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.
Issues in Farming Systems Research--
an agronomist's perspective
by Russell D. Freed
Working Paper No. 4
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
1. What is Farming Systems Research?
Farming systems research is the application of a systematic analysis
to agricultural research development, implementation and evaluation.
Farming systems research takes a holistic overview of the different
component systems which interact with the farm. These component systems
include social, technological and political aspects. Farming systems
research then is the integration of the research between these three large
systems as well as the integration of the research within each large
Farming systems research is an administrative tool which is used to
direct and evaluate research programs. Farming systems research will
serve as the communication link between the systems which operate on the
farm. Many of the component systems will do their work independent of the
other systems. However, FSR will provide the opportunity for the different
systems to exchange information and ideas. This information will then be
used to formulate and implement improved research projects.
2. How doesFarming Systems Research relate to problem solving in agronomy?
Agricultural development has made some dramatic changes in the last
century. It has shifted from the "frontier model", through several other
patterns to the "induced innovative model" (Ruttan, 1980). The agronomists
have been responsible for much of this change with their introduction of
science-based agriculture. Science-based agriculture has brought about
some sudden and dramatic changes to the farm scene.
Farming systems research will be used by the agronomists to do three
major operations: (1) identification and development of research projects,
(2) implementation of research programs, and (3) evaluation of the new
The identification of research priorities is the first thing the
agronomist must do in developing a research program. FSR plays a very
important role in this process. When the needs of the farmer and society
are viewed in their entirety (through FSR), better research programs are
formulated. The agronomist will first look at the farmer's present produc-
tion practices. He will try to understand why the farmer does what he
does (Harwood, 1979). The agronomist and the extension worker need to
communicate concerning the farmer's condition/needs. The extension agent
has the responsibility of understanding the farmer. Some agronomists
prefer to have a social scientist involved in this process. The agronomist
will then see if there are technologies which can make the system more
productive and/or efficient. These new technologies may involve different
cultural practices, varieties, cropping patterns, water utilization,
fertilizer use, etc.
When considering the implementation of agronomic research the agrono-
mist will participate in building a model which will show how any new
technology will interact with other systems on the farm. Are the necessary
infra-structures present or if not, can they be built? FSR will allow
scientists from other systems to evaluate the potential impact upon their
own systems. For example, if it is decided by the political powers that
there is an urgent need for an increased grain production by the farmers,
the agronomist will develop several possible programs which could possibly
solve the problem. The more efficient use of fertilizers and/or new high-
yielding varieties are the most common solutions. The agronomist would
then get feedback from the other systems (animal, social, economic,
harvesting) about what kinds of impact this technology would have. If the
new technology is too disruptive to the system then other approaches
would have to be formulated.
Farming systems research needs to be conducted on the experiment
station as well as the farmer's fields. Much of the basic research is
done on the experiment station while the applied is done on the farmer's
Evaluating the consequences of the new technology is done by the
agronomist, farmer and other interested persons. The farmer is usually
the best judge for new technology, since he is the person who must want
and be able to use it (Zandstra, 1979). This phase of research should
be the extension phase. Enough evaluation tests have been done so that
these tests can also serve as demonstration plots.
When a farming systems research approach is used by the agronomist
to improve his research program, the assumption is that the quality of life
for the farmer and society will be improved.
3. What have agronomists done in Farming Systems Research?
Several international institutes have had Farming Systems programs
(IITA, ICRISAT, and CIAT) while others had cropping systems programs
(IRRI, AVRDC). Hildebrand (1976) uses the economist and agronomist
approach to farming systems research.
A very good example of FSR work would be the National Rice Research
team that was organized in Sri Lanka. There were several groups of
scientists which worked on their own systems but interacted with other
groups when beneficial. The first group was the resource capability
survey group which did agro-ecological mapping. They concentrated on
water availability, soils, and climate. This group partitioned the
country into different common zones, each zone having major common elements
necessary for crop production. This group then selected test sites where
agronomic and variety yield tests should be conducted to insure that the
major soil types were included in the variety evaluation tests.
The next group of scientists were the cropping systems specialists
who determined the most efficient cropping patterns for the various zones.
This group also did production research to determine the most viable
production procedures. The group included an economist, agronomist and
pest management person (Fernando, 1978).
The next group of scientists were the basic scientists who worked in
the research institutes and research stations. These scientists generated
technology which was used by the cropping systems specialists. The
cropping systems specialists interacted with the "basic" scientists to
relate specific needs and also familiarize themselves with any new technology.
The farmer was also a very important person on the team. The research
scientists had constant communication with the farmers. The researcher
also had trials which were managed by the farmer to see if the technology
The extension worker also participated in the research program.
