Farmer’s Day Out
A group of farmers in the village of Akutotapalli in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh have looked forward to this first day of the farmers’ field school (FFS) programme. As the members got together at around 9 am in the morning, it was beginning to get hot already. The FFS began with the group clapping three times, saying in Telugu: Raitu (Farmer), Polam (Field), Badi (School).
The group of about 35 people was divided into 5 sub-groups. Each group set out to collect damage causing pests, friendly pests, and sample crops with pest diseases in the groundnut field. Besides other physiological aspects such as soil moisture, plant population, plant height, average number of leaves were also recorded. The groups came back with samples of several pests and predators, which were identified and discussed.
One of the moderators explained, “These are Jassids (pacha doma). It eats the juice in a leaf and makes the leaf like white plastic paper by eating the green substance from the leaf. For this pest, we spray neem oil. See, this is wasp (kandireega). Its nose is long & it has stiff wings. So, if Helicoverpa (pacha purugu) or Spodoptera (ladde purugu) come, this insect kills them by piercing its nose through their body and sucking the fluids. See, in this picture, how it is sucking and eating.”
All these proceedings were diligently recorded.
Thus began the FFS
The first ever IPM Farmer Field School started in 1989 in Central Java in Indonesia to reduce farmer reliance on pesticides in rice. It started in 1980s when paddy was affected by the brown plant hopper pest. The Farmer Field School was introduced by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) in an attempt to find solution. IPM FFS soon caught up and FFS were carried out in a few other Asian countries and was no longer limited to rice.
According to Henk van den Berg and FAO, « the Farmer Field School is a form of adult education, which evolved from the concept that farmers learn optimally from field observation and experimentation. It was developed to help farmers tailor their Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices to diverse and dynamic ecological conditions. In regular sessions from planting till harvest, groups of neighboring farmers observe and discuss dynamics of the crop’s ecosystem. Simple experimentation helps farmers further improve their understanding of functional relationships (e.g. pests-natural enemy population dynamics and crop damage-yield relationships). » (1)
For the organization Action for Social Advancement (ASA), “FFS is basically a virtual school in-situ where the farmers are given hands-on training on various productivity enhancement technologies with primary focus on learning by doing. The FFS includes on-farm trials and demonstration, training and exposure of farmers, field day, etc. The objective here is to expose farmers on various agriculture technologies, test and validate them under their own management conditions so as to improve adoption of technologies by the farmers.”
Dr. R. Dwarakinath, a renowned extension expert and Chairman of the Bangalore based NGO, AME (Agriculture Man and Ecology) foundation, explains:
“In Indonesia, it was brought in as IPM method. Integrated Plant Production Pest Control Method and when it came over to India, in 2004-05, when Dr. Gustafor was the representative. He suggested that we visit one African country-Kenya and see how they have tried to adopt the FFS. We came back and tried it on dry farming. Today we are doing an excellent job on dry farming.”
What do field schools teach to farmers?
Any given crop grows not in isolation but in the presence of biological factors such as pests, predators, and non-biological, physical, chemical factors such as moisture content, rainfall, nitrogen content etc. For instance if a farmer’s field is infested with a particular pest, it may be useful to closely observe the pest- when does it multiply, what does it feed on (stem, leaves, flower nectar), its life-cycle, its predator. This hands-on knowledge will make the farmers better equipped to manage the pest and control the damage caused by it.
Farmers’ field schools serve as laboratories where farmers can carry out certain experiments. For example, if a crop is affected by a defoliator-pest that feeds on its leaves, can he control the damage just by plucking a few leaves? Shiv Shankar of Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre is a farmer and has been trained to carry out farmer field schools.
“This is called ‘long term process’. The main point here is if the pests come and eat the leaves of the plant, farmer gets worried of loss and sprays pesticides immediately. But, if a plant has 100 leaves, even if 20% leaves are damaged, it doesn’t affect the yield. This long term process is to prove that point. That’s why in a square meter of land, we have cut half the number of leaves from every plant to demonstrate to the farmers the difference between the yield drawn from these plants and the plants grown normally.”
Farmers are encouraged to carry out many such similar experiments on their fields. These experiments can either be short-term experiments or long-term experiments.
Abdul Kareem, Head of Sustainable Agriculture at the Accion Fraterna’s Ecology Centre in Anantapur:
« We approached AME (Agriculture Man Ecology) Foundation. Those people have been trained by FAO for 15 months. Till now four trainings have been given by AME. Previously people were not aware whether the insect is a predator, or a damage-causing insect. Now, they are able to understand which one is a beneficial insect, which one is damage-causing insect.”
He further adds that FFS is a place to learn new things, which wouldn’t be otherwise told to the farmers by the scientific community.
