"Reflections on the 1992
Association of Farming Systems
Research/Extension S. aposium"
Report of the
External Advisory Committee
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan
Report of the Advisory Committee
"Reflections on the 1992 ,-FSRE Symposium"
The 1992 AFSRE Symposium was the twelfth in a series of annual conferences
drawing agricultural development practitioners, scholars and agency representatives from
around the world. This symposium was alsr the third and last in a series hosted by
Michigan State University as co-supporter to the increasingly autonomous professional
Association of Farming Systems Research/Exte -sion (AFSRE). This report represents the
collective and independent interpretations of a three-member external advisory committee
that was charged with the task of serving as observers, listeners and interpreters of the
The advisory committee was formed by the MSU Steering Committee to serve as an
independent source of information about the symposium. The committee agreed to serve
as participant observers during the symposium -nd to organize and report their findings to
the leadership of the Association, the MSU staff and Steering Committee and the donor
organizations involved in supporting the symposium. The 1992 Advisory Committee
consisted of three professionals in the field oi international development:
Dr. Chris Andrew, Professor of Fooe( and Resource Economics at the University
of Florida and Director of the Farming Systems Support Project in the 1980s, the
founding unit that nurtured the symposium through its developmental years.
Dr. Ruth Alsop, Program Officer with the Ford Foundation in New Delhi for
sustainable agriculture programs.
Dr. Mary Andrews, Associate Dean of the College of Human Ecology and Director
of the International Extension Training Program at Michigan State University, and
experienced evaluator and long-time member of the farming systems community. Dr.
Andrews served as chairperson of the A.dvisory Committee.
Three primary methods were used to gather information for this report. The primary
source of information was comments from small groups of participants invited to participate
in one of two separate focus group interviews conducted by individual advisory committee
members. Groups were randomly selected from enrollment lists and represented a cross-
section of participants at the conference. The tocus group interviews lasted one and one
half hours each. The format encouraged open discussion and assessment of the program
and alternatives for the future. At each session \t graduate student assistant took notes that
were later transcribed and summarized by the advisory committee.
A second method of securing inputs was from informal interaction with a wide
variety of people at the symposium, reservations at the various planning and plenary
meetings, and interviews with key organizational leaders. To assist in encouraging
participant interaction with the advisor committee, the committee identified themselves
with a colored name badge, were formally introduced to the assembly during the first
plenary session and reinforced the idea of interacting with the committee by placing a
colored circle on the name badge of participants who spoke with the team. Thus by a casual
visual scan, one could recognize peop!- who had or had not yet spoken with a committee
The final source of input into the advisory committee report was a written end-of-
session evaluation questionnaire. The advisory committee created the questionnaire and
distributed it during the final two days of the symposium. It included some basic
background information about attendees and solicited their opinions about this and future
The Advisory Committee was assisted by a number of people from the MSU staff and
volunteer corps. Ms. Julie McDaniels-Smith, Sue Gibbons and Noel Harshman of the
conference planning office were of ,,luable assistance in organizing the activities of the
committee and in providing data about the conference. Dr. George Axinn, overall
coordinator of the symposium, offered invaluable assistance in organizing and supporting
the work of the committee. Also of critical importance was the Board of Directors of the
Association who approved the compo :ion and charge of the committee and who oriented
the committee to the dynamics of t'e organizational strategies for the symposium and
identified key questions needing organizational input from participants. These inputs helped
to define the parameters of the evaluation.
The ideas presented in this report represent the independent opinions and
judgements of the advisory committee.
Description of the Symposium and Participants
The Twelfth Annual AFSRE Symposium was held on September 13-18, 1992 at
Michigan State University in East L-:nsing, Michigan. This week-long event had some
unique characteristics that set it apart from past symposia. First, it was the final symposium
to be hosted on an annual basis by a U.S. university. From the onset of planning this
Twelfth Symposium, the host university and Board of the Association recognized that this
would be a transition year--a year of intense organizational planning toward a future of
global organizational linkages, rotating sites across continents for the symposia and new
leadership structures. In anticipation ot tuese changes, the symposium format was organized
to accommodate a variety of involvement activities to engage the membership and program
participants in identifying options for *' e future. The new format, in addition to including
two full days of participatory involvement, also piloted a series of invited speaker sessions
to highlight critical issues and developments facing the field of farming systems. This
forward thinking analysis of "where we have been and where we are going," served well to
orient the attendees to important issues that then could be discussed in more depth
throughout the symposium.
