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Agricultural research is increasingly being carried out on farmers’ fields, with farmers having a greater role in planning and executing it. As there is much less experience with such research than with the more familiar kinds initiated by researchers and carried out on research stations, many questions remain regarding the most effective research strategies, e.g. the respective roles of farmers and researchers, the kinds of questions for which each mode of research is best suited and the most appropriate on-farm research methods.

To help analyse these questions, we have gathered many examples of recently completed or on-going on-farm research projects. Our goals were firstly, to identify the lessons that have emerged from the cumulative experience so far and secondly, to suggest questions that need further discussion and analysis if the strategy is to achieve its full potential.

These materials came from six main sources:

In some of these reports, the fact that the research was carried out on farmers’ fields was mentioned almost incidentally, whereas others especially emphasized that aspect of the project. Others were reviews of various generic issues in the field, rather than reports on new research.

Although we were especially interested in research on organic farming, the materials were not restricted to that. Important lessons can be learned from on-farm research about all sorts of farming systems, whether truly organic, ‘organic-like’, or unabashedly ‘conventional’.

Not so clear is how relevant to developed economies is the work carried out in the developing world. Participatory and on-farm research is much more established in such well-known approaches as Farming Systems Research and Extension (FSR/E) and its many variations. However, the scope and goals of such research are typically very different from research in Europe. Usually it involves highly site-specific evaluations of possible solutions to well-identified limitations in the local production system. In contrast, European research on organic farming encompasses a broader range of subjects, including more basic studies of underlying processes. Also, the cultural and socio-economic context is very different; typically, researchers engaged in FSR/E are separated from the subsistence and small-scale farmers they work with by much greater differences in class and degree of formal education than in Europe and are often not even from the same country. Consequently, the relationship between farmers and researchers is quite different in the two settings.

Therefore, this paper mainly reflects work in Europe, North America and other developed regions. However, a good deal of interesting material was also received from developing countries. Researchers’ experience embodied in that material, too, can be valuable to European researchers, after suitable thought is given towards adapting its lessons to different social and economic circumstances.

The results of our search are certainly not complete; even combining all our sources, there is a ‘hit-or-miss’ character to our method. However, our goal was not a comprehensive collection of all relevant projects, nor a systematic analysis of the current state of the field. Rather, we were interested in offering qualitative discussions on issues that could be of value to people planning on-farm research. As will be seen, we do not consider it desirable to offer fixed prescriptions for dealing with these issues; our hope is only that we help others deal with them themselves.


There are many different reasons for research to be done on working farms, with different procedures depending on the reason(s), namely:

1. To allow the research to be conducted under a wider range of growing conditions than is available on experiment stations.

2. To allow the research to reflect more realistically the circumstances of working farms rather than the more artificial circumstances of a research station.

3. To allow studies of entire farms.

4. To allow researchers to immediately study the long-term effects (on soil, for example) of a management system that has already been in use for a long time.

5. To allow researchers to benefit from farmers’ expert knowledge of a farming system and to allow farmers’ management ability and preferences to be part of what is studied.

6. To give researchers an early indication of whether a new production method is likely to be attractive to farmers and for projects that also have a demonstration component, to encourage adoption of recommended methods by letting the area farmers see them in use in realistic conditions and by fostering farmer-to-farmer exchange of information.

7. To enable farmers to conduct their own trials in the future (or, more accurately, to enable them to perform more ‘formal’ kinds of trials, since many will have been conducting their own trials already).

8. To allow farmers to have a greater role in choosing research topics.

9. To enable farmers and researchers to develop a common language and to overcome barriers of communication.

Reasons one to six are researcher-oriented; that is, they are intended to increase the effectiveness of the research from the researchers’ point of view. Reasons seven and eight, in contrast, the primary direct beneficiary is the farmer, although when farmers benefit in these ways, researchers ultimately will benefit too. (Reason nine, the two groups are affected symmetrically, although this item is similar to the two preceding reasons as it deals more with the human aspect of the research process than with its specific subject matter).

There are also good reasons why not to do some research on-farm: logistically it is often more complicated; one needs to coordinate the activities of more people; experimental designs must usually be kept simpler; it is easier for things to go wrong; and sometimes it makes good scientific sense to probe underlying processes by deliberately setting up unrealistic conditions attainable only on the station. Therefore, the single most important question is whether to do a particular piece of work on-farm. In the following sections, we discuss some considerations that should go into this decision. We also discuss the related question of what style of on-farm research is appropriate for a particular project, once it has been decided whether to work on-farm.

Most of our discussion is on the level of the individual research project. Repeatedly, we will be making statements of the form ‘There are advantages to doing it this way, but there are other advantages of doing it that way.’ Hearing this so often might be frustrating and irksome because it might be interpreted as emphasizing what the research will fail to achieve. However, that is decidedly not our intention. As we discuss towards the end, what ultimately counts is what an individual project contributes to the total research effort, at least nationally and preferably internationally. We hope that keeping this in mind will reduce the possible frustration because it means that the limitations of a particular project and every project necessarily has limitations, are not fatal. It also means that despite the inevitable limitations, a particular effort can have a much greater value than if it were taken just by itself. Moreover, it relieves the researcher of the need to defend a particular approach against the criticisms of hard-liners who regard their favourite approach as the best one under all circumstances, or perhaps even the only valid one. However, it creates another responsibility, which must be dealt with at a higher level: to ensure that the overall research effort entails an appropriate balance among alternative approaches and that the results of diverse projects are appropriately integrated to get the maximum cumulative benefit. This is an important strategic issue that we do not get into.


An appreciable share of organic research is conducted on working farms, probably more than with conventionally oriented research. Several of the reasons listed are especially relevant to organic research. Organic systems are generally considered to be more closely linked to conditions on a specific site, making reasons one and two especially significant. Similarly, an important concept in organic farming is for the entire farm to be managed as a coherent system, so that whole-farm studies (reason three) are especially applicable. Many practising organic farmers have been doing it longer and know more about it than do many researchers, so that reasons four and five are particularly applicable.

However, there is only a partial connection between the kind of system being studied and the best place to study it. A significant amount of research on conventional systems has also been carried out on-farm; conversely, much worthwhile organically oriented research has occurred on research stations. This is how it should be.

Considering the research programme as a whole, both kinds of sites make important contributions to both kinds of systems, a point we return to near the end. There should be no a priori commitment to necessarily doing organic research on-farm. The choice should be made according to how applicable the above reasons are for a particular project.


On-farm research is commonly associated with ‘participatory’ research. The association is so close that people often assume the two necessarily go together. However, the farmers’ role should be decided separately from the choice of research site.

The decision should be based on the reasons for doing the research on-farm. If any of reasons five through nine on the above list are important, then clearly farmers must have an active role. Note, however, that reason eight can apply even if the work is not done on farmers’ fields. Farmers’ opinions can be solicited even for research station projects, or for research that will be done on other farmers’ fields. For example, in the US Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Programme, farmers are well represented on the review panels that help decide which grant proposals will be funded.

In contrast, for reasons one to four, the farmers do not necessarily have a major role. Obviously, they will have some role (one can hardly carry out research on a farmer’s field with the farmer totally uninvolved!), but their role might be subordinate to that of the researcher. This is not what is usually meant by the term ‘participatory’. That term is usually reserved for work in which farmers are full partners. In other cases, in contrast, their role might be purely logistical, such as when they carry out field operations. This is why on-farm research is sometimes described by a two-component classification scheme, e.g. ‘researcher initiated, farmer managed’, ‘farmer initiated, farmer managed’, etc. This allows a more precise description than the single term ‘participatory’.

It is important to think carefully about why (if at all) a particular piece of research should be done on farmers’ fields and then to think about what roles farmers should have. In some discussions of on-farm research, the distinction between researcher-oriented and farmer-oriented benefits does not seem clear, with all the potential benefits being claimed indiscriminately. While it is possible that a single project could benefit in more than one of the ways listed above, it is highly unlikely that it could be of benefit in all those ways at once. Moreover, there are possible conflicts among them, so that a project that has not sorted out these issues in advance might find that it comes short of achieving any of its goals.


The respective interests of researchers and farmers may conflict in ways that go beyond the distinction between reasons one to six (which mainly involve the immediate effectiveness of the research from the researchers’ perspective) versus reasons seven to nine (which directly mainly benefit farmers and are concerned with the human aspect of the research process). Typically, the two groups will differ regarding experimental procedures: the researchers will want carefully controlled and replicated studies, with several different treatments, but the farmers will often consider these too difficult to carry out. Even more deeply, the differences might involve the rationale for the research. Is it to advance knowledge, or is it to improve a particular farmer’s production system? For a farmer, the most relevant question is: Will this system work well on my farm? For a researcher, it is either: How well will this system work in various conditions? or what determines how well it will work in various conditions? Indeed, researchers may be seeking not to evaluate a system, but rather to study its underlying processes.

It is advisable not to deny this divergence of goals, in the hope that at the end everybody will be satisfied. Much better is for both groups to acknowledge it at the outset and adjust their expectations accordingly. That is, for research that is strongly farmer-oriented, the researchers could say: ‘Well, it is not the kind of thing we usually do (nor is it the kind that our institution prefers us to do), but we see the value of it for you and so we are happy to help you with it.’ Similarly, for researcher-initiated work the farmers might say: ‘Well, what you want to do does not seem to be worth much to us, but maybe you are right that in the long run it will help us, so we will work with you on it.’ (Or even: ‘We know you folks have to play your little games to get ahead in your jobs, but we like you, so we’ll go along with it.’) It is important to recognize that there are two different kinds of work involved, each worth pursuing as part of the total research effort but not necessarily in the same project. If, in contrast, each group tacitly assumed that its goal was primary in a particular project, then one is likely to end up disappointed and resentful.


