Monday, July 30, 2012

Reflections on 'Farming Systems' from Peter Hildebrand

I reproduce below with permission an email sent to the editors of 
Farming Systems Research into the 21st Century: The New Dynamic

Farming Systems Research into the 21st Century: The New Dynamic

Subject: The new book

Dear Ika, David and Benoit,
So far I have had time to go over the Preface and all of Part I or your very interesting and important book that was distributed at the IFSA meetings in Aarhus.  I congratulate you on such a demanding undertaking.  It is very well done and will be important to current and future farming systems practitioners. 
It was interesting to read about the struggles between those striving to incorporate farming systems methods and perspectives in the various countries, especially with the resistance of the entrenched disciplinary researchers—from virtually all fields.  I struggled with this from the early 1970s to the end of the century, in El Salvador while I was with the University of Florida assigned to CENTA, in Guatemala while I was with The Rockefeller Foundation with ICTA, and even at the University of Florida where the Food and Resource Economics Department was never sure quite what to think of me (my PhD is in Agricultural Economics).
In El Salvador  the other disciplinary UF members of the team were jealous of the recognition I was getting by farmers and the press as well as the funding I was receiving for the research in multiple cropping systems oriented to the conditions of the small farmers in that country.  The others were all doing standard research and receiving little notice nor outside funding.
In Guatemala  it took quite a while for the expatriate team to come around to understand—and finally participate in—what we in Socioeconomia Rural were up to.  One of the regional directors (an expat and coordinator of the sorghum program) once said when I finally got him up to the rocky hillside where we were doing on-farm trials: 1) Pete, I can’t even get up here on my motorcycle let along my pickup, 2) those trials look like something a social scientist would do, and 3) you can’t get any response under those conditions! His trials with sorghum were all on sub-irrigated land so he would get a response even though no farmers planted sorghum under those conditions.
In Florida  even though I went there as a full professor, it took the department several years before they granted me tenure because of my focus on farming systems and not disciplinary activities.  However, at the University of Florida we did manage to create an Interdisciplinary Ecology degree at both the MS and PhD levels.  This is an exceptional program in my mind and has participation of faculty from all over campus.  One of my PhD students recently was recognized with the first SNRE outstanding achievement award.  SNRE is the School of Natural Resources and Environment where the Interdisciplinary Ecology degree is housed.  The school is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  I think if you look over Victor’s achievements you will see that he does span much of the space discussed in the recent IFSA conference and in your book.
There is mention of diversity in your book, but not of the kind of diversity found even within seemingly uniform communities in the South.  In 2002 Norman Borlaug and I were each invited to give Keynote addresses at the 1st Henry A. Wallace Inter-American Scientific Conference on Globalization of Agricultural Research at CATIE in Costa Rica.  In my presentation I stressed the challenge that this kind of diversity among households presents in agricultural development work and that it had been ignored in most of the efforts to that time.  In these households, land is not necessarily the most limiting factor of production, but nearly all traditional development technology stressed yield per unit of land.  Ignored were scarce factors such as labor in critical periods, cash, seed (which was also food), etc.  Afterwards, Norman’s only comment to me was, “Interesting!”  Obviously the Green Revolution was focused on productivity per unit of land.  The Ethnographic Linear Program methodology reported on in several European IFSA conferences is an efficient way to manage this kind of diversity.  I have developed a paper explaining how ELP can be used for pretesting technologies, policies and infrastructure and to understand what kinds of households would benefit from each kind.
Well, these were some of my thoughts as I read the first part of your book.  I hope you find my comments interesting and useful.
Best regards,
Peter Hildebrand
Professor Emeritus
Food and Resource Economics and Interdisciplinary Ecology
Director Emeritus
International Programs, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida

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