Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page





Röling and Jiggins (1998) identified three models for the development of agricultural knowledge: (1) technology transfer; (2) management development; and (3) support to organic agricultural systems. The principle underlying the latter is that innovations proceed from improvements to the management of a farm as an agro-ecosystem. Ecological principles are applied to farm-specific circumstances, in which natural processes are deployed to the maximum and where observation underlies anticipation. A farmer's learning process is based upon trust in his own observations, knowledge and decision-making capacities. Empirical learning is fundamental to this experimentation, observation and measurement. So, too, is group discussion. The support process should be focused upon farmers as experts on their own farm.

Motivation of Method

The task is to develop a method whereby research support is provided to a farmer currently learning by experience in the conditions prevailing upon his farm. An important motive for this is that many of the results established in fundamental and practical research are not applied to farm practice. This is because, whether consciously or not, the conduct of the research too strongly reflected a single style of farm, one not recognized by all farmers: a style focused primarily on maximizing income and growth.

In practice it may also be the case that the differences between a regional experimental station and a working farm are so great that farmers do not trust its findings. After all, the reality of their situation is far more complex than the results obtained in the isolated conditions of the trial farm. By contrast, solutions that are developed in practical on-farm collaboration are adapted to the farmer's own abiotic and socio-economic conditions.

Another motive for focusing on farmers' own experiences is that innovations, derived from their own practical circumstances, contribute to wider agricultural development. Focus on pioneering farms promotes the development of knowledge and new hypotheses that farming in general can support. Work performed with farmers individually or in research groups stimulates both their creativity and their independence and gives them greater trust in their own process of research and development.

The motivation to stimulate farmers to adopt an attitude of research can only increase when there are cuts in research programmes and when agriculture de-intensifies. Besides individual differences in farm style, regional differences are once more becoming more distinct. The method presented in this paper is effective in the step-by-step development of regionally and land-based farming.

Reflective Action as an Innovative Approach

At the end of 1998 a three-year project will culminate in a handbook for extension workers and applied researchers wishing to facilitate empirical learning in farm practice (Baars and De Vries, 1998). In other words, farmers will be supported and coached in those aspects of their daily work where experience leads to change and innovation. The key assumption underlying our work is that farmers are people who approach their work in a professional fashion. This professionalism can express itself in three different ways: in reflective action, in prescription-based action and in action derived from a sense of personal commitment. We would particularly like to focus on reflective action as a basis for agricultural innovation.

Reflective action makes it possible to transcend the one-sidedness of any action that is based purely on prescriptive or personal considerations; this is therefore the point at which empirical learning becomes significant. With regard to purely prescription-based action, a generic, top-down type of extension founded on basic and applied research is more applicable; with regard to action based solely on personal commitment, only individual support is adequate, provided it has been requested.

Experience and empirical knowledge rather than scientific knowledge and the natural or physical sciences are central to reflective action. The stress on farm practice and on professional action represents a paradigm shift. Instead of acting according to a generally-based prescriptive protocol, the development of the farmer as an actor and learner becomes central. Farm-based search and learning processes are the subject of this method.

Research and extension thus assume a support role in the gaining of new experience. As someone supporting the farmer's process of research and learning, a coaching role is assumed. During the advisory interview, the input will therefore be to identify the potential for action and to elaborate this with the farmer, whereas research will lay greater stress on experimental development. In addition, a new conceptual framework is needed that is based upon the farmer's experience. The development of empirically-based concepts can thus mean that individual experience is significant to an entire sector.

Not all actions are integrated into our experience: an action is only integrated via reflection, whether structured or otherwise. It is therefore useful to reflect on those actions which, in one way or another, catch the attention in one's daily work: actions which break new ground with regard to habit, tradition or routine. By means of experimental and non-experimental research on farms, experience, too, can emerge in an explicit form; by making experience central, it is also possible to explore the potential for development that any work may hold out. This requires a respectful, positive attitude of both applied researcher and extension worker vis-à-vis the research and the farmer's learning processes.


