small Farm Mechanization,
October 1-4, IRRI, Los Banos, Philippines.
1978 Implications of Agricultural Mechanization for Employment and Income
Distribution: A Case Study from Indramayo, West Java. Bulletin of
Economics, Indonesia. Published by the Australian National University.
1980 Choice of Land Preparation Techniques for Rice Cultivation in
Indonesia: The Utilization of Small Tractors at the Farm Level
in Karawang and Subang Counties as a Case Study, Ph.D. Dissertation
at Michigan State University, E. Lansing, Michigan, Agricultural