What is Farming Systems Research?

The goal of Farming System Research is to understand farmer's livelihood

  • to consider the complexity of the real world in which farmers and farm families live and make decisions;
  • to understand the complexity and the diversity of farmer values and know-how. These influence their decision-making, their information processing, their combination of activities on- and off-farm, and ultimately their design of productive processes and the interaction with ecological processes.
  • to include multi-scale approaches, connecting the farm to the landscape, connecting the farm with the markets, the farmers and other rural stakeholders, livelihoods and territories. These interactions result in the diversity and heterogeneity of farming systems.


Farming Systems Research can be seen as a 'school of thought' that spans a wide range of theories and methods. The approaches used share a number of key elements, as they:

  • Are interdisciplinary in nature. Farming systems always combines natural and social sciences, e.g. agronomy, ecology, plant breeding, livestock sciences, economics, anthropology, rural sociology.
  • Understand the farm and household as one system. This implies that much attention is given to interactions, e.g. between technical and social components, resource allocation decisions, biotechnical and ecological processes. 
  • Have a dynamic approach: with on-going changes in public policies, society's expectations, market prices or local opportunities, research focuses on the ability of farmers to cope with uncertainty and complexity.


Farmer participation is understood as crucial within Farming Systems Research:

  • to understand farmer's goals and objectives, i.e. the coherece of farming practices
  • to ensure that scientific results (esp. from technical and biological sciences) are adapted and thus acceptable by farmers. Indeed, farmers are understood as the experts on the socio-economic factors (e.g. labour, values, goals, needs, preferences, social attitudes) that may constrain implementation.
  • to produce knowledge about farming systems diversity and dynamic
  • to produce tools that accompanies farmers on the pathways of change


Although the holistic approach of Farming Systems Research requires that the entire farm (as well as its natural, social, economic and policy environment) serves as analytical framework, in later stages of a specific research project, work usually focuses on specific components, subsystems or interactions. However, the focus on specific components or interactions should not undermine the farming systems approach.

Indicators of a poor application of Farming Systems Research include: lack of systems perspective, lack of farmer-oriented attitude, lack of farmer participation, neglect of indigenous knowledge and gender issues, lack of involvement of extension and NGOs, lack of ecological sustainability, neglect of variation in time and space, lack of balance in breadth and depth of research, lack of interdisciplinarity. The fact that these weaknesses often occur in research is an indication of the difficulties met when implementing the approach, not least due to the (institutional) emphasis on rapid results and cost effective research methods. How to better implement the holistic approach is a key area of further development within Farming Systems Research.