Engaging farmers in food research
(appeared in Sep 2016)

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As land is limited and demand growing, it is vital to narrow the gap between farmyard yield and potential, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

With the global limits of land use, fertilizer and freshwater use having being surpassed it is a global imperative to use optimal farming methods and attain higher levels of food production. Individual farmers hence need to own and use scientific practices of selection of crop variety, fertilizer use, timing of sowing and harvest, custom-made for different regions

The journal, Nature Communications carries a report by Weifeng Zhang, Guoxin Cao, Xiaolin Li, Hongyan Zhang, Chong Wang, Quanqing Liu, Xinping Chen, Zhenling Cui, Jianbo Shen, Rongfeng Jiang, Guohua Mi, Yuxin Miao, Fusuo Zhang and Zhengxia Dou, at the China Agricultural University, Beijing, the Hebei Academy at Shijiazhuang and the University of Pennsylvania, of the Science and Technology Backyard (STB) platforms, an innovative technology-transfer initiative of the China Agricultural University, which has raised farm produce in 22 provinces in China.

STBs were first tried out in 2009 with small farmers in the Quzhou County, and then extended around the country. The model was adopted by other institutions, and by late 2015 there were 71 STBs in action. Each of the early STBs had one faculty member and two graduate students from the university and the platforms set up by other organizations are also supervised by an academic scientist. The academics lived in the villages and got the farmers to participate in research, education and extension activities, sharing knowledge, for effective transfer of the Integrated Soil-crop System Management (ISSM) technology.

The paper in Nature Communications describes a survey that the STBs first carried out, with 150 farmers randomly chosen from ten villages in Qunzhou County. A questionnaire covering price of seed, method of selecting varieties to plant, fertilizer, manure, irrigation, and pesticide use, machinery services and labour, as well as farmers’ information sources and knowledge base was administered and the re sponses analysed to isolate fifty factors that may impact the farms’ output. An Experimental Station that had been set up at Quzhou in 2007, to estimate the potential yields, then developed recommendations to improve the different factors affecting performance. The STBs then carried out single factor experiments, where two treatments of land were tried side by side, one the existing [on=one] practice and the other following a recommended change of only one of the factors identified, to assess the separate benefit of controlling each factor.

Farmer engagement

The STB staff provided on-site assistance in recommended practice, like sowing date, timing or rate of fertilizer user and factors that were found to increase yield were tested on more farmers’ plots. The record of benefits that came even to poor plots of land helped convince reluctant farmers. Other farmers, who came forward to participate more closely and also contributed to help adapt recommended practices to local conditions, were denoted as ‘leading farmers’, and they carried out trials where the top ten recommended practices were followed simultaneously. The Experimental Station then made changes in recommendations, based on the results of the farmer’s experience.

Integrated Soil-crop System Management

The central idea in ISSM is that managing agriculture as an integrated system allows equal or better productivity even with less use of artificial fertilizer. Resource intensive farming with aggressive fertilizer use may have been the imperative for decades, but is no longer a choice, in view of the heavy environment costs, both as a result of application of fertilizers as well as in their production.

Inspection of table 1 would show that fertilizer use, indicated as ‘N input’, is highest in the control group and the leading farmers and the STB villages do even better than the Experimental Station, both in cultivation of maize as well as wheat, and still have better yield and profitability.

The single- and multi-factor experiments served as live exhibits,” the Nature Communications paper says. ‘Field days’, where practices and benefits were discussed, were held through the growing season and workshops were held during the winter months to consolidate learning outcomes. Eye-catching posters presented science-based technology and the community was engaged with ‘yield contests’ and production oriented events, along with cultural and social activity, to bring the STB staff and the farmers together.

Briefing sessions were held before each crop management stage, with reminder messages sent by cell phone. While STB staff was available for on-site advice, the farmers elected leaders who coordinated field tasks and took decisions in consultation with STB staff. Uniform practices helped implementing ‘deep tillage’ and coordinate irrigation schedules. The STB also devised fertilizer formulae custom-made for each plot grouping and got manufacturers to create the necessary blends. Government officials were drawn in to increase support and services and practices like deep tillage were got subsidized. Two full-time agricultural assistants were even assigned to each county to help implement CAU recommendations. The Government also issued special logos to makers of trusted seeds or fertilizer products and the maker firms contributed money to yield contests and field demonstrations. They also followed STB events and recommendations and offered crop or region specific products and marking or labels, for example, specifying target crops and providing instructions by linking application rate with yield.

Assessment

In 2012, there was a review of performance and also a follow-up survey where questionnaires were completed in three groups of farms - in villages where farmers had access to STB, in neighbouring farms and in a control group of farms that were far removed. The neighbouring and control farms had similar cropping patterns as the first group, but they received no direct or on-site inputs from the STB. The results (see tables 1 and 2) clearly show that the STB farmers did better than the other two groups and had better understanding of key agronomic factors and higher adoption of recommended practices.


We can see that the STB has created positive increase in productivity and awareness. Even if we consider that the increase in the control group represents a trend, the record unmistakably points to the effectiveness and the influence outside selected villages, of the STB.

Lessons

But apart from the benefits to the output of the farms, is the value of the experience in communicating with and including farmers in the application of scientific methods in the practice of farming. While the world, in its race to raise food production, has created better genetic strains and less invasive, but effective methods of farming, it is the actual transfer of know-how to the farmer that would multiply the value of advances.

The CAU experience is a model for many administrations to emulate and attain sizeable gains even before newer things are discovered in laboratories.

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This is a link to a related story, about ISSM, carried in Sep 2014