A second characteristic of this symposium that places it in a unique position relative
to past symposia was the strong and autonomous leadership exerted by the Board of
Directors of the Association in planning the event. Gradually over the three years since the
Association was founded, the Board, but especially the President Elect, has been taking
increasing responsibility for program planning--from an advisory role to an active directing
role. This year, the Association President took a very active role in co-chairing the planning
committee along with the MSU coordinator. In fact, the Association made all critical
organizational and programmatic decisions using the MSU team as their support staff. A
large number of officers and association representatives served on planning committees,
solicited and reviewed papers, organized invited panels, and directed the many procedures
that made up the 1992 Symposium. The fact that the organization, in spite of its voluntary
and far flung leadership, could organize the international symposium so successfully, is
indeed a milestone in the maturation of this professional association!
Finally, this symposium benefitted from two years of fine-tuning and experimentation.
During the three years at MSU, the planning group benefitted from a series of intense
evaluation, feedback and reflection mechanisms. Each year this external advisory committee
remarked on the exceptional responsiveness of the planning committee in utilizing
participant feedback and adTusting the program to strengthen its usefulness to the very wide
variety of interests represented by participants. This year, too, the sensitivity of the planning
committee was evident in remediable weaknesses reported from previous years and in
anticipating participant demands ahead of time. The 1992 Symposium was a masterful
example of responsible administration, creative group involvement and skillful use of time
and resources to capitalize on the educational benefits of participation.
As noted by the President of the Association, the 1992 Symposium had three major
objectives: (1). To create global linkages--to offer a setting for practitioners to exchange
experiences, critique developments and learn from each other in an atmosphere of mutual
respect and concern for the improvement of practice throughout the world; (2). To extend
the state-of-the-art of practice--through invited papers and group dialogue, to assess the
state-of-the-art of farming systems practice and achievements so as to identify gaps,
recognize breakthroughs and mobilize attention to future challenges; (3). To identify
strategic directions-to reach consensus on the necessary functions and relationships of the
global association to regional associations and to clarify the value and priority to be given
to various AFSRE products such as the Journal, Newsletter and Annual Symposium.
The Twelfth Annual AFSRE Symposium was attended by 206 individuals. As in past
years, the symposium served as a meeting place for a very broad representation of
development workers from throughout the world. This year, 40% of the 206 attendees came
from outside the U.S. and a large number of those with domestic addresses were
international students and scholars. The actual breakdown of geographic representation is
presented in Table 1. In comparison to last year the only group with slightly less
representation is Latin America.
This year, 183 abstracts were received, 72% of which were accepted for either a
paper or poster session. This acceptance rate was very similar to 1991 with 75% acceptance.
However because of unforeseen reasons, only 40% of those invited to present actually
participated. This large gap between interest and ability to attend may reflect decreased
donor support for farming systems projects and/or tightening of travel budgets that hindered
international participation. Another reason for this difference may have been
communication difficulties. The planning committee explicitly asked for full papers in
advance of the symposium to prepare the printed proceedings. Perhaps this request aided
in weeding out those who were not prepared sufficiently to present their papers in advance.
In total, 71 individuals made presentations during the week-long event: either invited papers,
submitted papers or poster presentations. Nine of these presenters also served as facilitators
of various sessions. The presenters were 81% male and 19% female (similar to past years).
Geographic Representation at the 1992
Geographic Area Attendees Presenters
Latin America 5.3 10.0
Africa 14.6 28.2
Asia 15.0 25.4
Europe 4.4 7.0
North America 60.2* 29.6
Australia .5 0.0
*Thirty seven percent of these were MSU students and another twenty one percent were
Financial support is a key factor affecting participation. As in past years, the
symposium planning committee actively solicited donor support for travel scholarships to
assist scholars and practitioners from developing areas of the world to participate. This year
47 travel grants were provided to an estimated 23% of the total participant base. These
travel grants were divided among invited presenters, submitted abstract presenters and
facilitators. To better understand the financial commitments necessary to support such a
diverse international meeting, the participants were asked to report the sources of their own
financial support "n the end-of-session evaluation questionnaire. Based on the 64
respondents, 27.9% of attendees received more than half of their support from their home
institutions, 20.6 % received more than half from project funds, 32.4% from AFSRE travel
grants, and 16.2% used their own family or personal resources to support their attendance.
