For thirty years now, farmers have been learning from each other and looking for solutions together in so-called field schools. A success story, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Farmers are often reluctant to adopt innovations suggested by an outsider, even if this person is an educated researcher. After all, they have developed their own knowledge and have been doing things their way for years. Hidden factors sometimes play a role too.
Take the Poyo bananas, for example. This new variety produces higher yields and constitutes a clear improvement. The problem? These bananas are wind sensitive and have to be supported with a stick, which can be stolen. In Rwanda, the fields cannot be guarded because they are far away from people’s houses. As a result, farmers continue to grow the banana variety they are familiar with.
Farmer Fields Schools (FFS) do things differently. In a relaxed atmosphere, farmers learn from each other, observe attentively and carry out their own experiments. It allows them to test varieties, try out different methods for soil cultivation or study the food chain in an insect zoo. Instead of being told what to do, participants can make their own decisions and find out which solution they think is the best. 'The field is the school and plants are the teachers’.
Instead of being told what to do, participants can make their own decisions and find out which solution they think is the best. 'The field is the school and plants are the teachers’.
The key to the FFS project’s success lies largely within the support of 'facilitators': a number of selected farmers are trained to become competent and motivated coaches who in turn train other farmers, making it possible to reach a considerable part of the farming community.
Integrated pest management
The FFS saw the light of day in 1989 among rice farmers in Indonesia. Thanks to high-yielding varieties, fertilisers, irrigation and pesticides, the Green Revolution of the 1960s greatly increased rice production. However, by killing natural enemies, the use of these pesticides led to a new pest outbreak, namely that of the brown planthopper. It made the agricultural industry realise it also had to take into account the ecological network.
Relying on local knowledge, FAO worked with farmers to find out how to tackle this plague, which gave rise to the concepts of 'learning together in the field' and 'field schools'. This collaboration also led to the development of the 'integrated pest management' approach: controlling pests using as few pesticides as possible by taking the environment (natural enemies, soil, etc.) into account.
In addition to significantly increasing farmers’ production, the FFS have enhanced cooperation within the community.
20 million farmers
Since then, Farmer Field Schools were set up not only in the rest of Asia, but also in Africa, Latin America and Europe. The topics addressed are extremely diverse: fish farming, seaweed production, cattle breeding, economical water management, beekeeping, forestry, entrepreneurship and the search for solutions to adapt to climate change. What they all have in common is that the schools always start from a specific need experienced by the farmers. Since 1989, some 20 million farmers have participated in field schools.
In addition to significantly increasing farmers’ production, the FFS have enhanced cooperation within the community. There are fewer conflicts, and when they do occur, they are usually resolved smoothly. Women, who are given the opportunity to participate on equal footing with men, gain in self-confidence.
The FFS also provide financial skills. In some groups, savings programmes are set up where members receive health insurance. Moreover, many farmers continue to meet after the field school has officially ended. Finally, the limited use of pesticides has a positive impact on the environment.
The Belgian Development Agency (Enabel) has reached 200,000 farmers in Rwanda with the field schools.
Family Farming Decade
The concept is also applied by the Belgian Development Cooperation. The Belgian development agency (Enabel), for example, has managed to reach 200,000 farmers through field schools in Rwanda. In 2016, its innovative approach earned the project a nomination for the international OECD competition 'Taking development innovation to scale'.
FAO certainly wants to continue the FFS projects, as this formula seems to be extremely suitable for tackling the challenges that small farmers will continue to face in the future, not least climate change. All in all, these small farmers still account for 80 percent of global food production. That is why the UN declared the period 2019-2028 the Family Farming Decade.
Read FAO’s brochure Farmers taking the lead – Thirty years of farmer field schools
Watch the movie about the Family Farming Decade: