A farmer field school is a school without walls. A group of farmers gets together in one of their own fields to learn about their crops and things that affect them. They learn how to farm better by observing, analysing and trying out new ideas on their own fields.
FAO and other development organizations have been promoting farmer field schools – an innovative approach to adult education first developed in Southeast Asia for pest management – to improve land and water management in Africa. Unlike traditional approaches to agricultural extension, which rely on extension workers providing advice to farmers, farmer field schools enable groups of farmers to find out the answers for themselves. That means the farmers can develop solutions to their own problems.
Farmer Field School Approach (FFS) - is based on the concepts and principles of people centred learning, and was developed as an alternative to the conventional top-down test and verification (T&V) extension approach. It uses innovative and participatory methods to create a learning environment, including learning networks, in which the land users have the opportunity to learn for themselves about particular crop production problems, and ways to address them, through their own observation, discussion and participation in practical learning-by-doing field exercises. The approach is now being used to enable farmers to investigate, and overcome, a wider range of SLM problems, including soil productivity improvement, conservation agriculture, control of surface runoff, water harvesting and improved irrigation.
The FFS approach was originally developed for training rice farmers on integrated pest management, now programmes and projects have been initiated to improve and further integrate soil productivity improvement in the FFS curriculum. A limited experience of pilot testing of the FFS methodology on integrated soil management took place through the FARM Programme in four Asian countries at the end of the 1990s, but more recently FFS programmes on soil productivity improvement have started applying, improvising, validating and/or adapting the FFS approach for soil productivity improvement in East and Southern Africa. One critical success factor that has been identified for the FFS approach for improved land management is the need for capacity building of facilitiators and curriculum development, especially for farmer-led FFS that are seen as the key to scaling-out the approach. Therefore, service providers (farmer group facilitators, extension providers, NGOs, etc.) need supportive materials to illustrate good soil and water management practices that can be tested through participatory technology development and demonstrations, and to help in identifying the most appropriate options for different farm types and contexts. They also need information to highlight and understand aspects of decreasing soil productivity and its' improvement.
The farmers meet every week from planting to harvest, to check on how the crops are growing, look at the amount of moisture in the soil, count the numbers of pests and beneficial creatures such as earthworms and spiders.They do experiments in the field.
The facilitator of a farmer field school is normally an extension worker or another farmer who has graduated from another field school. The facilitator guides the group, helps them decide what they want to learn and think of possible solutions, and advises them if they have questions. The farmers draw on their own experience and observations, and make decisions about how to manage the crop. The group must hold two or more field days to show other farmers what they are doing.
The farmers also host exchange visits for members of other field schools, and visit the other field schools themselves. This allows them to share ideas and see how others are dealing with similar problems. At the end of the crop season, the farmers “graduate”: they receive a certificate from the field school organizer. The members are then qualified to start a new field school as a facilitator.The field school includes team building and organization skills, as well as special topics suggested by the field school members themselves. The field schools are a way for farming communities to improve their decision making and stimulate local innovation for sustainable agriculture. The emphasis is on empowering farmers to implement their own decisions in their own fields.