Note: These data were summarized from 64 questionnaires that were returned
representing 31% of attendees. Although a poor showing in terms of representation,
the questionnaires do reflect the opinions and status of the "hard-core" participant--
those who stayed for the entire symposium and were interested enough to respond.
Demographically, they only slightly overrepresent non-U.S. attendees if MSU
affiliated attendees are removed from the numbers. As such they would
underrepresent individuals using their own personal resources to attend, and as noted
in the disparity between a 23% to a 32% funding rate, they overrepresent those
traveling on AFSRE travel grants.
One of the unique features of this symposium is the broad diversity of participation.
Beyond its international character, it represents a range of persons in various institutional
affiliations. Based on the end-of-session questionnaires, 15% of this year's group were
affiliated with ministries or governmental units, 44% institutions of higher education, 16%
development organizations, 9% research institutes, 9% independent consultants and 6% in
various "other" categories. These individuals represented a range of disciplines and roles--
from agronomist or engineer to sociologist, from breeder to extension agent. When asked
how long they had been involved in farming systems work, they ranged along a continuum--
33% indicated that they had been involved five years or less, while 47% had been involved
over ten years! The median involvement was about eight years. An estimated 28% were
first timers to a farming systems symposium and another 30% were "old pros," having
attended three or more symposia.
This wide range of backgrounds and work environments of participants makes
planning the symposium especially challenging. In years past, it was hypothesized that at
least two tracks are needed--a practice oriented track for those on the firing line working
with and training farming systems teams, and a more theoretical track for those summarizing
the state-of-the-art or setting policy for donor or institutional practice. Each year various
events are planned to appeal to one or both of these groups. This year the balance was
especially good. The invited speakers and many of the participation sessions were especially
well targeted to the policy set. The submitted papers, poster sessions and the techniques
bazaar were targeted to the practice set. Both interacted repeatedly in formal and informal
Both the sense of the advisory committee and the comments from the end-of-session
evaluation questionnaire indicate strong feelings of satisfaction and support for the
symposium. This year's program seemed to repeat the best of past programs and added new
depth and dimension by including a number of invited speakers and a series of participatory
exchanges. The format was especially well received as it introduced new ideas and
perspectives, brought people together and into dialogue rather early in the week, created
numerous opportunities for personal and regional networking and balanced the agenda
between hands-on sharing of experiences and state-of-the-art tools, while challenging
thinking about the future of the organizations and linkages that support farming systems as
a field of practice. The program plan was excellent! Some of the summary comments that
reflect this opinion are as follows:
The quality of invited papers was excellent. These speakers provided a good
opening for the symposium in that they challenged critical thinking about the
evolution and future of FSRE.
There was a good flow of topics and information over the course of the program.
It was well balanced in applied, institutional and conceptual issues/presentations.
The poster presentations were of very good quality and the choice of site was
excellent. There was good participation and movement of people.
The Techniques Bazaar had a very good response, perhaps even better than last
year! There were good hands-on activities and handouts.
The entire format of the symposium was new, challenging to manage and
exemplary in its use of participation. As a transitional conference in building
consensus for future directions it was excellent.
Many weaknesses of past symposia have been addressed, i.e. access to the printed
papers for sharing back home, better organization of concurrent sessions, fewer
competing events, better access to the posters, greatly enhanced networking.
Participants were very open and willing to talk about their work and give their
views to the evolving discussions.
C -me of the issues of concern about the program include:
The concurrent bazaar and poster session prevented poster presenters from
participating in bazaar activities. This was disappointing for many.
The quality of facilitation for the small group discussion/planning sessions could
have been better. Perhaps clearer guidelines could have been made available to
facilitators. Yet overall the level of participation was excellent.
Management of concurrent paper sessions could be improved. Moderators were
not strict enough in monitoring time. The number of papers per session seemed
appropriate and the coherence of topics was much improved over past years. Still
the quality of individual presentations varied considerably.
Some participants voiced concern over insufficient female participation. Greater
gender balance is wanted.
