March 18, 2013

Fostering Farmer-driven Innovation: Creating Opportunities for Sustainability

Fiona McKenzie, Australian Futures Project

Editor’s note: In the last two posts the Landscapes Blog looked at what is needed for transitions to more integrated and sustainable systems of agricultural production, in both an industrialized and developing nation context. These types of large-scale changes are often orchestrated with high level policy shifts, but individual farmers also play an essential role in developing the new knowledge and practices necessary to make significant change. Today, Fiona McKenzie shares some of her work at University of Sydney on what drives this farmer innovation. 

The innovative capacity of farmers remains an overlooked resource in efforts to create more sustainable agricultural systems. While knowledge generation and the interactions that allow for knowledge exchange are key processes of innovation, these processes are not well understood at the farm level, nor are they well reflected in policy approaches for agricultural innovation. A recent study published in Australian Geographer, aimed to fill this gap by focusing on “what works in enabling farmer-driven innovation?” in New South Wales, Australia.

In this study it became apparent that farmers used a range of strategies to generate new knowledge and strengthen farmer-to-farmer networks in order to improve farm management. For example, farmers observed signals from the landscape, related to soil, vegetation, and livestock conditions. These signals, such as changes in rates of soil moisture retention, regeneration of perennial grasses, soil carbon levels, and bird and other native species diversity were used to inform management practices. By better understanding natural processes, farmers were able to monitor the cumulative effects of land management changes and adjust their practices accordingly.

Such observations of biophysical changes were particularly important for farmers experimenting with new approaches, and had “no one to follow”.  Farmers often complemented observations by testing microbial levels in soil or plant foliage to detect nutrient deficiencies. Here, a strong focus was on better understanding soil biology in the absence of scientific consensus.  Also, as a means to adaptively implement new management strategies they trialed different practices, such as rotational grazing, pasture cropping, agroforestry, and composting.

While knowledge produced by individual farmers was key to innovation, the knowledge networks in which farmers were embedded also played an important role. Increasingly, farmers turned to formal and informal farmer groups. Farmer groups provided not only a means of information exchange, but also peer support for those seeking to “do things differently”.  In explaining their motivation to participate in these groups, farmers emphasised the importance of enthusiasm, support, and lesson sharing. As one farmer explained “if you are grouped together with enthusiastic people you are going to achieve a lot more than people that don’t want to achieve anything or are not necessarily wanting to change”. Likewise, farmer-driven research programs were appreciated for their stronger processes of feedback and evaluation – essentially strengthening knowledge networks.

The key message from this study is that there is so much to be gained from the dynamic process of innovation and change occurring on many farms. The importance of fostering ongoing innovation that enhances both agricultural productivity and sustainability cannot be overemphasised. What is needed are new ways of engaging with farmers, with partnerships built upon greater equality of status and access to technically relevant information, the creation of new opportunities, longer term funding cycles, flexibility in process, and feedback over time to learn from mistakes. If researchers and policy makers truly work with farmers, they can create an enabling environment that fosters both innovation and sustainability.

Read more

McKenzie, Fiona. 2013. Farmer-driven Innovation in New South Wales, Australia. Australian Geographer 44(1):81-95.

Dr. Fiona McKenzie is policy director at the Australian Futures Project and a research associate at the University of Sydney. She wrote her Ph.D. on farmer-driven innovation in Australian agriculture.
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