What are the major challenges facing farmers today and what do they see as the support and incentives needed to face them? Farmers and those working closely with farmers, of varying scale and producing various crops, face many of the same key challenges and also offer the same solutions to farmer uptake of practices. Access to water and soil health reign as the two major problems for long-term resilience in agriculture. As for incentivizing behavior change, it’s about giving farmers the information they need for decision-making, farmer empowerment to choose new practices, and bringing farmers together to share and discuss the benefits of new practices or passing information through a trusted source.
The risk is getting greater and coming faster, so the pace of change must also become more rapid.
Daniel Garcia, a wheat and corn farmer from Guanajuato, Mexico, noted the lack of water in the area as a particular challenge. By preparing the soil differently, in an effort with the CIMMYT program, he is saving water and that is translating into more money. But, change is slow and farmers are hard to persuade. It is only when he can bring someone to his farm to show him/her how these practices can work on a “real farm” and not just a demo plot, that others are convinced.
Sara Carlson, who works with Practical Farmers of Iowa in the United States, notes the dilemma of farmers needing to make investments now for benefits they will not see for years. To make soils better more quickly, farmers need direct seeding, management of fertilizers and/or cover crops (which take up to 3-4 years to grow): this is change is slow! Farmers calculate the factors to make a decision on how to treat soil (i.e., from fertilizers I get X from direct seeding I get Y, from cover crops I can sow earlier so I get Z – how does this add up to make a profit?). As someone that works with farmers, Sara holds back from telling them the solutions, knowing that is not the best way to pass on information. Instead she brings farmers together so that they can share what has worked – that is how farmers change.
Pedro Mendoza, a maize farmer who is also an agronomist trained in conservation agriculture, needed to convince his parents that changes to agricultural practices could be beneficial before they would allow him to work the land in the way he desired. Their land was their livelihood and change was seen as a risk that could end in less corn to eat and sell. Pedro set up an experiment. He reduced tillage and introduced crop rotation that increased his yield and profit. Neighbors see the fruits of these new practices, listen and start talking.
Syngenta is an R&D company whose goal is to understand needs of growers in different areas. They think of farmers as long-term clients: they want to sell to them today, but also in 15 years. They partner with CIMMYT to reach more farmers with training and technical assistance, focusing on empowerment so farmers can choose best practices. For his part, Bram Govaerts from CIMMYT agrees with the thoughts of the farmers above, noting that many people working in agriculture believe they have the solutions, but farmers but don’t use them because they don’t understand. This is wrong. “It’s like Google Maps, we want to know where we are, where we’re going and that we’re going have the support every minute.” To connect farmers to technology, you need to ask the farmers what they want, what’s the best manner to get there, who do they trust to give them the information and what’s the best manner to do that. Turn data into the right information for that segment of farmers, to inform a decision, that leads to implementation. And, make it concrete through scenario planning, “if you have $5 what if you put $1 in fertilizer, and $2 in seeds? What if it’s the other way around.” Finally, dissemination is important, ask farmers how they best receive information and even if the answer is “through telenovelas,” follow their guidance.