Some participants noted the large number of no-shows on one hand and wondered
if all presenters got a chance to present on the other. (Some of this underlying
confusion represents the fact that presenters had to send their full papers in ahead
of time in order to be scheduled on the program...some came with their papers in-
hand. These late comers were accommodated to the extent possible.)
Some felt that the board members and other senior/experienced resource person -s
were less available for informal interaction than would have been desired.
Although most appreciated the set of bound papers (proceedings), some felt that
they were too cumbersome and not all of equal interest to individuals!
Reflections on the Value of the Association and Its Services
1. International symposium: The international symposium is viewed as an important forum
that will be needed whether regional symposia develop or not. It serves important
networking functions, provides immediate peer review of one's ideas and work, is a unique
source of information and sharing of professional experiences across regions and ecosystems,
provides moral support to often isolated and under supported professionals, serves as a
source of confidence building to know that your work is valued by others, and creates
exposure to employment opportunities and developments in the field. The majority of
participants value the symposium but perhaps for differing reasons. Those from developing
countries appreciate the opportunity for sharing and access to new tools, techniques and
contacts. Those of developed countries seem to value the opportunity to compare
developments globally and to further the momentum of FSRE as a movement.
Most respondents appreciate the need to develop regional affiliate groups to maintain
and expand the network. When more than one farming systems type group exists in a
region, most feel that collaboration and joint programming/networking should be developed.
Competition for people's time, attention and resources should be minimized as these
regional groups formalize. A clear linkage between the global and regional organizations
2. Journal/Newsletter: Although both the journal and the newsletter are valued as
important vehicles to access and publish information about farming systems activities and
developments, some room for change seems evident. In terms of the journal, everyone
appreciates the need for such an interdisciplinary outlet and recognizes its value for career
enhancement. But many question the cost of the publication and wonder if it could be more
readily available to institutions in the developing countries of the world. Since so few
articles are published in the journal, the proceedings from the global and regional "nmposia
are equally valued. Many developing country professionals are hesitant to submit to the
journal as the editorial process seems so formidable, and some suspect that articles are
declined because they don't meet "western" editorial standards. Some questions that
emerged were: Are the guidelines for submission well understood among potential
contributors? Are developing country professionals on the review board? Is editorial
assistance provided if papers are worthy of publishing? One suggestion for reducing the cost
of the journal was to reduce the number of issues per year and another suggestion was to
assess page charges.
The newsletter is viewed as a source of relatively timely information,, a forum for idea
exchanges and a place to announce news of developments in the field. It shou'- be quick
and easy to read and fairly accessible to a large number of institutions. The current
newsletter appears too dense and journal-like. Perhaps the articles could be less formal and
more newsy and anecdotal. A column on projects in progress and another on
methodological developments would be appreciated.
3. Regional developments: The 1992 Symposium offered a unique opportunity for this global
gathering to brainstorm and explore alternate strategies for the future. This participatory
approach was appreciated and made everyone feel a part of the decision making process.
The Association leadership can be commended for conveying a sincere sense of urgency
about the need to identify strategic directions, and organized a systematic forum to involve
the membership in that process. Although considerable information was organized and
presented about past and current regional developments, still, during the participation
sessions, many developing country representatives seemed confused about their role. Many
were unaware of regional activities and felt, perhaps rightly, that they themselves were not
part of those developments. Many realized that a great many other practitioners are out
there and their opinions have not been sought. In this context, in-country networking is
often poor and confusion exists as to who should take responsibility for networking and
organizational administration. Such lack of clarity of purpose is understanding since only
50% of the symposium participants are currently members of regional farming systems
organizations (based on end-of-session questionnaire).
It would appear that considerable leadership and empowerment is needed to create
the momentum in the regions needed to contact and recruit a broad representation of the
farming systems scholars and practitioners. The regions need a core group of experienced
and internationally connected FSRE promoters who can reinforce each other through their
contact with the global association. It may mean that the global association will need to
assume greater responsibility to identify key people, to support their networking activities
and to serve as advocates for their work.
On a positive note, the respondents to the end-of-session questionnaire indicate that
91% are anticipating attending regional meetings!!!!
4. FSRE orientation/preservation of historic foundations: It was generally felt that each
region needs to assume responsibility to orient new people to FSRP techniques and
philosophies. Training materials in local languages need to be developed, peer reviewed
and shared widely to make use of scarce resources. Databases, such as the CAB abstracts,
are needed within the regions. Case studies are also valued and of use both locally and
globally for comparative and integrative uses. Global networking is also needed. Regional
representatives voiced an interest in accessing internationally experienced people for
training, conferences and advisory consultancies.