Extension-Research dialogues were held regularly. Joint field inspections
to check for problems were also made. The communication link helped to
formulate the research priorities as well as to keep the extension worker
informed about any new technologies which were being generated.
4. Generalizations about farming systems and agronomists.
"If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded,
more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption
than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population,
resources, and environment are clearly visable ahead. Despite greater
material output, the world's people will be poorer im many ways than they
are today." This would be a concise summary of the Global 2000 Study.
Agronomists have been very active in producing new technologies
which have benefited society (Everson, 1974; Ruttan, 1977). Their
participation in international agricultural development has also been
significant (Brady, 1979; Herdt, 1979). Plant breeders have changed plant
architecture and raised yield levels dramatically (Coyne, 1980; Evans,
1980; Johnson, 1980). Despite the progress made by agronomists in the last
40 years, the major hurdle still remains, developing the.agriculture of
the developing countries.
Farming systems research may help solve some of the problems which
need to be corrected if agriculture is going to improve in the developing
world. FSR recognized that the problems are social, political and tech-
nological and all three areas must be addressed if progress is to be made.
5. What other disciplines are needed to carry out better research?
Plant breeding has always leaned heavily on other disciplines to
formulate breeding programs. The disciplines in the plant sciences
(entomology, pathology) have been the most important but many programs
include other disciplines (chemistry, nutrition, ag engineering, etc.).
The economists and sociologists/anthropologists have not been heavily
involved in program development but they do get involved in program
evaluation. The social scientists are needed to help understand the
farmer. How will he accept technological change?
The marketing of agricultural products is a major problem to increased
food production. Incentives are also needed to encourage the farmer to
Farming systems research and interdisciplinary research are often
used together. The Nobel Laureate Theodore Schultz called interdiscipli-
nary research as "weak on theory and soft in the quality of research which
gets done." Interdisciplinary research may be difficult to manage but
interdisciplinary communication can function as the needed ingredient to
combine the knowledge of the different fields which are needed to solve
our agricultural problems.
1. Brady, N.C. 1979. The Role of Agronomists in International Agricultural
Development." Agronomists and Food: Contributions and Challenges.
Amer. Soc. of Agronomy.
2. CIAT, Annual Report. 1975. Call, Columbia.
3. Coyne, Dermot P. 1980. "Modification of Plant Architecture and Crop
Yield by Breeding." Hort. Science Vol. 15(3).
4. Evans, L.T. 1980. "The Natural History of Crop Yield." American Scien-
tist Vol. 68(4) pp. 388-397.
5. Everson, R.E. 1974. "The Green Revolution in Recent Development Experience."
Am. J. Agric. Econ. 56(2):387-394.
6. Fernando, G.W.E. 1978. Sri Lanka Cropping Systems Program Update 1978.
7. Herdt, Robert W. and Randolph Barker. 1979. "Sources of Growth in Asian
Food Production and an Approach to Identification of Constraining
Factors." Interfaces Between Agriculture, Nutrition and Food
Science, pp. 21-45, IRRI.
8. Hildebrand, P.E. 1976. "Multiple Cropping Systems are Dollars and 'Sense'
Agronomy," in Multiple Cropping. American Society of Agronomy Special
Publication Number 27. Madison, Wisconsin: American Society of
9. Harwood, Richard R. 1979. Small Farm Development: Understanding and
Improving Farming Systems in the Humid Tropics. Boulder, Colorado:
10. ICRISAT, Annual Report. 1973-74. Hyderabad, India.
11. IITA, Annual Report. 1975. Ibadan, Nigeria.
12. IRRI, Annual Report. 1978. Los Banos, Philippines.
13. Johnson, Richard R. "How High Can Yields Go?" Crops & Soils Magazine.
14. Ruttan, Vernon W. 1977. "The Green Revolution: Seven Generalizations."
International Development Review 19(4).
15. Ruttan, Vernon. 1980. "How the World Feeds Itself." Sept/Oct Society.
16. Schultz, Theodore W., The Economics of Research and Agricultural Produc-
tivity. Paper presented at the Seminar on Socio-Economic Aspects of
Agricultural Research in Developing Countries, May 7 to 11, 1978,
17. The Global 2000 Report to the President. A report prepared by the council
on environmental quality and the department of state. Gerald 0.
Barney, study director, Washington, DC, 1980.
18. Zandstra, H.G. Experiences of IRRI in "Farm Testing" of Rice Technology.
Paper presented at the symposium on "Agricultural Research and Educa-
tion Systems for Development," sponsored by ICAR-IFARD. Sept. 1979,
New Dehli, India.