Since 2012, the CCRP has been developing the idea and reality of farmer research networks (FRNs). An FRN is a set of farmer groups that conducts agroecological research of relevance to its membership. FRNs typically work in partnership with researchers, development organizations, and/or a broader networks. Because each FRN develops in response to its particular contexts and opportunities, FRNs are diverse, varying in their structures, aims, and organizational and leadership models. They are, however, aligned by adhering to a set of principles (see below) and by sharing experiences and learnings.
- Diverse farmers participate in the whole research process.
- Farmers co-create the research agenda.
- Farmers are engaged throughout the research process.
- Farmers from marginalized groups are represented in the network.
- Farmers strengthen their capacity to learn together.
- Research is rigorous, democratized, and useful, focused on AEI knowledge creation that provides practical benefits to farmers based on their social and biophysical context.
- Research effectively addresses farmers’ problems and opportunities and is continually adapted based on reflection on experiences by FRN members.
- Co-developed research plans are formalized through an agreement of all parties that covers principles, rules of engagement, and responsibilities.
- Research is based on sound, appropriate, and participatory designs and protocols.
- Relevant local, indigenous, and farmer knowledges are fully integrated into research.
- Networks are collaborative and facilitate learning and knowledge sharing.
- Networks support learning and knowledge sharing among all members.
- Networks are made up of connections among differently positioned actors and encourage the flow of learning throughout the network.
- Networks facilitate learning and knowledge sharing among farmer groups and within communities.
- Network members engage in iterative reflection and planning to guide network activities.
Vision for FRNs
FRNs are envisaged as a large-scale, grass-roots social innovation that is needed in order to enable the agroecological transformation of smallholder agriculture (see Nelson et al., 2016 for more on this idea). The way in which agricultural research and development (R+D) is conducted determines the outcomes of R+D. CCRP leadership and engaged grantees are convinced that new approaches can better support needed transitions in agriculture and food systems.
Participation in FRNs can enhance smallholder farmers’ agency in the R+D process. They play key roles in envisioning and working towards the future they desire for their farms, landscapes, livelihoods, and food systems. Through individual and collective on prioritization, learning, investigation and adaptation, farmers can inform and inspire each other, improve the multi-dimensional performance of their production systems, and own the process and products of agroecological intensification.
Not only does this approach strengthen rural organizations, but it results in more relevant research that takes into account local contexts. It can represent a broad range of farmers as well as diverse ways of knowing. The networks’ collective action can more effectively match agroecological options to various social and biophysical contexts.
FRNs amplify the impact of farmer-centered innovation systems and allow farmers to tap into existing knowledge. They rely on their own experiments to learn and test new ideas but also learn from others in their networks. Recent digital advances allow for the sharing of information in new ways. A learning network enables ideas and methods to be tested, shared, discussed, adapted, and potentially utilized.
The past half century has seen farmers’ roles gradually shift from passive recipients to active participants in research intended for their benefit. FRNs further strengthen the role of smallholders. Despite their importance, small farms’ heterogeneous needs and opportunities are poorly served by the centralized, transfer-of-technology approach that dominates agricultural research. The CCRP supports research advancing agroecological farming, enabling smallholder farmers to adaptively blend local and experiential knowledge with modern scientific knowledge and methods to develop adequate solutions to their problems.
A range of challenges remain. How, for instance, can successful experiences and arrangements be scaled up and out? How can ideas, information and data be efficiently shared among farmers and groups? How can access to innovations be equitably ensured? How can effective feedback and accountability systems between those involved be built? FRNs work toward addressing these challenges in the agricultural research and development system.
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