International Farming Systems Association - Europe Group is primarily a repository of the proceedings of various European IFSA symposia, ensuring that the full-text of the presented papers are widely accessible. You can search the website using the search field (top right of your screen). The website also offers a list of Books & Papers which are key sources of further information on Farming Systems Research.
This website is dedicated to Farming Systems Research in a western context (focusing on Europe). If you are interested in FSR as applied in the Global South, we recommend the Digital Collection by the University of Florida, where you can search and download a large number of papers and publications.
The International Farming Systems Association (IFSA) has its origins in Farming Systems Research which had evolved to address smallholder development in the tropics. Between 1981 and 1986 various groups of researchers met in a series of annual conferences hosted by Kansas State University in the USA. Participation was open to all who valued systems thinking and a systems approach to agricultural development research: researchers of all disciplines, extension agents and rural development workers in general.
In 1989 relationships were formalized through the founding of the Association for Farming Systems Research and Extension (AFSRE). AFSRE was a membership-based organisation open to agricultural and rural systems researchers and developers of all disciplines. In 1992 the international character of what had by then become a world-wide movement was recognized by opening the AFSRE board to representatives from the geographical regions that were involved by then: Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, North Americas and the Australo-Pacific region. Organisation and formalisation of the regional associations was left open for each region to choose its preferred degree of formality.
In 1998, the constitution of the AFSRE was changed, and the name of the global association was changed to International Farming Systems Association (IFSA). The new name also allowed to accommodate regional names, e.g. the Asian Farming Systems Association that was formed in 1990, the Australian Farming Systems Association was established in 2001.
The regions committed themselves to hosting the international symposium on a rotating basis. In 1994, with the support of CIRAD, INRA and other European institutes, Montpellier (France) became the first location outside the US to host a global symposium. Subsequent symposia were held in Sri Lanka (1996), South Africa (1998), Chile (2000), Florida, USA (2002) and Rome, Italy (2006).
The regional IFSA association for Europe was formed in 1992, among others to appoint a European representative to the IFSA board (at that time still called the AFSRE Board). The IFSA Europe Group is organised as a network of loosely affiliated individuals and managed by the Steering Committee appointed for a period of two years. The group and its Symposia are open to all those committed to farming systems approach. To emphasise its openness, the IFSA Europe Group does not have formal membership.
The main activity of the IFSA Europe Group is the organisation of the bi-annual European Symposium. These symposia are a platform for dialogue between scientists and practitioners from a wide range of theoretical background and methodological focus. Although predominantly focusing on European farming systems, non-European participation is encouraged as this adds contrasts and comparisons of mutual benefit and helps to ensure scientific rigour and quality. the European IFSA Symposia thus regularly welcomes e.g. US and Australian delegates, and debates many issues related to research work in coutries of the South.
Farming Systems Research (FSR) was initiated in the 1970s by researchers working in developing countries (mostly in publicly funded research organisations such as the CGIAR centres such as CIMMYT, ICTA, IITA, ICARDA or IRRI). They wanted to address the fact that smallholder-farmers were not adopting the technical recommendations derived from disciplinary, commodity-oriented research. Recommendations derived from this type of research were targeted at commercial farms and were, in general, unfit for the priorities and conditions of smallholders (for sources and publications, see the comprehensive document repository at the University of Florida). Thus, originally Farming Systems Research focused on smallholders and resource-poor farmers in developing countries. The aim of the field practitioners was to improve the understanding of small farmers and the way they make decisions. This insight could then be used:
- to identify how research recommendations could be reshaped to better fit local farming systems,
- to better steer the research agenda of agricultural research stations, and
- to influence policy formulation.
In the 1980s, European researchers (some of which had been involved in development work) noted that in Europe family farms, especially those in less favoured areas, were also not adopting the technical innovations recommended by the top-down research-extension framework. Farming Systems Research was thus introduced in Europe to address the needs and potentials of family farmers as well as those commercial farmers, whose determinants for action could not be reduced to profit maximisation.
Whether implemented in the North or in the South, the core objective of farming systems approaches is to (1) address the complexity of real-world phenomena (instead of using reductionist and disciplinary simplifications) and (2) to work on problems that are relevant to farmers (instead of focusing on issues that are primarily of academic interest).
Although the core objective of Farming Systems Research has not changed, the issues on which research has concentrated have evolved. Here are some areas that have seen a change in focus as well as new developments:
- Early farming systems work was dominated by crops, which then widened to include livestock (esp. in less-favoured areas) and crop-livestock interactions as well as aquaculture and trees (agroforestry). Currently there are no limitations to what types of enterprises are considered (energy production, direct marketing, services, agri-tourism, health care, education, etc.). Also, there is no longer a focus on the effect of introducing a new technology. Assessing the repercussions of introducing a new enterprise in an existing system is just as important and may follow a similar pattern.
- A shift from the farm system per se to an understanding of farming as part of a hierarchical nested system. Within these spatial scales, the farm is one of a number of levels (crops, communities, region, national, global). Each level knows complex interactions (e.g. within a cropping system: crop plant population, soil, soil organisms, weeds, insects, pathogens, etc.; within a farm: crops, livestock, trees, household members). Similarly, there are complex interactions between different scale-levels (e.g. a cropping pattern is influenced by natural conditions (soil, climate), institutions, agricultural policy, world market prices, etc.). These multi-scale approaches have led to studies at the landscape level, as well as studies that focus on market chains.
- The recognition that there are different stakeholders, and that they often have different perspectives. Gender is an important dimension, as analysis often indicates that men hold different perspectives than women. Stakeholder analysis (both at the farm-level and the higher hierarchical levels) thus provides an entry point for reconciling conflicting perspectives and negotiating a common position.
- The inclusion of the non-farming community, i.e taking a territorial rather than a sectoral approach. This is all the more important in Europe, where a large share of family farmers work part-time and include off-farm employment in their strategy for survival. Some authors therefore prefer the term 'rural systems' or 'regional systems' over 'farming systems'.
- System performance is no longer limited to productivity, but includes stability and sustainability. In other words, with the understanding of systems as being dynamic, the time frame under consideration has been lengthened. Since the late 1990s change dynamics increasingly have become a topic of research, addressing a variety of dimensions: farm household composition, farmer's goals and preferences, markets and institutions. This implies new constraints as well as new opportunities and thus different system dynamics. Moreover, integrated assessment methods related to the three pillars of sustainable development need to be developed.
- With the realisation that farms change continuously to co-evolve with their social, economic and ecological contexts, the search for an 'ideal' or 'best bet' innovation was dropped. Dynamic conditions call for 'learning by doing'. Learning is not considered a passive process of teaching or transferring information to farmers, but rather as an active and on-going process of testing and acquiring new insights.