Never underestimate a quiet farmer:

An interview with Alessandra Galiè from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) about the KSinR Pilot Project – ‘The International Farmers’ Conference’

They say you can learn a lot from sitting on a thorn. Apparently, when it comes to plant breeding, you can also learn a lot from getting a few of them stuck in your hand.

Plant breeding is something that has always existed,” explains Alessandra Galie. “The idea is that you breed plants to be the best plants. So farmers usually pick up the seeds of the best plants to replant next year. That’s already a contribution to crop development.”

More formal plant breeding involves taking seeds from the best plants and crossbreeding them in an attempt to improve the plants slowly over the years. And this is something the ICARDA, and other research organisations, have been doing for years.

But now the basic question is- what is a better plant?” asks Alessandra “And who decides what are the criteria that make a plant better?

The problem with formal plant breeding, as done by research organisations, is that much of the knowledge that is needed to make such decisions was coming only from science, not from the farmers; farmers’ knowledge of plant breeding was being lost. Often there was no concerted effort to record the experiences of farmers as, season by season, they found ways to improve their plant breeds. And, sometimes, when efforts were made, they sought only the opinions of scientists and not of the people who handled the plants everyday: the farmers.

Alessandra also found that the opinions of women were being ignored.

Those who always got to choose what plants they liked best were men,” says Alessandra.080507-043

Therefore you exclude all the other criteria that women might have. For example women have very often cleaned the cotton plants from the field after the cotton has been harvested. And they complain if the plant is too hard on their hands. Or they themselves are cooking what they are growing so they can tell you if the taste is not good or if it’s very hard to cook the stuff they are growing.

There is an example of a woman in Jordan who was very interested in the straw of barley because she was making handicrafts with it. And she was saying ‘This one breaks so it’s not good for me’. And all of these criteria, all of these alternative priorities, are very often overlooked. If you don’t involve women then the improvement is only partial.”

So it was realised that greater knowledge sharing was needed- to find out about the knowledge and experiences of farmers, and to show researchers how valuable it is for plant breeding.

Alessandra was part of a team from the Participatory Plant Breeding program at ICARDA that organised an international farmers’ conference to help share knowledge between farmers and researchers and to give those involved in plant breeding a space in which to do that. Farmers, researchers and scientists came from countries such as Iran, Eritrea, Syrian, Jordan, Algeria and Egypt.

The Farmers’ conference involved farmers telling stories as a way of sharing their knowledge and experiences.

Farmers telling stories of their knowledge and experience with plant breeding

Farmers telling stories of their knowledge and experience with plant breeding

There was also a ‘Food and Seed Fair’ and a Network Mapping exercise.

IMAG8731

Network Mapping at Farmers' Conference

Food and Seed Fair at Farmers' Conference

Food and Seed Fair at Farmers' Conference

For some farmers, it was the first time scientists and researchers had listened to them.

The very important effect was the empowerment effect of the conference because the farmers really appreciated the fact that they were given a space,” she says.

The farmers appreciated that, for the first time, they could be on stage and could talk. Some of them had been to conferences before but were always in the audience. But this time they were so proud since they were sitting where the scientists usually sit and they told us that this time the scientists were actually listening to them.

For the women, too, the impact of the conference was remarkable.

The self esteem of the women farmers increased so much when they started talking,” says Alessandra.

They said that they really had trouble at the beginning talking to men and older participants. They were shy and uncomfortable but, when they started telling their stories, they started to receive positive feedback and people told them ‘Wow, you really know a lot about agriculture’ they really started feeling so much better and so much more confident.”

Many of them also learnt a lot. And they said that they will use this knowledge when farming.”

Alessandra says that, almost without knowing, she has been working on knowledge sharing for most of her career. But the more formal understanding of it she has developed during the opportunity to try out knowledge sharing through the grant received to carry out this pilot project, has helped her KS work become more structured.

It’s not like I can go back anymore,” she says. “It has very much changed my approach to doing research and thinking about how to interact with others.

