Farmer taking the lead

30 years of farmer field schools: empowering small-scale farmers across the world

For 30 years, farmer field schools (FFS) have empowered farmers to support their communities’ natural, human, social and financial capital. ©FAO/CARVE India.


Since 1989, farmer field schools (FFS) have been empowering farmers to drive sustainable development at the local level. Originally conceived as a way to help Indonesian smallholders apply integrated pest management approaches in rice production, FFS have since found success in a wide variety of contexts around the world. Since 1989, an estimated 20 million smallholders have participated in FFS, which are now implemented in over 90 countries.

So, what exactly are farmer field schools?

At the core of farmer field schools is hands-on group learning. Supported by a trained facilitator, each FFS group gathers 20-30 smallholders and meets regularly over the course of an entire production cycle – from seed to seed, egg to egg, or calf to calf. Building on farmers’ skills and knowledge, FFS participants test new ideas and enhance their capacity to critically analyse and solve local agricultural challenges. 

Farmer field schools now cover a wide range of topics, including crops, aquaculture, animal husbandry, forestry, land and water management and social issues. Within these topics, entry points range from climate change adaptation and women’s empowerment to value chains. Because the learning process is so dynamic, farmer field schools can respond to local needs and opportunities, turning farmers into local organizers who can support their communities’ natural, human, social and financial capital.

In Viet Nam and Kenya, FFS are enabling farmers to improve their food security by testing and adopting new agricultural techniques. Left: ©FAO/Hoang Dinh Nam. Right: ©FAO/Deborah Duveskog.

In Viet Nam, for example, the FFS approach has revitalized rice-fish systems. Farmers used to raise fish in their flooded rice fields – fish would provide another food and income source for farmers. However, overuse of pesticides killed fish, disrupting this symbiotic relationship. By phasing out pesticides and reintroducing fish production in rice fields, the FFS programme enabled farmers to increase their income, improve their nutrition and sustainably manage their landscape.

Likewise, in Kenya, agropastoralist field schools have helped livestock-dependent communities build resilience against drought. A large part on the programme involved learning about producing, managing and utilizing fodder, with participants comparing the yields of feed grown with and without manure – but the field schools also covered new breeding and animal husbandry techniques. As a result of the field schools, livestock mortality and land degradation have fallen while incomes and food security improved. 

FFS is extremely important for women because it just helps you to understand who you are and what is your potential. – Mariama, a FFS graduate from Niayes, Senegal

In the Caribbean region, FFS have also empowered local food producers to respond to climate change while ensuring food security. In a region dependent on food imports, FFS have helped farmers increase their self-sufficiency by promoting crops produced in environmentally and economically sustainable agricultural systems. The schools also covered topics such as livestock production, land management, business skills, and health. So far, they have reached over 30 000 farmers.

FFS encourage participants to test new ideas and enhance their capacity to critically analyse and solve local agricultural challenges. ©FAO/Bahag.

Based on the success of FFS, FAO has also implemented Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools (JFFLS). JFFLS teach vulnerable children and young people more than just farming; they also focus on life skills, social issues, problem-solving and self-confidence. JFFLS use theatre, dance and roleplaying to approach sensitive topics (such as abuse and child labour), often staging productions in public to further promote discussions at community level. JFFLS also promote progressive attitudes, including gender equity.

The effects of the FFS go beyond local communities – contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. Given the central role of agriculture in the 2030 Agenda, FFS have an important role to play in promoting the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of rural communities. And because smallholder farmers are important producers of food for both rural and urban areas, they are also key to making #ZeroHunger a reality. As 30 years of FFS success shows, there are clear global benefits to empowering producers at the local level.

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2. Zero hunger, 4. Quality education, 8. Decent work and economic growth