The AFSRE Board and MSU team can be commended for planning and executing
an excellent international symposium. The quality of interaction amo-'g participants was
rich, the program challenging and educationally valuable, and the support and logist -
environment flawless. This nurturing environment produced serious concern, commitment
and collaboration among participants. By all accounts the objectives of the Board for the
symposium have definitely been met!
This third and transitional symposium has served an important function for the
evolving Association of Farming Systems Research/Extension. Although many uncertainties
exist in regard to the future of farming systems as a unique approach to agricultural and
rural development, there can be no doubt that this period of organizational development
will place the professionals affiliated with this approach in a stronger position in the future.
A tremendous sense of history, purpose and commitment was evident among participants.
Whether an "old pro" or a "newcomer," a sense of shared concern for this participatory
development approach was of utmost interest to all. The self criticism was healthy, the
probing of new frontiers was genuine, the celebration of unity was exhilarating! This 1992
Symposium was a turning point in organizational history. It was a fine-tuned professional
meeting and an important organizational forum to develop strategic directions for the future.
Future symposia will be different because of the work that transpired at this setting. Future
symposia will most likely span the globe, be collaboratively sponsored with regional
affiliates, strive for commercial financial backing and perhaps eventually involve multiple
professional groups with interests in-common. Things will be different, but the professionals
and their needs for global exchange will continue.
This group of observers has listened, probed and tried to interpret in summary
fashion the major themes and concerns voiced by participants. In thinking about the future,
following are some personal observations/recommendations that may be considered:
The process and principles of organizing this symposium, that has been honed over
the years, should be summarized in a form that would be useful for future planners
whether at the global or regional level. Although each new symposium will be
different to serve different needs, the principles of participant involvement in
planning and implementation, the use of feedback, t1 -, careful assessment of needs,
etc., should be captured for others to draw upon.
The concerns associated with concurrent paper sessions seem universal and endless.
One technique that has not been tried with the AFSRE symposium is creating
workshop sessions rather than paper sessions. Then each presenter could be queried
by a facilitator and the major contributions of each paper could be highlighted in an
integrative or comparative manner across presenters.
Many organizational matters still need operational inputs from the membership.
Perhaps the board would consider establishing a series of technical/program
committees, regional networking or facilitation committees, a strategic and long range
planning committee and a resource development committee or task force to attend
to these details.
The output of this meeting in the form of the AFSRE FUTURE DIRECTIONS
statement should be widely publicized to encourage broad comment, alert donors and
institutional leaders to a potential role for their involvement and create linkages with
similar organizations/networks. In fact the substantive discussions (papers and
participatory session output) may be organized into a book, thus promoting a historic
continuum into the future.
The organization needs to take a stronger advocacy role. Members, whether in key
international organizations or line workers in ministries, need to be encouraged to
promote FSRE principles and actively challenge the status quo. Perhaps this takes
skill building sessions to hone strategies and techniques, or encouragement in the
form of peer support and mentoring.
Strategies to balance short-term survival concerns with long-term vision are
encouraged. Mentioned were a name change, involving private industry, working
with NGOs, influencing the international research agenda, promoting "systems"
concepts to peer researchers, thinking dynamically and applying farming systems tools
to a broader context of endeavors. Much work needs to be done, but the leadership
exhibited during the symposium seems capable of promoting such a challenging
The three of us, as the external advisory committee, have had the privilege of
observing a truly professional group of people. The Board and MSU team have exerted
selfless energy and commitment in service to this broad group of professionals who ebb and
flow in their attendance and membership. It is an unusual gathering of individuals from
many disciplines and areas of work. Yet it is exhilarating to observe the commonality of
interests and needs among this group. The organization of this global symposium is a labor
in love and a sign of hope for the future of international relations. We thank you. the
Board, the MSU team, and the various donor organizations and representatives for
providing this opportunity for us to observe and comment on your work. We hope that we
have captured the essence of these meetings without undo bias. And we also hope that our
work supports the enormous effort emanating from within the organization to build a inuly
global professional forum. We wish you good luck and good fortune for the future.