Knowledge sharing helps you to recognise and unlock the value of farmers’ knowledge—so you don’t run the risk of underestimating them…even the quiet ones.

For more information on and outputs from this project- see ICARDA Farmers’ Conference KSinR Pilot Project page

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Two ICT-KM supported activities were among those selected to be showcased at the Science Forum in the Poster Competition:

Well done!!!!

The full list of posters is in this EGFAR E-News

The work of one the Pilot Projects of the Knowledge Sharing in Research(KSinR) Project  has been recently documented as dfid-r4d-case-study-series-ksinr-highlighted-in-listpart of the DFID Research for Development (R4D) case study series. The case study focuses on the exciting and innovative International Farmers’ Conference (www.icarda.org/farmersconference) that was organised by ICARDA as part of its grant from the KSinR project to try out new knowledge sharing-oriented approaches to improve interaction and learning between researcher and stakeholders.

Check it out at http://www.research4development.info/caseStudies.asp?ArticleID=50391.

ksinr-dfid-r4d-case-study1

The text from the Case Study is below:

Sharing knowledge – tell us a story

Stories are a common tool used by farmers to communicate and get their message across. So could storytelling be a useful way for farmers to share experiences and information with scientists? The Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) program of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) wanted to give it a try, in order to demonstrate to researchers the value of farmer knowledge in plant breeding processes. With support from the Knowledge Sharing in Research (KSinR) project, of the CGIAR’s Information Communication Technology and Knowledge Management (ICT-KM) Program, this ICARDA-led Pilot Project is examining the value of storytelling, as a way of helping farmers to share their findings during PPB trials, and discuss their experience of farming more generally.

In May 2008, a four-day International Farmers’ Conference was organised bringing together more than 50 farmers from Syria, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Eritrea with researchers at ICARDA HQ in Syria. Instead of the standard conference format, the farmers were asked to share their experiences of farming and plant breeding through storytelling. The importance of better communication between crop breeders and farmers was underlined by Dr. Stefania Grando, Senior Researcher of the PPB at ICARDA: “PPB is being adopted relatively slowly, despite its proven efficacy, often due to a reluctance to work with farmers, amidst doubts of the knowledge and experience that farmers may have.

” Are you sitting comfortably?”

According to two of the conference organisers, Alessandra Galie and Bernhard Hack, the storytelling format was flexible enough to accommodate whatever issues the participants wanted to discuss, while also being less formal than conventional presentations. Participants found them easy to understand, with farmers from Syria commenting that the stories were “better than speeches, because they felt more like real life.” Ruqeia, a young Syrian farmer, believed she had learned a lot, particularly from the other Syrian farmers, about planting, fertiliser use, harvesting and storing seeds, and would use this new knowledge in her fields during the next year. Such farmer-to-farmer extension was, according to scientist and participant Maatougui Mohammad (ICARDA), a key benefit of the conference, of particular value to farmers from countries whose formal extension services are weak or non-existent.

Spreading the word

The Farmers’ Conference is one of a number of strategies now being explored under the KSinR project. Other approaches being piloted include the use of farmer fairs and participatory evaluation workshops, as well as radio programmes, training videos, and databases to better communicate research findings to target groups. The farmers’ stories will now be featured on a conference website (www.icarda.org/farmersconference), in the form of audio files and written transcripts, translated into all the languages spoken by the participants. The site will also contain video clips of the storytelling, which can be sent by mobile phone. Sami Jaber, a farmer from Al Sweida in Syria, began his story with a saying: “If you don’t plant it, you don’t experience it.” The organisers are hopeful that retelling the stories, whether in person, online or by phone will help to spread the knowledge that comes from experience, for the benefit of other farmers and the crop breeders who work on their behalf.

More information:

* This case study is based on an article originally published in the DFID-supported New Agriculturist in September 2008

* DFID provides core funding to the CGIAR centres, including funding specifically allocated to ICARDA.