“Actually no scientist will advocate that whenever there is a Bud necrosis in the field, farmer should not take up spraying at all. Because, if he takes to spraying the small insect carrier called Thrips will be spreading to all other plants and the disease will spread. But people here take indigenously available plant leaves, and boiled them for half an hour. They then extract the liquid and spray it on the crop. This has completely killed this sucking insect called Thrips. So, the plants which were affected by Bud necrosis start sprouting and developing its vegetative parts. That’s such a wonderful thing.”
Almost a months back a FFS training was carried out for facilitators by AME for the Ecology Centre staff. In the three day training programme, aspects like soil system, soil conservation, soil fertility improvement practices, soil erosion study, understanding insects, water holding capacity, crop diseases and nutrient uptake study were covered extensively. Through these FFS several farmers in the field have gone back to traditional farming practices.
Objectives of an FFS
In an FFS, the emphasis is on holistic crop and pest management. FFS has 5 basic objectives:
1. Grow a healthy crop
2. Conserve natural enemies of crop pests
3. Conduct regular field observations
4. Make farmers competent in their own field
5. Reduce production costs
FFS is generally carried out on trial plots that become laboratory for various experiments and observations. Based on the experiments here similar activities are taken to the individual farms which could be much bigger in size.
FFS should have trial plots ranging from 2 to 4 hectares, where they can practice various systems like rain harvest, soil and water conservation, tree cropping at the edges, agro-forestry, animal husbandry, bee keeping, sericulture, food processing and marketing etc. A few gender sensitive groups of FFS have also emerged, where women play a crucial role in carrying out the experiments.
Outstanding farmers from these FFS could be selected and re-trained to act as Farmer Trainers to further take the newly acquired knowledge and skills to other in their community (P. Kumar).
Limitations of FFS
FFS is being slowly taken up in many villages in Andhra Pradesh and also in some other parts of the country. However for any FFS to sustain in the long term, institutional support is required. The NGO sector can play an important role in providing technical inputs and organising farmer groups and conducting regular training programmes. Financial support from the government both for sustaining these activities and also for extending it to other villages and other parts of the country is also essential. In the absence of these, FFS can fizzle out.
Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu, Director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad reiterates why the Indonesian FFS plunged in the absence of adequate institutional support and follow up:
“Ten years back when Indonesia was faced with an acute problem with pesticides and also rice production then overnight the King banned all the chemical pesticides used in rice by an ordinance. 65 chemical pesticides were banned and all government departments were asked to promote IPM. There actually the farmer field school approach has involved and it was great success- 1 million acres in a span of 6-7 years. But the King changed, FFS disappeared, and farmers went back to pesticides. It is a very good case to show having an institution at the village level helps to sustain it. Today in India we already crossed 1 million mark and it is going on in a very rapid pace.”
Farmers vs. the Scientists
When asked to comment on scientific developments in agriculture without farmers’ participation at any level, Dr S Nigam of ICRISAT responded:
“Farmers’ participation is very important. There are various models. Personally I feel farmers should be involved at 100% at critical stages like in identification and prioritization of problems. The decision of the farmers should guide the scientists, in setting up the research agenda. Once you have done that, you develop technology, solution to the problems at the research stations, and in controlled conditions, sometimes in laboratories, glasshouses. After that you need to have a field evaluation at the research station. Farmers’ involvement is very important at the evaluation stage because ultimately evaluation happens in farmers’ field, and they decide what they want to keep what they don’t want to keep.”
During the Green Revolution the farmers were bombarded with high yielding varieties of seeds excluding the farmers, who may not even understand their origin and implications, and their holistic approach to farming. In the olden days, farmers knew their seeds, their crop and soil like the back of their hand. Based on this existing knowledge which has been passed onto them by the previous generations, they experimented: their fields became a sort of live laboratory.
Even now their fields are laboratories but they have very limited control over it and the joy stick is in the hands of certain scientists who may not even be familiar with its physiological conditions. FFS try to restaure the central role of farmers. They mainly draw from what is there in the field, unlike the conventional approach where experiments are carried out by scientists and the resulting formula is imposed on the farmers. Through actual field based learning, the farmers gain confidence and begin relying on their own judgment, even in the face of intense pressure from government agents and pesticide sellers to spray frequently and without reference to field ecology (Batiwalla).
This sheet is available in French: Les Ecoles d’agriculture de terrain en Inde
Prabhat KUMAR, Fundamentals of Farmer Field Schools, LEISA, March 2003
Lisa BATIWALLA, « Farmer field schools rid Pakistan’s cotton fields of pesticides », Info Change, April 2007
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