Reflective Action

Reflection on intuitive action reveals a form of action in which technical appropriateness and personal commitment can combine to reinforce one another. This form of action pre-supposes the farmer's own, autonomous relationship with his profession. It is thanks to reflection that personal commitment does not degenerate into personal arbitrariness. The knowledge needed for this form of action is revealed in the extensionist's reflection on and exploitation of the farmer's unexpectedly successful intuitive action. This empirical knowledge encompasses both objective and subjective knowledge, which is situational in nature, becomes manifest due to personal application, can be communicated and invites research and authentic action. Sharing one's work in this way and then reflecting on it brings about a more equitable form of collaboration.

Prescription-based Action

Prescription-based action is performed according to rules and prescriptions. The experience of others, or the knowledge gained by others in their research, are applied to one's own situation without any appreciable adaptations taking place. A degree of automatism is inherent to such a series of such actions. Prescription-based actions follow a plan and are not always performed consciously. For the eventual action to be accomplished, a list of fixed points are followed in a fixed sequence. In essence, prescription-based actions take place according to protocol; they require objective knowledge and involve a hierarchical form of collaboration. Communication on them is simple and unequivocal. All norms are determined from a point of view of scientific objectivity.

Prescription-based action leads to a system of action that is largely fixed. Social acceptance ('common sense') has developed with regard to the best solution in a given situation ('best technical means'); very often one or another scientific principle underlies this state of affairs. This type of action is characterized by the technological nature of the solutions it provides. These are uniform in nature, in other words, they can be applied in a broad range of situations.

This type of action also has a place in organic farming and justifiably so; it is found, for example, in work with so-called organic preparations for combating pests and diseases, such as the introduction of a bacterium for the infection of creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) and in the use of nematodes to combat slugs and in organically-justified preparations against scab in apples and Phytophtera in potatoes.

Action Based on Personal Commitment

For many people, prescription-based action is not always enough to cover real-life situations; this explains the existence of personal commitment. Action is viewed by such exponents as a form of personal interaction with whoever or whatever one is working with. The knowledge needed for this type of action is subjective and/or inter-subjective. A democratic style of collaboration is appropriate. Very often there is no communication on this type of action, or otherwise only on the result of the work in question. In its one-sidedness, this is an instinctive and self-willed mode of action.

An antithesis is often posited between prescriptiveness and personal commitment: i.e. action has either a prescriptive or a personal orientation and collaboration is either hierarchic or democratic. In other words, a conflict is perceived. At the same time, the opposite approach cannot be ignored. Some kind of integration of the two approaches must take place. In the final analysis, people do the work, not machines; on the other hand, what matters is not only the satisfaction a farmer derives from his work, but also the demonstrable result. The dynamics of this conflict are such that it is precisely the thing that one resists that is adopted.

From our point of view, it is not so much a question of striking a compromise between the two as of seeking a level at which the opposition between them can be transcended, thereby uniting both forms of action via this integration, even enhancing them. Negative aspects such as one-sidedness then fall away. Any case history contains not only a demonstrable objective element, but also a personal element that determines the nature of the individual problem.

Terms of Reference for Applied Researchers and Extension Workers

Our conception of facilitating empirical learning corresponds with the individual farmer's process of discovery and learning, which underlies this development of reflective action. We can only achieve this facilitation if we ourselves work upon the development of our own professional reflectiveness. In this sense, no vision of farm practice can be separated from a vision of the actions of the individual extension worker or practical researcher.

Any examination of the ways in which reflective action can be developed in farm practice means that no applied researcher or extension worker may restrict his actions solely to the provision of prescriptive advice or to working from a sense of personal commitment.

The first, i.e. prescriptive advice, results in a top-down approach, with transposition of objective scientific knowledge onto a practical situation and with a hierarchy of extension from research to extension and from extension to farm. It is generally supposed that one only needs to collect the relevant information in order to complete one's own action protocol and then to supply a protocol to the farmer (as with advice on manuring).

The second, i.e. working from a sense of personal commitment, may manifest itself in an over-involvement with the farmer's problems. It is as if the adviser or researcher hijacks the problem in order to solve it for him. The result may be good (for example, the adviser is able to locate the source of a subsidy) or it may be bad (for example, by trusting to the advice of the adviser, the farmer may make the wrong investment; or, because the researcher was too absorbed in his own work as a hobby, the farmer's collaboration was all to no avail).

