Group Title: Working paper Farming Systems Research Group, Michigan State University no. 10
Title: An M.S.U. approach to farming systems research
Full Citation
Permanent Link:
 Material Information
Title: An M.S.U. approach to farming systems research
Series Title: Working paper Farming Systems Research Group, Michigan State University no. 10
Physical Description: 12 p. : ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Fleisher, Beverly
Axinn, George Harold, 1926-
Michigan State University -- Farming Systems Research Group
Donor: unknown ( endowment ) ( endowment )
Publisher: Michigan State University, Farming Systems Research Group
Place of Publication: East Lansing
Publication Date: 1981
Copyright Date: 1981
Genre: non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Statement of Responsibility: by Beverly Fleisher and George H. Axinn.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00095061
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 317069937

Full Text

Farming Systems

Research Group


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 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.


by Beverly Fleisher and George H. Axinn

Working Paper No. 10

July, 1981



Paper No.















Farming Systems Research and Agricul-
tural Economics

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
Agricultural Engineering

An M.S.U. Approach to Farming Systems

The M.S.U. Farming Systems Research
Group Perspective

A Working Bibliography on Farming
Systems Research August, 1981

Social Impact, Economic Change, and
Development -- with illustrations
from Nepal


Eric Crawford

Al Pearson

Tjaart Schillhorn van Veen

Russell Freed

Robert J. Deans

Jay Artis

Merle L. Esmay

George H. Axinn

Robert H. Wilkinson

Beverly Fleisher and
George H. Axinn

George H. Axinn and
Nancy W. Axinn


Beverly Fleisher and George H. Axinn


In September of 1980, a small group of faculty members at Michigan State

University, representing various disciplines, met to examine the renewed world-

wide interest in farming systems research. The group was provided with some

financial support from the Strengthening Grant to the University under Title

XII of the Foreign Assistance Act through the U.S. Agency for International

Development. Irving R. Wyeth, Director of the Institute of International

Agriculture at M.S.U., organized the team. Each individual and his respective

department agreed to give approximately one quarter time during the 1980-1981

academic year to review the current literature, invite visiting scholars,

prepare and exchange papers, and meet regularly for in-depth discussion. All

of us have learned much from the readings and seminars. Each of the partici-

pants has become aware of the others' perspectives on the world--on science,

research, on systems, and on farming. To this extent, the principal bene-

ficiaries of the first year were the participants themselves.

It is hoped that the benefits will extend further in the near future--to

the departments, to the institution, to others concerned with farming systems

research, and perhaps even to the farm families themselves. We have already

made plans to initiate field explorations and project activities in Africa,

Asia, and Latin America. These will build upon the conceptualizations which

have been identified, developed, and which continue to evolve. Simultaneously,

each of the involved scholars, and others at M.S.U., are continuing their

individual research. Some of that will be reflected in additional working

papers. The list at the beginning of this paper includes only those papers in

process by July of 1981.

This working paper attempts to capture the utility of the first year in

its most practical and applied dimensions. We present some of the definitions

developed by the M.S.U. Farming Systems Research Group. The statements reflect

agreements on terms and research strategies. These understandings are necessary

as each discipline develops different conceptions and methods. The group reviewed

over a hundred papers, books, articles, and fugitive materials produced by others

who are thinking and writing about farming systems research to achieve a consensus

on the meanings of terms. A matrix which evolved in response to the literature

review is presented here. A full bibliography of those materials, and others

which have been collected since, is available in this series as Working Paper

No. 12.


We have agreed to view a farm as any tract of land or water consisting of

one or more parcels devoted to the cultivation of plants and animals under the

management of a tenant or the owner. The raising of domestic or other animals

and the cultivation of aquatic life forms can also be included in this definition.

A system is seen to be a group of defined components (which may be further

subdivided) from the point of view of their recurrent interactions. These inter-

actions are assumed to be more frequent than those occurring between components

inside and outside the system. The interactions are open, but are sufficiently

inelastic such that a change in one interaction will have a "ripple" effect

through the whole system. Other characteristics of a system include inputs and

outputs, boundary determination and maintenance, and equilibrium tendencies

and processes.

A farming system is a unit consisting of a human group and the resources

it manages in its environment, involving the direct production of plant and/or

animal products. Factors such as climate and weather, land tenure, land quality,


and socioeconomic variables are included. It is an ecosystem in which all of

the components--land, operators, hired labor, crops and cropping systems, animals,

and machinery--are considered together to produce goods to meet the requirements,

for food, clothing, and shelter; or, to exchange for goods to meet part or all

of those needs.

A farming system is always a part of a larger social, political, economic,

cultural, and political environment, which has impacts on everything that happens

within the farming system. Thus, it can be said that the next level of analysis

upward can be a rural village, a compound, or some physical unit of space which

includes several farming systems.

