Developments in Farming Systems Research

Although the core objective of Farming Systems Research has not changed, the issues on which research has concentrated have evolved. Here are some areas that have seen a change in focus as well as new developments:

  • Early farming systems work was dominated by crops, which then widened to include livestock (esp. in less-favoured areas) and crop-livestock interactions as well as aquaculture and trees (agroforestry). Currently there are no limitations to what types of enterprises are considered (energy production, direct marketing, services, agri-tourism, health care, education, etc.). Also, there is no longer a focus on the effect of introducing a new technology. Assessing the repercussions of introducing a new enterprise in an existing system is just as important and may follow a similar pattern.

  • A shift from the farm system per se to an understanding of farming as part of a hierarchical nested system. Within these spatial scales, the farm is one of a number of levels (crops, communities, region, national, global). Each level knows complex interactions (e.g. within a cropping system: crop plant population, soil, soil organisms, weeds, insects, pathogens, etc.; within a farm: crops, livestock, trees, household members). Similarly, there are complex interactions between different scale-levels (e.g. a cropping pattern is influenced by natural conditions (soil, climate), institutions, agricultural policy, world market prices, etc.). These multi-scale approaches have led to studies at the landscape level, as well as studies that focus on market chains.

  • The recognition that there are different stakeholders, and that they often have different perspectives. Gender is an important dimension, as analysis often indicates that men hold different perspectives than women. Stakeholder analysis (both at the farm-level and the higher hierarchical levels) thus provides an entry point for reconciling conflicting perspectives and negotiating a common position.

  • The inclusion of the non-farming community, i.e taking a territorial rather than a sectoral approach. This is all the more important in Europe, where a large share of family farmers work part-time and include off-farm employment in their strategy for survival. Some authors therefore prefer the term 'rural systems' or 'regional systems' over 'farming systems'.

  • System performance is no longer limited to productivity, but includes stability and sustainability. In other words, with the understanding of systems as being dynamic, the time frame under consideration has been lengthened. Since the late 1990s change dynamics increasingly have become a topic of research, addressing a variety of dimensions: farm household composition, farmer's goals and preferences, markets and institutions. This implies new constraints as well as new opportunities and thus different system dynamics. Moreover, integrated assessment methods related to the three pillars of sustainable development need to be developed.

  • With the realisation that farms change continuously to co-evolve with their social, economic and ecological contexts, the search for an 'ideal' or 'best bet' innovation was dropped. Dynamic conditions call for 'learning by doing'. Learning is not considered a passive process of teaching or transferring information to farmers, but rather as an active and on-going process of testing and acquiring new insights.