When supporting a farmer in the process of reflection, the extensionist will constantly find himself in unexpected situations that call for intuitive action. Technical knowledge and personal commitment are both prerequisites in such situations. Facilitating empirical learning simultaneously requires and brings about equality in the discussions between the farmer and the researcher or extensionist.

A mixture of all three types of action is inherent to farm practice. In a particular area or at a particular moment, a farmer will work from his sense of personal commitment; in another he will take recourse to prescription-based action. At times there will be occasion for the development of reflective action.

The focus of the method described here is that developmental potential inherent to each situation should be identified. This enables you to develop new knowledge that is adapted to the farmer's individual situation.


As a farm adviser or researcher, you are called in when there is a need for change or innovation. Against a background of facilitating empirical learning, we apply ourselves to the change or innovation that is appropriate to the person or his situation: in other words, we apply ourselves to a change or innovation that is latently sustainable. A sustainable innovation thus comes forth out of the action itself, out of action based on solidarity and the ability to surrender old patterns of thought. Inspiring ideas play a role in such innovation.

A characteristic of action is that it is performed almost entirely outside consciousness: it is embedded in habit. This makes it possible to act in a way that is applicable to this specific situation. Via action we can commit ourselves to a situation and thus we are able to act; via thought, we can only look at a situation from outside. In reflection upon an action that was unexpectedly successful, in other words, upon intuition and the situational action, the innovative action can become visible and manifest itself cognitively.

How do we Discover this Relationship between Action and Thinking in Practical Situations?

For example, someone may already have acted innovatively, but is not yet conscious of this. Such a person may then experience his intuitive action as a feeling of happiness, but without realizing precisely what he has done. Whether or not intuition will occur on a subsequent occasion is a question of luck and this intuition is not followed by a reflective process.

It is difficult to think reality, or put differently, it is difficult to think in accordance with reality. Someone has already created the new: at an individual physical level, it is already known. If the new can become conscious knowledge, it can be experienced as a liberation. The farmer may experience the researcher's or extensionist's attempts to identify (i.e. name) this action as irritating or woolly ('I already knew that!'). However, it is only by being named that action is freed and that it thereby inspires new action, on your own part and on that of others. If it is possible to conceptualize the new action, then stability appears: a new habit, tradition, technique or system is created. If it is possible to conceptualize the dynamic of the innovative action, it can have an inspiring effect on further innovation.

It seems far easier to give form to reality via thought, for surely it is only then that we think clearly and concretely? But as our thinking is limited and also filled with judgement and prejudice, we are seldom able to think in harmony with reality in such a way that the action based on this thought leads either to satisfactory results or to sustainability.

Innovation will result from action when a boundary is experienced, i.e. when it is experienced that the habit or the tradition is no longer sufficient and that the action is no longer appropriate to the situation.

In certain cases, an innovate technique may come to a given person as from an external source. When this is directly applicable, no further innovation follows, but a tradition is applied. It is also possible that this technique will lead to an experience of the boundary and thereby that innovation comes about.

We can express this schematically as follows:


When unreflecting commitment-based action takes place, this action becomes increasingly self-willed and it becomes increasingly difficult to discuss. While this is not to say that the action itself is inadequate, the risk of failure grows, as does the wider intolerance of failure: 'He shouldn't have been so stubborn!' To an extensionist or researcher, failure is extremely discouraging: 'I put so much into it and now I never hear anything from them!'

If you fail to reflect on prescriptions, your actions become more and more of an automatism. Reflection enables the same action to become more authentic and situational adequacy to increase. In practical situations we encounter all manner of mixed forms.

A specific way of arriving at an understanding of reality that can inspire one to action is via empathetic observation, which is also an active, operative style of observation (in the sense that it is empirical and not based on scientific observation from an external viewpoint) (Van der Burgt and De Vries, 1998).


Baars, T and A. de Vries (1998): De boer als ervaringswetenschapper. Elsevier, Doetinchem.

Röling, N.G. and J. Jiggins (1998): The ecological knowledge system. In: N.G. Röling and A. Wagemakers (eds). Social learning for sustainable agriculture. Cambridge University Press.

Van der Burgt, G.J. and A. De Vries (1998): Development of farmers: search and learning processes throughout new ways of extension and research. Paper presented at IFOAM-Conference, Argentina.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page