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 Esamy (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.
by Jay W. Artis
Working Paper No. 6
July, 1981 -
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
Farming Systems Research Group Jay W. Artis
Farming Systems Research Position Paper No. 6
What is FSR as I see it?
Primarily, it is an attempt to solve the "diffusion of new practices"
problem in a way that is new at least it is new to the Third World development
community. In contrast to other approaches, this new approach involves:
-A concern with ecological or agro-ecological homogeneity and, in some
instances, a concern for socio-cultural and/or political administrative
-A concern with the whole farm household, or, at least, with all the agri-
cultural production related activities of the members of the farm household.
-A concern that the innovation to be introduced be appropriate to the eco-
logical and the agro-value situation of the farm household. (Agro-value
system refers to that part of the household value system that is related
to agricultural activity choices.) This can mean a households' initiated
demand for agricultural research. (This aspect of "downstream" FSR has not
received much discussion in the literature.)
-A concern that the feasibility and value of the innovation be demonstrated
on the farm by the farm household (in the system using system resources).
This is the "research in the field" or "experiment on the farm" component
and assumes the availability of fairly skilled research personnel willing
to work in the field, and the cooperation of the farm household in the
-A concern that national and international ("upstream") research agendas
reflect the research needs of the farm household, and particularly, of the
farm household that produces little or nothing for the market.
-A concern that national and international agricultural programs and
policies take into account the needs of the small farm household.
What FSR is not, as I see it.
Although FSR reports and proposals often speak of helping farm families
to allocate resources in a manner that takes into account all the family's
priorities, in practice the primary concern has been with the economic aspects
of the family's agricultural activities, and the FSR analysis and program recom-
mendations have focused on the production, storage, and marketing of food and
fiber. If any more general analytical perspective is used, it is usually a farm
management perspective. The human "system" in FSR is the agricultural activities
part of the total activities of the farm family.
However, if the systems perspective tells us anything, it tells us that the
"knee bone" is indeed "connected to the thigh bone" and that success in increasing
yields or profits, or any other changes in the agricultural activities sector of
the farm household system will have its impact, its "ripple effect" in other areas
of household and community behavior. It is a commonplace finding in social sicence
research that an increase in available resources leads to behavior and value
changes. At the subsistence level, even a very small increment in the family's
food supply or disposable income can open a large range of new possibilities, each
with some potential for behavior and value modification. An elderly Christian
gentleman in Uganda told me that the devil had come to his community on a motor-
cycle, carrying a portable radio and a television set. We may intend only to
increase yields, but end up furnishing transport to fallen angels.
What, then, are some of the areas of development not taken into account by
current FSR approaches.
The first and most obvious is the area of nutrition. If new crops are to
be brought in, or if new varieties of currently grown crops are to be introduced,
are they socially, culturally, and physiologically acceptable as part of the
food supply? If yields are increased, will they improve nutrition in the farm
household, especially among those age groups most in need, or will the increased
yields be sold, with the cash used to improve the conditions of life in other
than nutritional areas? Or will it be dissipated, from a nutritional point of
view, on amusements? Just as we need to know more about farm household decision
making in the agricultural production area, so also do we need to know more about
decision making in the budget allocation and consumption area.
The second is the area of family planning, or if we want to put it in
systems terms, we might call it systems member replacement. Every continuing
system must provide for the replacement of its members and, ultimately, for the
balancing between member needs and resources. Farming systems are, presumably,
not an exception to this rule, but statements of the FSR perspective and domain
do not mention this system characteristic.
Related to the problem of member replacement is the problem of member train-
ing. Each new member in the system has to be taught the values and the behaviors
believed to be essential to successful system performance. In addition, if new
values and/or behaviors evolve in or are introduced from outside the system, often
new training procedures must be developed to bring the new behaviors or values
into the system. FSR programs, since they are an attempt to change farm practices,
do say something about procedures for re-educating the subject farmers currently
in an FSR project. Usually this procedure involves the training and introduction
into the subject farming system, on a short term basis, of a new type of extension
worker called a "farming systems economist" or some such title. In addition, the
FSR on the farm team almost always includes an agronomist willing and capable of
working on the problems of the small farm, but little is said about any special
training or retraining he may require. Also, some of the FSR literature recognizes
that research station staff will have to be retrained to be sensitive to the
interests and problems of the small, non-commercial farmer. All other retraining
efforts, including those necessary to the long term continuation of the FSR
introduced innovations, are presumably delegated to the existing extension
service, although nothing is said as to how the members of the service are to be
trained for this task.
Like training, health is also a major factor related to farming system per-
formance. System members must be maintained at a level of health that will allow
them to perform system roles. This is, of course, related to nutrition, as I have
mentioned above. However, it is also related to the way in which the system makes
resource allocation decisions about health needs. Maintaining the health of the
system member, and particularly of the female system member, is often a low
priority in the allocation system.
Other areas could be mentioned. For example, farming systems have to devote
energy to such political processes as settling disputes, maintaining boundaries,
interpreting traditional rules and the like and to a wide variety of civic and
religious ceremonial, ritual, and celebration behaviors. While, perhaps, these
are somewhat remote from the central agricultural production concerns of FSR, they
are integral parts of the system context of FSR. Taking them into account could,
conceivably, increase the probability of a successful FSR intervention.
FSR and Sociology
So far as I am aware, sociologists have been little involved in the current
approach to farming systems research. They were heavily involved in the U.S.
farming systems research of the 1930s and '40s, but that differed in many sig-
nificant respects from the current FSR approach.
Obviously I believe, from what I have written above, that sociology has a
contribution to make: to assess and, hopefully, to predict the impact of the FSR
intervention on social structure and on the relationship between values and social
structure 1) within the farming system and 2) between the farming system and the
larger system contexts within which it operates.
Sociologists have for many years used systems approaches to the study of a
great variety of human groups from national systems to small groups in laboratory
situations. Thus the concept of system, with its problems of equilibrium mech-
anisms and its teleological explanation of human behavior, is familiar to them.
Also, a revival of interest in the ecological systems approach to the study
of social groups is occurring in the discipline, probably as a consequence of the
increased interest in energy and resource conservation. This analytical framework
fits very nicely with the FSR idea of recommendation zones and household food
Related to this is the growing interest in the technology-population-resource
* relationship, and the way in which social movements have emerged and have attempted
to affect this relationship. There are many parallels in this research to the
interests and processes involved in FSR.
Needs from other disciplines
First, we need a'sufficient opportunity to exchange views about areas of
mutual concern. Every discipline represents a particular way of viewing the world
and, to use Veblen's phrase, a "trained incapacity" to view it in any other way.
To overcome this trained incapacity, we have got to have many opportunities to
learn each other's perspectives and vocabulary, and a tolerant view of the probable
usefulness of the other person's discipline, at least until proved otherwise.
Second, we need an opportunity to work together "in the field" on a problem
of mutually agreed importance. Communication around a table is valuable and can
solve many inter-disciplinary difficulties, but the ability to communicate in the
field so as to solve a problem is the final test of any multidisciplinary or inter-