A critical issue in on-farm research design is how strongly the experiment should be influenced by the fact that it is conducted on a farm. Especially for studies where reason two is important, the influence should be very strong. That is, the production methods should be as similar as possible to those used on the rest of the farm and the same constraints affecting the rest of the farm should be allowed to affect the experiment. For example, weed problems may be more difficult to manage on a working farm than on a small experimental plot (whether on the farm or on a research station), which can be hand-weeded if it is desired to have a ‘clean’ field. Similarly, on a working farm the manure application rate will be determined by the animal inventory and land available for spreading and therefore maybe too high or too low. In contrast, on a small experimental area it can be whatever the researchers choose; typically, the manure application is chosen to be optimal for the particular soil and crop.

Unfortunately, realistic management of the experimental area conflicts with traditional criteria for good experimental design because many more variables come into play. In traditional research, only a few variables are considered relevant and all others are carefully controlled at their ideal values (e.g. optimal soil moisture, excellent control of pests, optimal planting and harvesting dates, etc.). Otherwise, analysis of the data becomes more difficult and it may be impossible to pin down the phenomenon of interest. Recently, attention has been given to experimental design and analysis issues particularly relevant to on-farm research, with some success. However, the reason on-farm experiments are more difficult to analyse is not simply that appropriate and adequate tools were not previously available but because the phenomena themselves are more complicated when the experiment allows realistic farm conditions to prevail. Therefore, although we can hope for even more progress in analytical techniques, this will not make the problems go away. On-farm research is difficult to analyse because it allows more complexity, but it is more complex because it is more realistic. That is how it should be. Therefore, researchers have no choice but to reach in advance an appropriate compromise between a cleaner analysis and a more realistic experiment, depending on the purpose of the particular project.


The previous point refers to how an experiment is affected by being part of a farm. It does not refer to studying the whole farm; the research still deals with just part of a farm. Studying how one component of a farm is affected by its surroundings is an advance over the artificially insulated conditions of a research station but falls short of studying a whole farm system. Even studying all the components of a farm, a very ambitious goal but one that some research has made an honest start towards, is not the same as studying a whole farm system.

Many reports about on-farm organic research make liberal use of terms like ‘holistic thinking’ and ‘systems’ approach. However, we have yet to see a project that actually attains these goals. A common place in organic thinking is that with an organic farm, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This means that ‘whole-farm system’ is a strong term; it implies a level of understanding that goes qualitatively beyond just understanding the system’s components, even all the system’s components. It should not be used casually.

Yet it is used casually, entirely too casually. It might seem that we are just quibbling over language, whereas our other points were more substantive. However, the choice of language is also important. ‘System-level’ understanding is a goal worthy of great effort, even if now it remains a long way off. We do not achieve it by saying we have achieved it. That deludes us into thinking that we do not have to make the long, hard, effort to advance our understanding of agriculture in the profound way necessary to achieve a goal we can all agree upon: to be able someday to say ‘we truly understand this agricultural system.’


On-farm and station research each has certain advantages and limitations; we have discussed some aspects of the decision to use one or another for a particular project. Beyond the level of the individual project, however, the two approaches are complementary on a higher level, that is, from the point of view of the research programme as a whole. They should be pursued in a coordinated way, with each benefiting from the other. For example, an unusual phenomenon might be observed on a farm, which is studied first, but later studied on the station, under more carefully controlled conditions. Conversely, an untested innovation might be screened on the station first, but then tried on farmers’ fields for validation if it proves promising. Another useful strategy is to carry out parallel studies simultaneously on both kinds of sites, with the experimental treatments being very similar. Due to the systematic differences between the two kinds of sites, together they provide more thorough and credible results.

In general, when designing a research project it is important to consider not just how to make that project as valuable as possible when taken by itself but also it is important to consider its value as a contribution to a larger body of knowledge, both knowledge that exists already and knowledge that is being acquired through related projects. Yet this point of view is often not taken. Many projects seem entirely self-contained. As a result, the overall picture remains fragmented, with little or no possibility for any larger picture to emerge even after several studies of the same question.

There is a good deal of validity to the frequently heard charge that conventionally oriented research reflects a ‘one-size-fits-all’ outlook, ignoring the site specificity of farming. However, the opposing view, often proclaimed proudly in organic farming circles, can be carried too far. It may be true, in a literal sense, that every farm is unique but taking this principle literally can bring the scientific study of organic farming to a halt, as it implies that nothing learned on one farm relates to other farms. This means that there is no possibility for cumulative knowledge to advance. A scientist who believes that, is in the wrong field.


On-farm research has been of great value for studies of farming systems, organic and otherwise. However, it must be approached flexibly, avoiding the rigidity that organic farming researchers criticize (sometimes justifiably) in conventionally oriented research. That is why we have not offered clear prescriptions on how to proceed. Rather, we only have sought to alert researchers to important issues that sometimes are left unaddressed until it is too late. We do not, however, say how they are to be solved in every case. Figuring out the best strategies for one’s own particular research is too important to entrust to anyone else.



The objective of this paper is to introduce, based on own practical experiences, an approach to agricultural policy research that is based on intensive interaction with groups of farmers and to discuss to which extent participation is realized in this process. This approach consists of panels of farmers, scientists and agricultural advisers. In group meetings development strategies of typical organic farms and the farms reaction to changes in the policy environment are discussed on a regular basis. Farmers are consulted on their opinion and define potential farm development strategies in a cooperative manner, whereas the scientist analyses data. The potentials of this cooperative approach of consultation are discussed in the light of research objectives and the benefits and input requirements of participants.


