Historical roots of Farming Systems Research

Farming Systems Research (FSR) was initiated in the 1970s by researchers working in developing countries (mostly in publicly funded research organisations such as the CGIAR centres such as CIMMYT, ICTA, IITA, ICARDA or IRRI). They wanted to address the fact that smallholder-farmers were not adopting the technical recommendations derived from disciplinary, commodity-oriented research. Recommendations derived from this type of research were targeted at commercial farms and were, in general, unfit for the priorities and conditions of smallholders (for sources and publications, see the comprehensive document repository at the University of Florida). Thus, originally Farming Systems Research focused on smallholders and resource-poor farmers in developing countries. The aim of the field practitioners was to improve the understanding of small farmers and the way they make decisions. This insight could then be used:

  • to identify how research recommendations could be reshaped to better fit local farming systems,
  • to better steer the research agenda of agricultural research stations, and
  • to influence policy formulation.

In the 1980s, European researchers (some of which had been involved in development work) noted that in Europe family farms, especially those in less favoured areas, were also not adopting the technical innovations recommended by the top-down research-extension framework. Farming Systems Research was thus introduced in Europe to address the needs and potentials of family farmers as well as those commercial farmers, whose determinants for action could not be reduced to profit maximisation.

Whether implemented in the North or in the South, the core objective of farming systems approaches is to (1) address the complexity of real-world phenomena (instead of using reductionist and disciplinary simplifications) and (2) to work on problems that are relevant to farmers (instead of focusing on issues that are primarily of academic interest).

A few of the early proponents of Farming Systems Research: Peter Hildebrand, David Gibbon, Ray Ison, Nadarajah Sriskandarajah, and Richard Bawden (picture taken during the IFSA 2012 in Aarhus).