Farming systems research (FSR), in its broadest sense, involves the applica-

tion of the systems perspective to the study of a farm. The purposes of such

research could vary from a broad understanding of system functions to under-

standing a narrow subset of particular interactions. Thus, it encompasses

any research concerned with a farming subsystem or the whole farm system. In

both instances, the primary goal is well within the traditional scientific

purposes of explanation and prediction. However, FSR is thought to have special

utility in the more applied area of increasing food production. On the one hand,

it is viewed as a diagnostic device that can quickly locate the "system"

constraints on food production; on the other hand, it is viewed as a method

for speeding up the development and diffusion of "system alterations" to limit

these constraints.

What Others Are Doing

A review of the literature of FSR suggests three fundamentally different

types of research approaches. One type could be characterized as baseline

studies, in which selected farms are studied in great detail over a period of


time in order to understand the fundamental mechanisms and interactions

operating within the system and between the system and the outside world.

A second type can be thought of as traditional research station work, with

added attention to how the results will be applicable to farmers. A third

type is one which could be characterized as being interventionist, where a

farming system is examined with the purpose of discovering where improvements

can be made and solutions to diagnosed problems are developed. It is this

latter type of research that will be the major focus of this paper.*

A system which classifies programs on the basis of scope and purpose can

be of use in illustrating where the majority of effort is currently concentrated.

Such a classification may also be misleading because of the iterative nature of

farming systems research and the tendency for policy statements regarding

purpose not to reflect accurately on current activity. The broadest goal of

FSR is to better understand the problems and needs of the farmer and deliver

technology to meet those needs. However, the international, national, and

regional centers at the forefront of farming systems research are constrained

by their mandates, resources, and the expertise and expectations of staff


The constraints have resulted in farming systems research focusing on

agricultural production, or more specifically, crop production. Other aspects

of farming, such as the nutrition of animals, receive peripheral attention as

a result of this orientation.

*Sociologists and anthropologists have done extensive research on farms and
rural systems. This work is often not included within the current rubric of
farming systems research. Papers, books, and miscellaneous materials studied
by the group are listed in a bibliography, which is Working Paper No. 12 in
this series.


A narrower, but possibly more realistic view of farming systems research,

sees it to be a method of finding the area of overlap between the farmer's

and the research stations' production goals. This should not be surprising

given the commodity-specific nature of most of the agricultural research

systems and that farming systems research developed in response to low levels

of acceptance of much of the research work conducted earlier.

Specific methods used to conduct farming systems research vary from

program to program; however, most follow the same general series of steps from

diagnostic surveys through the dissemination of results. These programs can

be differentiated by the broadness of their approach, or how many factors they

consider at each step. The matrix in Figure I places the five steps and four

levels of scope on opposing axes.

The five steps common to most "interventionist" farming systems research

are: description and diagnosis; development of prototype solutions; adaption

of solutions to specific situations; farmer testing of adapted technologies,

and; dissemination of adapted and approved technologies. The first step --

description and diagnosis -- involves specification of the recommendation domain,

background information collection, pre-surveys, formal surveys and interpre-

tation of the results. "Development of prototype solutions" may be done on or

off the experiment station or may involve selecting from among a set of existing

technologies the ones which are most adaptable to the recommendation domain.

This development of prototype solutions could alternatively be classified as

traditional International Agriculture Research Center research, basic research,

or "upstream" farming systems research.

"Adaption of solutions to specific situations" acts as a bridge between

the development of prototype solutions and farmer testing. This may involve,

among other things, levels testing on a farmer's field or the modification of


some attributes of an existing technology to make it more appropriate to the

needs and constraints facing the target group. "Farmers' testing of adapted

technology" tests the previous three steps. While previous farmers' field

testing or levels testing was conducted with a high degree of control by the

researchers from the experiment station, farmer testing involves minimal super-

vision beyond initial instruction on the use of the new technology. The dissemi-

nation of adapted and approved technologies has traditionally been seen as the

task of extension agents. However, many research centers have initiated efforts

to involve researchers in this phase as well as integrating extension personnel

into previous ones.

The matrix in Figure I shows four levels of scope: system component; partial

system; total farm system; and rural system. We will consider a system component

to be a single commodity, although it can be disaggregated into smaller components.

Examples of research at the system component level are studies of pests on wheat

or development of new varieties of rice. What distinguishes system component

research from partial system research is that the former considers the commodity

in isolation from the rest of the farming system. Research at the partial sys-

tem level looks at two or more of the system components and their interaction.

An example of partial system research would be multiple cropping research or

an examination of the effect of a new crop variety on farm labor demand.

Total farm system research involves all of the components of the farming

system and their interactions. The best examples of this type of research are

baseline studies which examine farming systems over time. Although many

diagnostic procedures used by centers conducting "interventionist" FSR tend towards

a total farm system approach, their lack of coverage of the animal components of

the system tends to preclude their attainment of this scope.














---- -..--L





Research at the rural system level can take two forms. One is a considera-

tion of all of the components of the farming system as well as their interaction

with each other and with other farming systems and institutions in the rural

sector. Another form looks at the farming system as the lowest level of dis-

aggregation and considers the interaction of the systems and rural institutions.