Agricultural policy analysis has become fashionable throughout the world. The most common agricultural policy research is based on existing or specifically conducted survey data, providing a momentary picture, only. Analyses are either based on single model farms or on highly aggregated data. Furthermore, the dynamic components of human decision-making processes, i.e. non-monetary objectives of farmers are often neglected, because they are difficult to represent in mathematical models. Based on the claim of analysing policy objectives and measures together with those directly affected (Köhne, 1998), an approach is presented that is useful for examining the effects of agro-policy measures on typical organic farms. It is not only the goal to compile policy analyses for policy-makers, but to demonstrate to the participating farmers, which economic and structural effects potential changes in the policy environment will have on their farms. Furthermore, potential adaptation strategies and their consequences on the development of their farms, are to be illustrated.

This approach is based on a network of typical case study farms (Deblitz et al., 1998) in various European countries, with the aim of creating a long-term network of farmers, consultants and academics for policy impact analyses. Based on up-to-date data and estimates by panels of farmers and agricultural advisers, typical organic dairy and arable farms are defined and modelled with the simulation model TIPI-CAL© (Hemme et al. 1997). The varying conditions in the individual countries and their implementation of the agricultural policy measures are taken into consideration.


In a step-wise procedure, typical organic farms are selected in various countries (Figure 1). Through cooperation with experts and if available, databases of national institutions (ministries, research institutions, farming organizations), typical organic case study farms are established based on the criteria farm size, structure and region. The size and type of a farm typical for each country are defined first, then a region is selected in which that farm type can be found frequently. In each region, the exact structure and size of the typical farm are determined with the help of an adviser active in that area. Then expert panels consisting of three to five farmers with farms similar to the typical model farm and the respective adviser are selected.

Figure 1. Selection of case study farms for policy analysis

Figure 2. Set-up of typical farms and panel process

In a moderated group discussion the expert panel determines the economic and technical details of the typical farm in a process of consensus, as illustrated in Figure 2. To facilitate the process, the discussion is based on a first proposal made by the adviser, book-keeping data of the participating farmers and the expert knowledge of all panel members. The adviser’s role is to level out biases by knowing more farmers than those participating. Thus, data obtained reflect a group opinion but provide a far more accurate picture of reality than statistical averages from surveys.

Data from the group discussions are then examined for farm-internal plausibility by the respective scientist using the simulation model TIPI-CAL©. An overview of the typical farm, a profit-loss calculation and a balance sheet are sent to all participants and are then individually discussed and/or validated through a telephone interview with each panel expert. This method was chosen to ensure that the gathered data is correctly interpreted and that aspects that may have been overlooked in the discussions are taken into consideration. The corrected data are again sent out to all members of the expert panel as many times as is necessary to reach a consensus. Experiences to date have shown that approximately two rounds of corrections and discussions are necessary.

By the same procedure, potential development strategies of the typical farms are discussed and economic and structural details are frequently updated. Projections of potential farm development for the next ten years with various business strategies in a stable political environment are assembled and confirmed in the above-mentioned consensus process. Potential policy scenarios that take organic farming in agricultural policy into consideration are developed by an external panel of policy experts from various European countries and are brought into the discussion process. There, possible adaptation strategies of agricultural operations to a changing policy environment are discussed and potential policy scenarios are evaluated.


The ways of conducting research are manifold and the actual choice of method will always depend on the research objectives and circumstances. In particular, examination of socio-economic issues in agriculture should always assure farmer’s participation. However, the range of actually realized participation of farmers in research processes is broad (Table 1). On the one hand, research can be conducted by farmers in collective action, where farmers set their own research agenda and mobilize to carry it out, without the involvement of outsiders, such as initiators or facilitators. In other cases research might be conducted on the farmers. In this case the complete power remains with the outside observer, who analyses the situation. Farmer representatives are chosen solely as a token and have no power on the research process (co-option).

The presented panel approach picks up an intermediate form of farmer participation. The research process is conducted together with farmers, they are consulted about their opinion, but have limited possibilities in determining the primary research priorities, while the scientist analyses and decides on the course of action of the research process. However, the definition of farm development strategies to be modelled and discussed is conducted in a more cooperative manner. Farmers determine the priorities of modelling by proposing realistic farm development strategies. The economic projections can directly benefit their decision-making processes.

Table 1. Degree of farmer participation

Involvement of Farmers

Relationship of Research and Action to Farmers

Mode of Participation

Token, representatives are chosen, but no real input or power



Tasks are assigned, with incentives; outsiders decide agenda and direct the process



Farmers’ opinions asked, outsiders analyse and decide on a course of action



Farmers work together with outsiders to determine priorities, responsibility remains with outsiders for directing the progress



Farmers and outsiders share their knowledge to create new understanding and work together to form an action plan, with outsider facilitation



Farmers set their own agenda and mobilize to carry it out, in the absence of outside initiators and facilitators


Collective action

Source: Adapted from Pretty (1995) and Martin (1997)


The choice of research methods must always depend on the research objectives. The objectives of the outlined approach are to analyse agricultural policies by including the dynamic components of farmers’ decision-making processes, to demonstrate to the participating farmers which economic effect changes in the policy environment will have and will illustrate economically feasible adaptation strategies. The difficulty lies in choosing a research methodology that can cover all objectives in a satisfactory way.

