By Ric Coe, Director, Specialist in Research Methods, Statistics for Sustainable Development
I have spent my career helping agricultural, environmental and rural development scientists with their research. The aim is always much the same: rigorous, dependable and unbiased results that people can act on. But do we do use the same approach when working on our own, everyday problems?
Berries of the garden
I am not a farmer but I do grow a lot of fruit and vegetables on the land we have. Recently I planted blackberries, which are not widely cultivated here. They grew well, flowered and fruited. But I wondered if I should cut off the tips as I do with raspberries, something that I learned from my dad years ago.
The scientist’s approach to this problem is straightforward—review the literature to find out what is known and it’s theoretical basis then design a careful experiment (replicated and randomized with objective measurements) to check how it works in my context. But that is not quite what I did and it is not what many gardeners or farmers do. I did do a quick search of the literature but, not being a physiologist or horticultural scientist, I could not easily understand the relevance to my problem of the formal knowledge I found. So I then checked what the gardeners chat and advisory websites had to say and it was mixed, muddled and also hard to figure out if it the advice was relevant to my variety and climate. But it looked as if the practice of ‘tipping’ is often used, so I did my own casual experiment, and cut the tips off my blackberries – no control treatment, no formal measurements, no randomization. But next year I will find out if the production looks better.
Reflecting on my efforts to learn about growing blackberries:
I did try to use the scientific literature but it would have been better if a suitable scientist was engaged so we could talk it though and I could understand.
I used the informal knowledge I already had and hoped it was relevant.
I referred to networks of other gardeners but only reading some websites. Some two-way exchanges would have been better.
I did a simple experiment but it will only produce one observation in one season. If others were also trying it we might learn faster.
So what I really need is a network of other gardeners that know and interact with each other, preferably from my neighborhood. I need the right sort of scientists engaged in that network, who can bring in technical knowledge and explain the science. Then if everyone in the network who is interested in growing blackberries experimented together we should make rapid progress. And that is the farmer research network (FRN) idea that CCRP has been introducing in the 12 countries in which the program works.
There are various ways we can characterize and justify FRNs, and some principles underlying the idea have been put forward and evaluated. If we look at FRNs as bringing together the three domains of everyday learning, research and science, and social exchange and networking, then the reasons they can be so effective become clear, as do ways in which they can be encouraged or supported.
Farmers, like everyone else, continually learn by trying things out and observing what happens. Seen like that, ‘research’ is not only something done by experts in special facilities but a natural progression from what farmers are doing anyway. Bringing a scientist into the FRN adds at least two things. First, the right scientist can help in asking useful questions and interpreting observations through their knowledge of processes that are invisible to farmers. For example, farmers can observe that soil with high organic matter is moister and more productive. Scientists can explain what is going on in terms of soil biota, nutrient cycling and moisture holding capacity. Secondly, a scientist can help farmers make valid and useful observations, for example by using a simple field-based method of measuring soil organic matter and using the principles of research design to make sure results are objective . Social exchange is a part of everyone’s life so why not build research around it as well? Not only is natural to tackle problems collectively, it makes sense practically and both ideas and observations get pooled. A group of farmers and others pooling ideas will make faster progress than individuals. Many simple observations made on different farms can, in the right circumstances, can generate complex insights and results that are applicable across large areas.
We recently published findings from an investigation into experiences with FRNs and the overall conclusion is that they really can help farmers learn about and solve their problems and generate valid research results at the same time. Thinking of FRNs as a blending of formal research and informal learning approaches perhaps makes that unsurprising and could be the basis for repeating the idea much more widely.
I need to find a network of organic gardeners in my area that I can join. Maybe they already know how to prune the blackberries and if not we can do a joint in-garden experiment.
Mary Richardson, Richard Coe, Katrien Descheemaeker, Bettina Haussmann, Kate Wellard, Marah Moore, Jane Maland Cady, Peter Gubbels, Frank Tchuwa, Rodrigo Paz Y. & Rebecca Nelson (2021) Farmer research networks in principle and practice, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, DOI: 10.1080/14735903.2021.1930954