The M.S.U. "Difference"

The M.S.U. Farming Systems Research Group has developed a conceptual framework

to analyze farming systems from a perspective which attempts to consider the most

critical variables in understanding such systems. The focus starts with the

family farm eco-system itself, and addresses the major components within it.

For certain problems, it is appropriate to divide these internal components into

sub-components for further analysis. In some situations it is appropriate to

analyze the linkages between the farming system and the components of its near

environment. In other cases, it is also appropriate to analyze the linkages

between the farming system and components of the larger social-economic-political-

agro-climatic system of which it is a part.

General Strategy and Style

The general strategy we propose starts by analyzing the family farming

system from the perspective of the values and the goals of the members of that

family. All identifiable factors which impinge on the farming system can then

be considered as possibilities for further analysis. The question of what to

study depends on the proportion of the variance which is accounted for by each

potential factor. Any factor -- completely outside the farming system, in its

near environment, or within one of the subsystems within the farm -- may be studied

if it impinges upon the farming system in a significant way.

Early steps may include a survey of the soils, hydrology, and climate.

Such agro-ecological mapping is designed to define the parameters which are


needed to identify possible cropping and livestock patterns. Then, such pro-

duction may be further investigated. In each case, the particular values and

uses attached to each type of plant or animal by the farming family are


We view the farming system as a decision environment. Available courses

of action, possible outcomes with associated evaluations of costs and values,

and the probabilities of choice are only some of the many variables which can

be studied. In addition to agronomic, horticultural, animal husbandry, and

agricultural economic and engineering concerns, we also include an analysis of

the distribution of "social power" within the system. This examines the effects

of authority, class, and status on the operation of the farming system, parti-

cularly in relation to family, community, and state organizations.

This approach to farming systems enables the investigator to ask questions

dealing with the relationship between inputs and outputs, mechanisms of equili-

brium maintenance and restoration, boundary maintenance and intersystem relation-

ships, and relationships between subsystems and the larger system. This approach

also enables consideration of the extent of differentiation in various farming

systems and the extent to which the farming systems are subsistence systems as

opposed to market-oriented systems. The general strategy and style permits one

to analyze the components of the farming system, the critical components of the

near environment, and the linkages to the larger social system.

Critical Components of a Farming System and its Near Environment

Among the components of the farming system are:

1. The Human Component

-- numbers of people by age and sex

-- health, length of life, health care, sanitation

-- diet, nutrition, food storage, food preparation, water


-- learning, education, research

-- shelter, clothing, travel, transportation

2. The Plant Component

-- cereal grains, fruits, vegetables, forages, etc.

-- rotation and cultivation patterns

-- plant protection

-- inputs, outputs, recycling, marketing and supply access

-- climate and weather

3. The Animal Component

-- types and classes of livestock

-- patterns of production and reproduction

-- feeds, feeding, and animal nutrition

processing, storage, marketing, consumption

4. Resource inventories the identification of stocks of resources

held by the household including land, buildings and machinery,

working capital, family labor, and crop and livestock holdings.

5. Resource utilization what are the flows of resources through

the farm system? Such flows include labor use, cash flow,

machinery use, materials and energy flows, and the flows of goods

and services among components within the farm household system.

6. Detailed descriptions of farm production operations and enterprises.

7. Non-agricultural activities, sometimes referred to as "household

production" including food preparation and preservation, crafts,

trading, and'other productive activities.

8. Attitudes and operating procedures

-- household goals, preferences, and standard strategies and

methods of operations procedure.


9o The nature of land availability, including the size and value, the

fertility, the topography, access to water and other characteristics.

10. Additional characteristics such as the management capability of the

farming family, any capital savings which the family may have, know-

ledge and skills involved in the operation of management in the

family system, etc.

Critical Components in the Near Environment

1. Topography, soils, climate, water resources, natural flora and fauna.

2. Capital accumulation and dispersing organizations, marketing organ-

izations, tool operating organizations.

3. Off-farm employment and employment opportunities.

4. Community activities.

5. Marketing relationships the timing and characteristics of items

purchased and sold.

6. Savings and investment behavior.

7. Operating costs associated with production and marketing.

8. Sale prices for farm output and purchases prices of farm inputs.

9. Wage rates for labor.

10. How do markets for resources function -- inputs and outputs, land

and labor, credit, etc.

11. Climate and weather -- irradiation, evapotranspiration, rainfall, etc.

12. Markets including access to storage and processing, transportation,


13. Supply including access to seeds, feeds, fertilizers, etc.

Linkages to the Larger Social System

1. The development of food processing industries within the country.


2. Other industrial development and industrial employment possibilities.

3o Government price policies relating to production of farming system

outputs and import or manufacture of farming system inputs.

4. Alternative investment opportunities for savings or other capital.

5. Out migration opportunities.

6. Formal education opportunities.

7. Patterns of social and political power which impinge upon the farming


University of Florida Home Page
© 2004 - 2010 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
All rights reserved.

Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement
Last updated October 10, 2010 - - mvs