To effectively analyse policy measures and objectives, a mathematical modelling approach without the participation of farmers would most commonly be chosen for reasons of data availability and time efficiency. To most effectively consider the dynamic components of farmers’ decision-making processes, a highly participatory process, such as collective action might be the most appropriate. However, this would imply that the power in deciding on a research agenda and directing the process would have to be with the farmers. Given the primary research objective, policy analysis, the aims and agenda of research are predefined before research is actually begun. Farmers are not included in this decision-making process. Another aspect to be considered when choosing highly participatory approaches is time requirement. With an increase in the level of participation the required time input increases considerably. Thus, highly participatory approaches, such as collective action or co-learning (Figure 1) are not the appropriate approaches in this respect.

Given the second objective, to produce useful output for the participating farmers, it has to be considered that farmers will only consider output as useful that they themselves cannot produce or only compile with a considerably higher time involvement. The benefits must always compensate for the required input of panels, otherwise neither the farmers, nor the advisers will participate. The illustrated approach can benefit all participants in some way.

The farmers and advisers can use the network as a platform of information exchange. As all modelling results (profit-loss account, balance, ten-year projections of farm strategies and policy scenarios) are quickly given to farmers in each step, results can provide founded arguments for political discussions. This again allows farmers to quickly respond to changes in the policy environment.

For the agricultural scientist this approach has great potential for international comparative research, due to the uniform procedure. As very little international comparative research exists within the organic farming sector, this can be particularly interesting. By partly avoiding tedious surveys, results can be obtained quickly. This can be especially interesting for conducting research for organic farming, where extensive databases are scarce.

For policy-makers a permanent network of panels can serve as a platform from which frequent feedback can be gained on policy proposals. This applies especially to intermediate agencies which are increasingly involved in policy design and implementation. Often policy measures are defined very broadly and need to be adapted to specific regions. Expert panels consisting of practitioners with typical farms in different regions can be powerful tools of quick and realistic evaluations of such policy options.

Thus, all participants can benefit from the input of expertise from others. In conclusion, considering the various research objectives that need to be met, the presented cooperative process of consultation is a feasible combination of classical policy research and participatory research approaches.


Deblitz, C., Hemme, T., Isermeyer, F., Knutson, R., Anderson, D., Goertz, D., Möller, C. and Riedel, J. (1998) Report on the 1st IFCN-Meeting 4/14-4/19/1998 at FAL, Braunschweig, Germany; IFCN Report 1/98 FAL-Institut für Betriebswirtschaft.

Hemme, T., Deblitz, C. and Isermeyer, F. (1997) TIPI_CAL Version 1.0. Ein Modell zur Politik- und Technikfolgenabschätzung für typische Betriebe im internationalen Vergleich. Arbeitsbericht 2/97 aus dem Institut für Betriebswirtschaft der FAL, Braunschweig.

Köhne, M. (1998) Betriebswirtschaft und Agrarpolitik. Agrarwirtschaft 47 (6): 241 pp.

Martin, M. (1997) 'Critical Education for Participatory Research' Sociological Research Online 2 (2). <>

Pretty, J. (1995) 'Participatory Learning for Sustainable Agriculture', World Development 23: 193-204 pp.



This paper deals with the profound restructurizing that research and extension agencies are experiencing in many countries. The motivations for such changes are partially due to financial constraints but mainly to the different socio-economic environment. Public research and extension agencies have lost their initial mission (the search for public good) and they must find new tasks and new goals. They should become i) more cost conscious and cost effective; ii) more “client” oriented; iii) more involved in local planning; and iv) more problem solving oriented. Organic farming is the most interesting option that public research and extension agencies have at present for justifying their existence.


Public research and extension are going through a painful period of debate and rethinking almost all around the world. It is not only a matter of money (public deficits, SAPs and similar), but rather it is a matter of the very mission of the agencies in charge of several functions: where do we want to go? How? Why? What for? The ancient fundamentals have been shaken by the second and third generations of problems caused by the Green Revolution; the debate about which future development lays in front of us is quite hot. High tech innovations? GMOs? Every year less and larger farms? Huge agri-food complexes? What happens to family farms? Biodiversity? What is healthy and what is unsafe? Are we all going to eat the same biologically sterile junk food, artificially flavoured, artificially coloured, but with a lot of added artificial vitamins? Or should we not take another path? Rethink the entire development model?


In most countries, agricultural research centres and extension services have been established by central or local governments (Swanson and Claar, 1984). Only in a few countries, like Italy (Santucci, 1994b), the USA (True, 1928, quoted by Swanson and Claar), France (Volpi, 1990) and maybe others, their very beginning was due to spontaneous grouping of enlightened farmers (generally the better off) and local organizations, who supported (financially and/or physically) the starting of some activities. Also in these latter countries the governments quickly increased their role in the funding of the self-managed extension services, that quite soon lost their character of independence and self-orientation.

