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Penn Vet Professor Assists in Effort to Empower Smallholder Farmers

By: Katherine Unger Baillie | | 215-898-9194 Date: Sep 14, 2016

To ensure the global population is food secure, it’s estimated that food production must increase at least 50 percent by 2050. One of the best means to achieve that increase is by boosting yield, that is, producing more food on existing cropland with fewer resources.

An article published in the journal Nature provides a road map for moving toward that goal. Coauthored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Zhengxia Dou, the report details the successful implementation of an innovative agricultural research, education and extension program in China’s Quzhou County that allowed smallholder farmers to dramatically improve their yield while using resources more efficiently. The new concept, known as the Science and Technology Backyard, or STB, platform, involves agricultural scientists embedding themselves in small villages and working directly with the farmers over the long term.

“Development agencies have been engaged for decades in technology transfer to smallholder farmers in Asia, South America and particularly Africa,” said Dou, professor of agricultural systems in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “A lot of these efforts have tried different ways to help poor farmers grow more food with enhanced income and sustainability. But the outcomes are mixed and sometimes temporary; oftentimes when the agency leaves these efforts fall apart.

Penn Vet's Zhengxia Dou and coauthor Xiaolin Li at a field demonstration in Quzhou“What makes the STB model unique is the zero distance: the STB staff living among the farmers in the village. That way they built very intimate, one-on-one relationships with farmers. Such a trust goes a long way, it motivates the participants, it accelerates knowledge transfer and it sustains the results.”

The effort was led by scientists at China Agricultural University, where Dou has been an adjunct professor and collaborator in a number of projects for years. The co-lead authors were Weifeng Zhang and Guoxin Cao and additional CAU authors were Xiaolin Li, Hongyan Zhang, Chong Wang, Xinping Chen, Zhenling Cui, Jianbo Shen, Rongfeng Jiang, Guohua Mi, Yuxin Miao and Fusuo Zhang. Quanqing Liu of the Heibei Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences also collaborated on the paper.

An STB was established in China’s Quzhou County in 2009, a region that historically had poor agricultural productivity due to soil salinity. CAU professors had been involved in the region since the 1970s to address soil-quality issues.

“There was this very long connection between the University and the farming community in Quzhou,” Dou said. “So there was already a relationship when the STB was initiated in 2009.”

Despite the historical relationship, farmers in the region continued to suffer from relatively low yields at the turn of the 21st century, averaging roughly 63 percent of what researchers had demonstrated was possible in the equivalent land in their experimental plots. Thus, with the STB, the scientists hoped to work directly with the farmers to see what factors were holding them back from achieving a better yield and what interventions would be feasible to implement.

Study coauthor Fusuo Zhang talks with farmers about better water and nutrient management for their crops.
A survey of 150 farmers combined with comparative experiments conducted in farmers’ fields identified several factors contributing to the yield gap, including inadequate crop and seed variety, low plant density, lack of deep tillage, time and labor constraints, inefficient irrigation systems, sub-optimal harvest time and poor fertilizer management. The researchers then translated their findings into a set of 10 recommended practices, which they shared with a group of leading farmers in the villages to get their feedback. This process, which the paper’s authors term “participatory innovation,” allowed the farmers to let the scientists know when their recommendations didn’t mesh with the practical realities of farming.

“The best practices you develop at a scientific research station may be sound and reasonable, but, when it comes to the farmer’s field, certain things may render the recommendations impractical,” Dou said.

One recommendation, for example, involved deep plowing to break up a compacted soil layer for better root development and improved water and nutrient efficiency. But the farmers rejected the idea because their field plots were very small, typically less than half an acre, which makes it difficult to operate the plow machines.

In addition to the recommendations, the STB performed a variety of outreach activities, such as field demonstrations, farming schools, educational materials, social and cultural activities and yield contests. Such activities were a key factor contributing to the success of the initiative, Dou said.

“In China, farmers are toward the bottom of ladder when it comes to social status; farming is thought of as hard, dirty work that doesn’t require any education,” she said. “But activities like yield contests instilled a sense of pride in the farmers. Their achievements are now being recognized.”

One additional aspect of the STB was the creation of quasi-cooperatives, which allowed groups of 30-40 households with adjacent fields to adopt the same land-management practices and perform tasks like irrigation, deep plowing or chemical fertilizer application as a unit rather than individually. This helped boost the adoption of recommended practices. Come harvest time, the co-op would dissolve so each household maintained ownership of its own crops.

Together, the various aspects of the STB platform led to a rapid and substantial improvement in yield. Among the leading farmers, the five-year average yield increased from 67.9 percent of the attainable to 97 percent; the countywide figure increased from 62.8 percent to 79.6 percent. Meanwhile, farmers’ income went up and water and nutrient use efficiencies increased as well.

Dou and her CAU colleagues are continuing to expand STB in other areas in China; more than 80 have been rolled out in various cropping systems thus far. Dou’s current effort involves helping one of the STBs in northeast China to simultaneously address yield and sustainability issues. 

Though the STB concept requires a substantial personnel and financial investment, the researchers believe it to be a model that can be adapted to situations elsewhere.

“Globally, major yield gaps exist in eastern Europe, parts of Asia and Africa,” said Dou. “The STB model is one of the ways that has been proven successful and workable and I believe it is a viable way to effectively transfer knowledge and technologies to the hands of smallholders in other places beyond China and enable them to close the yield gap.

“Besides, a food secure China would be good and contribute positively to global food security, considering China’s population and economic status,” Dou added.

The work was supported by the China 973 Program (Grant 2015CB150405), Innovative Group Grant of the Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant 31421092), Special Fund for Agro Scientific Research in the Public Interest (Grant 201203079) and Program for New Century Excellent Talents in University (Grant 2016QC125).