Innovation on the Family Farm

The article first appeared in The GROWER magazine in 2012.

Innovation on the family farm.

Farmers continually adapt to changes in farming conditions and local or global circumstances. This is innovation at work. These innovations are rarely documented but they could be of major benefit to other farmers.

Sometimes farmers want to keep their innovative ideas to themselves, seeking a competitive edge. But this is not always true, and many farmers do willingly share their ideas. They value the critique of others as an important part of on-going improvement.

A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report1 concludes that farmer innovations should be documented.  The report also encourages closer links between farmers and formal scientific research to allow independent farmer innovations to be validated, and the scientific community to learn from and build on those innovations. This concept is hardly new, but it is relatively rare in practice.

The FAO report also notes farmers need to be organised for collective action, and that access to market opportunities is critical for innovation. It says that resource-poor farmers wish to minimise risk, and this has a major impact on their adoption of innovative practices.

The report comes from an e‑mail conference asking whether family farmers can fully participate in, and benefit from, agricultural innovation systems (AIS) and what policy-makers can do to help. The focus was on family farms in developing nations, but also seems relevant here.

Innovation systems are collaborative. They involve many stakeholders working together, sharing their knowledge to develop and apply new ideas. In contrast, the traditional linear approach assumes knowledge is developed by researchers and fed out to farmers2.

Collaborative research with farmers, industry and scientists was the foundation of LandWISE and has remained central to our most successful activities. A side benefit is that this develops ability for continual innovation.

Innovation systems are “messy”, with many partners with differing roles and views. To make them work better, the FAO report identifies a key role for innovation brokers, described as the “lubricants of the innovation engine”. This role is similar to that formerly played by MAF farm advisors, transferring knowledge both ways between MAF Tech researchers and the farmers.

Unlike the dairy and fruit sectors, vegetable cropping has few innovation brokers and lacks the clearly defined extension role that would support them. Individual projects involve engagement of farmers with scientists and others. But continuity is lacking in the relationships that support shared learning and foster innovation excellence.

Perhaps new information and communication technologies offer farmers opportunities to fully participate in shared learning. Mobile phone and web technologies have their challenges but can be used to bring farmers closer to markets, link farmers to each other and to extension agents, give farmers improved access to technical knowledge and document farmer innovations.

How can we use new technologies and collaborative learning to help growers minimise risk, or overcome the perception of risk, to free them up to innovate?


The FAO report is interesting for a number of reasons – not least being that it is from an e-mail conference.

560 people from 50 different countries shared 242 email messages over a period of four weeks. It was cheap – virtually free to attend.

Nobody had to travel and nobody had to miss a session because they had another pressing engagement. Everyone had time to think about a posting and craft a considered reply.

Maybe we could use that approach here.


  1. “A FAO e‑mail conference on agricultural innovation systems and family farming: The moderator’s summary.”
  2. “Agricultural Innovation Systems – A guide” via

Dan Bloomer, LandWISE

Leave a Reply