Food security, for many decades, was a very important political goal and this production oriented research and extension agencies, almost totally supported by public funds, operated inside of the existing paradigm (that they were also contributing to create). Either the open and hidden motivations of such public intervention are obvious:

- the socio-economic relevance of agriculture as a share of GDP and as a provider of employment;

- the enormous number of producers that the non-governmental extension services were unable to reach;

- the absence of other agencies (i.e. input suppliers and output processors) that could reduce the need for information;

- the high rate of return to public money invested in agricultural research and extension. Being at the early stage of agricultural development, farmers were at the beginning of the law of diminishing returns);

- last but not least, the political control of the people exercised through such “technical” services.

Only in a few countries, like Denmark, some German Laender and to some extent France, was agricultural extension mainly provided through farmer organizations, eventually funded and supported by governments.

The history of agricultural development and that of the agricultural extension services clearly shows the deviations and distortions of the public agricultural research and extension agencies. The efforts made by researchers, managers and policy-makers to overcome them have been clear and continuous (Andersson, 1989, Koehnen and Cristovao, 1991, Thogersen et al., 1993, FAO, 1990, FAO, 1993, OCSE, 1990), namely:

- top down approach;

- lack of innovations, often not appropriate to the ecological and/or socio-economic context;

- blanket recommendations;

- free riding;

- increasing gaps between the contact farmers and the marginal ones;

- growing costs.

Throughout its history, agricultural extension has been evolving and adapting: Wielinga (1999) elaborates the various steps experienced in the Netherlands with the following definitions:

- extension as technology transfer, until mid 1950s;
- extension as facilitator in community development, until mid 1960s;
- extension as assistance in decision-making, in the 1960s;
- extension as intermediary, late 1970s;
- extension as facilitator for empowerment, also in the 1970s;
- extension as a persuasive tool, in the late 1980s;
- extension as a mediator for collective aspects of knowledge, now and in the future.

As a matter of fact, the entire socio-economic situation that allowed the establishment and the growth of public agricultural research and extension agencies has changed:

a. Private operators (ranging from cross national megacompanies to small specialized firms) are involved in the production of “innovations”.

b. New agencies are at work in the countryside, complementing and/or replacing the semi-monopolistic situation of the old public extension services: input suppliers, output-processors and free-lance advisers. Farmers rely more and more on their advice, to evaluate alternatives and/or make plans for the future. In the case of contract farming, the processing or marketing firms provide a full package of advice and inputs.

c. Technical innovations are more complex than before and often require a careful financial analysis, project making and a lot of paperwork, that extension agents are not used to providing.

d. The absolute and relative number of agricultural population have decreased, therefore, both their socio-economic relevance and political strength have been reduced.

e. Food, fibres and timber can easily be imported from other countries and the social contract linking consumers and producers, through the government, has been shaken.

f. Tax payers, consumers and other productive categories increasingly question why governments are spending money to support services that benefit only a small section of the society.

g. The educational level of the farmers has increased. Farmers can accede to a variety of sources of information; are able to understand what they read and/or listen to; they can also merge and/or compare information coming from various sources.

h. The offer of information has increased: handbooks, technical magazines (general and specific), newsletters, radio and television programmes, information-age technologies are available to various extents.

i. The farmers' mobility has also greatly improved: farmers no longer live lost in the countryside, going to the fair in the village once a year, but they drive to town weekly, go to regional and national fairs, attend demonstrations and exhibitions, participate in conferences and debates.

j. The farmers' income, in most situations, has increased and they can now afford a standard of life equal to that of urban dwellers and other professional sectors. A portion of their cost of production already goes to services provided at a cost.

k. Public agency personnel, who supposedly serve homogeneously a heterogeneous clientele, tend to concentrate efforts on the "adopters", with higher education, larger farms, more resources, simply leaving aside the marginal producers, who are much less easy to reach (and to convince).

l. Poor managerial control allows the public agencies' extension agents to use their spare-time (and sometimes also their official working time) to provide advice and other services to developed farmers, charging lower tariffs than free-lance advisers, who therefore suffer this unfair competition.

m. Since advisers in public and semi-public bodies are increasingly involved with the policing of the numerous EU regulations, the time devoted to technical advice is almost disappearing and most energies are concentrated in the so called “paper farming”.

Furthermore, at present there does not appear to be any clear policy goal for agricultural policy, but several competing, conflicting areas involve agricultural policy-making: rural development, environmental policy, free trade and deregulation, perseverance of “ancient policies”, health regulations, etc.


The above-mentioned situation has determined, in most countries with developed agriculture and an overgrown institutional framework (research centres, extension services, agricultural schools and universities), that public expenditure for agricultural research and agricultural extension services has been reduced (Van den Ban, 1999). This is leading to restructuring, down-sizing and elimination of many components that used to be given for free, etc.

Public funds for agricultural research have decreased, experiment stations have been sold or privatized, extension services have been priced, agricultural schools have been closed and institutions have been merged.

