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Bean crop using direct seeding under cover. Experiment in Ponta Grossa (Brazil). © INRA, INRA, Stéphane de Tourdonnet

Conservation agriculture: blazing a trail through research

Supporting innovation in conservation agriculture

As a part of the PEPITES project, a number of conservation agriculture initiatives were studied, both in France and in developing countries. This revealed that behind the supposedly “grassroots” nature of conservation agriculture, there are a wide variety of people supporting farmers in this regard, in arrangements that differ between developed and developing countries.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 02/10/2014
Published on 11/12/2013
Farmers meet during “No-Till Day” organised by the French Association of Agronomy in Vénerque (Midi-Pyrénées) in south-western France in March 2012.. © INRA
Farmers meet during “No-Till Day” organised by the French Association of Agronomy in Vénerque (Midi-Pyrénées) in south-western France in March 2012. © INRA
 

There are considerable agronomic and financial risks involved in the transition to soil conservation practices. Supporting farmers in that regard is therefore essential.

In France, support provided one of two ways

Farm advisers have two, quite different points of view when it comes to supporting farmers dealing with risk management issues and the uncertainties connected with the transition towards conservation agriculture:

- Instructive advice practices that see advisers shouldering the risks associated with the transition. The adviser is an expert who prescribes a set of farm input recommendations to govern overall crop management. The adviser’s expertise is founded on tried-and-tested knowledge that must not be questioned. Otherwise, the adviser will not be able to guarantee the success of their recommendations. Trials and testing by farmers are apt to lead to conflict and are discouraged, as are agricultural practices with outcomes deemed “not yet conclusive”.  This style of support to farmers is an extension of the technical sales adviser model, who acts as both adviser and input supplier, even when recommendation objectives seek to reduce the use of inputs.  

- Research advice practices that assign a role of researcher to adviser and farmer alike. Farmers take decisions and are responsible for risks they face. The adviser encourages farmers to carry out trials and testing and to seek knowledge from other sources and to share it with the group. Adviser and farmer embark on a learning process together. Learning in this way is viewed as a process of trial and error. Unexpected outcomes arising from the testing of agronomic unknowns, like a new association of cover crop species, inform the creation of new knowledge and shape new research questions. The adviser’s role is to identify or facilitate the development of these unexpected outcomes and to support the collective exploration of these outcomes as they drive the joint research process.

In Madagascar, conservation agriculture in international development projects

For more than 20 years, researchers at CIRAD have been promoting direct seeding under crop cover practices in Madagascar. These no-till techniques can reduce erosion-related problems caused by the increase of hillside agriculture. A number of successive development projects have created a pyramid-shaped diffusion mechanism for direct seeding under crop cover, with researchers developing crop systems, a series of dedicated NGOs and technical operators (grass-roots organisations and consulting firms) that employ technicians to travel the countryside to convince farmers to implement direct seeding under crop cover programmes, and the farmers themselves. Training and demonstrations on direct seeding under crop cover practices are held, and farmers are given access to farm inputs via donations or credit. However, when such programmes are terminated, direct seeding under crop cover practices do not continue.

Today, researchers are trying to look at the question differently. Substantive work has been carried out to understand how direct seeding under crop cover can – notwithstanding its agricultural value at plot level – be included in the economic rationales of farmers. The desire to introduce participative approaches that take greater account of farmer needs has, however, come up against the proclivities and knowledge of local technicians on one hand, and the difficulties in engaging farmers on the other. Is the mobilisation of a number of farmers to carry out trials a sign of genuine interest in these techniques, or rather a corollary of the donor–recipient relationship that developed under these projects? Additionally, there is also the problem of incentives given to individuals to participate in organisations whose rules and social structures are very poorly understood.

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Nouricia, laboratory and showcase for conservation agriculture

In 2004, Nouricia, an agricultural cooperative in eastern France, created a club for farmers interested in conservation agriculture that operated as research committee of sorts. For Nouricia, the club is both a laboratory and a showcase, cultivating its ability to offer specialised conservation agriculture advice in the future. Even though Nouricia is not involved in the sale of farm input products, conservation agriculture advice has now become an integral part of its business strategy.

References:

- Brives, H., Riousset, P., de Tourdonnet, S. (à paraître). Quelles modalités de conseil pour l’accompagnement vers des pratiques agricoles plus écologiques ? Le cas de l’agriculture de conservation. In Opérateurs du conseil privé en agriculture, C. Compagnone, F. Goulet, P. Labarthe eds, Educagri.

- Villemaine, R. 2011. "Eléments d'analyse du dispositif d'innovation autour des SCV dans la région du lac Alaotra, Madagascar." AgroParisTech. 77 p.