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Producing otherwise: farmers faced with new learning conditions

Government policies encourage farmers to adopt more ecological farming practices. These incentives mean they are faced with learning about new practices: how to assure food security while at the same time reducing the use of inputs. INRA researchers at AgroParisTech have analysed the learning conditions for 20 innovative French cereal farmers.

Otherwise occur: Farmers face new learning conditions. © INRA
Updated on 10/03/2013
Published on 09/26/2013

The development of “ecological” farming means that farmers need to cope with new learning conditions.Without waiting for policy changes, farmers can, over time, develop new, so-called “transitional” professional standards or experimental practices based on resources found in their environment or resulting from social interactions.

But such meetings and exchanges within professional groups are not sufficient to reconfigure their activities towards more ecological practices.  They must be supplemented by experimentation on the farm, a method well known to farmers who, when confronted by a problem, seek to control it by trying and testing solutions. 

Thus the learning process with respect to new practices develops in three successive phases: the emergence of an idea, or the “alert phase”, relative to a new contextual element (e.g. weed resistance, policy incentives or health concerns), experimentation of the idea during the “experimentation phase”, followed by an “evaluation phase” versus standards developed based on proven, long-standing practices.

To validate these frameworks for a transition towards new professional practices, the researchers carried out semi-directive interviews between 2009 and 2011 with twenty French cereal farmersbased in Champagne Berrichonne (Indre) who were already committed to reducing their input levels.  For each one, they identified the dynamic underlying the changes made to their practices throughout their careers, which could have started during the 1980s.

With hindsight, each farmer explained how his practices had been redesigned and the resources he had used to achieve this.  Ten different configurations of learning processes, defined as combinations of social interactions and different types of experiences, were thus highlighted. 

According to the results obtained, during his career, each farmer mobilised several different typical configurations.  Trends showed that changes occurred when there was greater proximity to others and in regions where farmers enjoyed close relationships: farmers modified their practices as a result of discussions within an agricultural development group or with an adviser, or by reference to their peers.  Nevertheless, the high percentage of standard configurations that occurred completely independently (20% of cases) revealed two phenomena: the isolation of some farmers who had ultimately made very few changes to their practices, and in parallel the ability of other farmers to combine learning in a group and learning independently, thanks to methodological skills acquired in the past during collective experiments.  Finally, when a farmer was able to observe an experiment but was not an actor in it, he often adopted the new recommendations (50% of cases).  There is no doubt that progress must be made in determining the analogy between trials in an experimental setting and conditions on a farm.

Thus, in terms of ensuring the long-term adoption of new practices – such as reducing levels of inputs – the researchers revealed a correlation between the definitive adoption of a practice and collective experimentation during early stages of a professional career (with pooling of the results obtained on each farm), supported by an adviser in a development group.  Public policies therefore need to take account of this type of scheme in the context of agricultural extension services.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Environment and Agronomy, Science for Action and Development
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