These measures have probably had a positive aspect, in terms of partial solutions, of some of the above-mentioned distortions, but still they remain within the ancient paradigm: that there is a place where innovation is made, followed by a diffusion model that spreads the innovation to new generations of farmers and technicians through the school system and to present farmers and technicians through the informal education system (“extension education”). The motto is “to improve, not to change”.

A second aspect of the paradigm is “the bigger the better”, leading to bigger research centres, centralized decision-making, more focused research topics and so on.


The crisis of the old fashioned “technology transfer” approach is evident and well-known, but the solutions for overcoming the problems are far away. Why? Because decision- makers (within administration, the research and extension sector and farmers’ unions, etc.), do not want to admit that a totally new approach must be chosen.

There is a growing consensus among the researchers who work for and in developing countries, that innovations should be found with a more participatory approach, from bottom up. Or that planning for development should also come from bottom up, but it is also true that a few books or a few conferences do not make the difference. The real attitudes and behaviour still dominating the daily lives of most institutions operating in Europe for developed farming systems, are of the old top-down approach.

It is time to understand that the public research and extension services cannot compete with the forces dominated by a few cross national Mega companies. They cannot compete in the same run. The development model induced and determined by the “old mission” is suicidal not only for most farmers, but for the existing agencies too. The only feasible survival is to jump the fence and look for a new mission.

The new mission will be to defend diversity on a sound economic and long lasting ecologically oriented basis. I have already written this in a letter to a farmers’ journal in Italy. We cannot compete with the production cost of soybean, neither can we win on mass produced tasteless cheeses, but on the lentils of Castelluccio and on the sheep cheese of Montepulciano, we can put up strong resistance.

Most research and extension agencies, in Europe can only survive if they admit that they must work for the retrieval, improvement and enhancement of typical products (Arfine and Mora, 1998), better if organically made.


Organic farming is a typical case of an integrated package of knowledge (production processes and new products, new organization, new marketing channels, etc.), that the organic farmers have been producing by themselves, self-organizing in groups, cooperatives, associations, interest groups, etc., based on the full utilization of local resources and biodiversity.

Public research and extension systems have been unable to meet the needs of organic farmers and administrations have had a suspicious and punitive attitude towards the innovators, who in the past had only to rely upon themselves. Padel (1994) quotes a variety of sources that indicate the lack of information as one of the main constraints faced by organic farmers, or by willing-to-be organic producers. These studies were carried out in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Rogers (1983) was correct when he defined the innovators as "venturesome" and when he wrote "communication patterns and friendships among a clique of innovators are common, even though the geographical distance between innovators can be considerable”. In most countries, organic producers had to struggle in order to establish viable farms and they had to set up their own knowledge base.

Until a few years ago, only minimal amounts of public funds were allocated for research, extension and organizational build-up, which should be considered the real engines for sound development. Some interesting examples can be found in Italy (Santucci, 1995), where networking was the key word: by the end of 1990 there were 175 different organizations in Italy. They care about the realization of some trials and experiments, the provision of some technical advice, educational development of their members and marketing of products. Informal interest groups have been and still are the most diffused method for the exchange of information on technical aspects and market perspectives, similarly to the situation described for Germany by Luley (1990, 1996) and by Bader (1992).

Another type of self-organization is the multi-purpose cooperative, as described, that acts as input supplier, output processor, employs one agronomist for small applied experimentation and gives some advice to members. A more propulsive and integrated role is played by some regional associations, which are also increasingly becoming active actors in the research for funds (EU demonstration and pilot projects, Leader, NOW, ADAPT and similar programmes) in order to bypass and overcome the absence of public authorities. The re-orientation of the EU structural funds has created new opportunities for local organizations and for grass root projects. Most of the project elaboration is made by self-managed associations and/or by free-lance advisers (Santucci, 1994b).

The burden of all this organizing was supported by the first organic farmers, who have been taxing themselves for the setting up of all these activities. Furthermore, a good deal of them has spent a lot of time volunteering for the common benefit: staffing the association, linking with other people, lobbying with local politicians, organizing courses for interested people, trying new solutions and sharing their results.

Only recently, have some regional or national governments begun to appoint some technical staff to deal with organic farming and are also supporting with some funds, the existing associations.


It is important to distinguish between “pure” or “basic” research and applied research. The dominant confusion is only determining that sometimes scientists react negatively.

In the so called “basic research”, carried out within laboratories, experimental units, parcels and so on, research projects are very much focused on a single, very limited subject (“reductionism to its maximum elevation”), without any immediate relevance for farmers (or consumers). Research results are communicated in scientific conferences, later published in international journals, generally in English and the target for this “diffusion process” are other scientists, all around the world. It is impossible and not wise to change this aspect.

Then comes the “applied research”, whenever and wherever many different research results, from many different disciplines, can be assembled together in order to propose something new to farmers. In this second step, another type of scientist should work, together with extension agents, on real situations, aiming at validating the proposed change. The EU definition for this type of project is “pilot project”. The outcome of these experiences is not always positive. The experience could show negative technical results, or it could be economically negative. Anyway, the results of this second type of research are communicated in national or regional meetings, they are published in national journals, in the local language (or in the language spoken by the educated technician) and the main target of the diffusion process is the extension agents.

