Study shows how scientists can get farmers to innovate

Credit unions in Mexico hold sway over farmers' technical decisions Copyright: Flickr/Celso Flores

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[MEXICO CITY] Researchers must pay attention to farmers’ social and economic networks to help ensure the adoption of new technologies, a study has found.

US scientists conducted interviews with agricultural experts, credit unions and farmers in the Yaqui Valley, Mexico — home of the ‘green revolution’ in wheat.

They found that, while farmers have successfully adopted many new technologies such as new wheat varieties released by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico, not all research has been as successful in making its way from the lab to the field. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month (23 May).

For example, a CIMMYT initiative to promote alternative fertiliser management strategies — with successful on-farm trials that had shown the approaches could save farmers a lot of money — was not taken up by farmers.

This was partly because of the influence of credit unions — which provide crop loans and insurance. The unions’ role as retailers of fertiliser, seeds and other agricultural inputs may mean that they are more likely to advise farmers to stick to tried and tested techniques, instead of trying innovations, said the researchers.

Their influence is strong because state-funded agricultural extension systems were scaled back, which led to the unions also providing technical advice, the researchers said. This means farmers are more likely to listen to these unions than researchers.

"The most successful innovations that have been adopted by farmers in the Yaqui Valley have come from collaborations among researchers, farmers and local establishments like the credit unions," said Ellen McCullough, a researcher at Cornell University, United States, and lead author of the research.

Researchers have to recognise and engage with local knowledge systems and actors, such as credit unions, if they are to roll out their innovations, said the authors.

"Our study highlights the need for scientists who want their knowledge and know-how to be useful and used by farmers to pay attention to the knowledge system," McCullough said. "Researchers should spend some time studying the knowledge system before assuming too much about it; this will help them understand what types of information decision-makers need and how to reach them."

But researchers working in the area told SciDev.Net their links with the farmer community are already strong.

Pedro Aquino, a principal researcher in CIMMYT’s socioeconomic programme, said that the organisation is looking at developing improved technologies and management strategies that incorporate all players in the farming community in the region, which "holds the closest links between researchers and farmers in the whole country".

Lope Montoya-Coronado, head of the Yaqui Valley’s Experimental Centre at the National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Research, agreed: "The bonds between researchers and farmers are very tight [here] because farmers can appreciate the results in their fields".

He said that what set farmers in this region apart was the strength of the networks: farmers raise funds through a local board to help researchers develop high-priority technologies.


PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1011602108 (2011)