In this second type of research, scientists and (some) extension agents and representative farmers must learn to work together. This is a fundamental step that all three categories should do. It is not only the scientists who should move towards the extension agents and the farmers. Many extension agents are not ready to cooperate fully and sincerely with scientists. Change agents want solutions but are not willing to work together to find them. The same happens too often with farmers.

The third step towards a progressive diffusion of knowledge comes after the pilot project has proved to be successful and its results can be promoted. Now enter the classical extension programmes, based on proper mix of methods and media, aiming at reaching full time farmers and part-time farmers. The protagonists of this phase are the extension agents. Scientists almost disappear because they are already engaged in other applied research projects.

Now the problem is: how can a system like the one we inherited from decades of top down and reductionistic approach be driven towards a more participatory, bottom-up and holistic system? Sticks and carrots? In some countries this is happening because some people, within the administration, unions, universities and extension services, are becoming aware of this great global challenge and they deeply want to change. In other countries, it is only the financial aspects that matter: scientists, advisers and other segments of the administration turn “organic” only because this is where the money is. Another aspect is the ability of the organic movement to act as a lobby and to infiltrate the decision centres, where decisions about fund allocations are made. The situation in Europe is extremely heterogeneous (Besson, 1990; Wynen, 1997; Lampkin et al., 1999), according to the social awareness of environmental problems, with the structural situation of organic farms and with the market perspectives of its products.


Advisory agencies are not only responsible for the creation and dissemination of technical knowledge, but they are increasingly involved in several steps of policy design and implementation. Most EU regulations, for example, are very “broad” because they must be applied in so many different ecological and socio-economic areas, from Northern Finland to Southern Greece. At national, regional and local levels, EU regulations must be adapted and codified in order to meet the specificity of each micro area. This adaptation needs true concertation between all stakeholders. The adaptations should not be made by the “technicians” alone, sitting in their offices, but they should be debated and analysed together with representatives of real organic farmers.

Once the legislation has been adapted, it must be communicated to all interested farmers: this again needs a strong commitment by the extension Agency and by the local advisers.

Furthermore, many EU regulations do not only require technical changes, but they also need huge paper work. It is legitimate to say that this action can be made by private advisers, while public servants are supposed to verify the correctness of applications.


Within the EU and probably in many other countries, a larger portion of public resources is allocated to rural development programmes, like LEADER, for example, which can include (or not) an organic component. These components can be applied research, marketing research, advice, production of media for consumers, funds for on-farm investments, training for farmers, funds for off-farm investments (processing plants, refurbishing of shops, etc.).

Advisory agencies, either public, semi-public or totally private, must play a major role in the shaping of such integrated projects, where a participatory approach (both institutional and financial) is required.


Organic farming is becoming trendy. More and more conventional scientists, advisers and decision-makers are entering into OF. However, their scientific and technical knowledge, the scientific approach and the behaviour itself, remain conventional. It is only a very thin label, that has been put on a jar containing a very old jam. Real holistic research is rare to find and the methodological discussions far from being solved (Alrøe et al., 1998, Lampkin et al., 1999).


Research programmes and extension activities tend to reduce diversity, because they aim at achieving a result that could be proposed to a high number of adopters. This leads inevitably to some simplification of the enormous variability that can be found in present organic farms. Researchers, also within programmes for the improvement of OF, select genetic lines which show higher yields or better resistance to pests.

What can be done to reduce this risk? Seed banks again? Conservation in situ?

Another debated aspect is if it is better to have specialized research and extension agencies for OF, or if OF should be incorporated into a major agency (Padel, 1998, Kaltoft, 1999).


Applied research and extension in conventional agriculture increasingly appear amongst the public functions that should be privatized. This has already happened in many countries, either developed or developing countries. The major justification for such change is that public applied research and extension agencies have concentrated their efforts on the production of a private good: information for income supporting innovations.

As a matter of fact, most agricultural extension activities are already exercised by private and semi-public agencies and farmers are already paying for the services provided. This move allows the farmers to be in control of what they get, to select the advisers, to choose the most cost effective information source and information method.

Farmers are replacing public extension agents with other experts, drawn from other agencies and in some cases developing their own alternative solution.

The same has been happening to applied research: why should the general public support activities aiming at benefiting (if success prizes the researchers) only a few innovators?

Public funding for research and extension in organic farming is justified, on the contrary because they work for the mutual benefit of farmers and consumers and for the safeguard of many common goods (biodiversity, environment) that the short-term perspective of the market cannot fully price.

However, research and extension in OF also clearly benefit private operators, so shared costs, particularly in the area of advice, might be an ideal solution.

Public funding alone is not sufficient. Methodological changes, behavioural modifications, institutional re-arrangements are also needed, in order to set up a really new way to create and disseminate knowledge, amongst the many stake-holders.


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[2] This work was carried out with financial support from the Commission of the European Communities, Agriculture and Fisheries (FAIR) specific RTD programme, FAIR3-CT96-1794, “Effects of the CAP-reform and possible further development on organic farming in the EU”. It does not necessarily reflect its views and in no way anticipates the Commission’s future policy in this area.

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