Source: WRENmedia Categories: Information and Communication, Sustainable Agriculture Date

Added: 31 March 2009

The January 2009 edition of the Europe Newsletter of the International Association of Facilitators recently re-printed the article “ Sharing knowledge – tell us a story”  (Pages 10-12 ) from The New Agriculturist Magazine on how agricultural researchers are using storytelling as a way to collect local knowledge.

The newsletter featuring the story is available from this link

 They also used as a cover picture a photo showing participants during a fieldFront cover of IAF newsletter0featuring photo from Farmers' Conference trip to Souran, south of Aleppo, to visit Participatory Plant Breeding sites (Credit: ICARDA)

Front cover of IAF newsletter featuring photo from Farmers’ Conference

See in the most recent (Sept 08) issue of the New Agriculturist. An article on the CGIAR ICT-KM Knowledge Sharing in Research project-highlighting the ICARDA Farmers’ Conference called “Sharing knowledge-tell us a story”

Magazine can be found at: www.new-ag.info 

Sharing knowledge – tell us a story

“My story with farming began when I was a child,” says Mahmoud Shlash, whose village lies near the ancient city of Aleppo in northern Syria. “At that time, the rainfall was high unlike the rainfall this season. I watched my father when he collected spikes (barley seedheads) from here and there and brought them home. I asked him, ‘Why are you collecting the spikes and nothing else?’ Now I realise that he was doing the same as ICARDA is currently doing with the farmers.”

Selecting plants with high productivity and resistance to local threats like disease, drought or frost, would find its place in many farmers’ stories, ancient or modern. It is also at the heart of participatory plant breeding, where researchers and farmers work together to select desirable crop traits and test plants under a range of management systems. But how can farmers’ knowledge, whether from recent plant trials or their wider experience, be used to improve the research or plant breeding process? The Knowledge Sharing in Research (KSinR) project, of the CGIAR’s Information Communication Technology and Knowledge Management (ICT-KM) Program, is examining the value of storytelling, as a way of helping farmers to share this kind of information, both with fellow farmers and with scientists.

The two year project, started in 2007, aims to improve the impact of CGIAR’s work by investigating how to integrate knowledge-sharing into different stages of the research process. In May 2008, more than 50 farmers from Syria, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Eritrea met with researchers at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria for a four-day International Farmers’ Conference. But instead of the standard conference format, the farmers were asked to share their experiences of farming and plant breeding through storytelling.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Stories are a common tool used by farmers to enrich discussions and get their message across. According to two of the conference organisers, Alessandra Galie and Bernhard Hack, the storytelling format was flexible enough to accommodate whatever issues the participants wanted to discuss, while also being less formal than conventional presentations. Participants found them easy to understand, with farmers from Syria commenting that the stories were “better than speeches, because they felt more like real life.”

Ruqeia, a young Syrian farmer who attended the conference, explained that she had taken on the farming duties in her family following the death of her father, and since then had been trying to improve her crop yields in many different ways. On arriving at the conference, she felt scared and shy at first, being with new people in a new place. Talking to other farmers, however, she became more comfortable and when she told her story, she found that the other participants were impressed by her knowledge and encouraged her to continue in agriculture. Ruqeia believed she had learned a lot, particularly from the other Syrian farmers, about planting, fertiliser use, harvesting and storing seeds, and would use this new knowledge in her fields during the next year. Such farmer-to-farmer extension was, according to scientist and participant Maatougui Mohammad, a key benefit of the conference, of particular value to farmers from countries whose formal extension services are weak or non-existent.

In addition to the storytelling, the conference participants visited ICARDA facilities and farmers’ fields and showcased their seeds and products at a food fair. Dr Stefania Grando, one of ICARDA’s principal barley breeders and the KSinR Pilot Project leader, thought the conference had succeeded in collecting and consolidating farmers’ knowledge, which, she believed, would help scientists in better targeting their research to address farmers’ needs.

Spreading the word

The Farmers’ Conference is one of six strategies now being explored under the KSinR project. Other approaches being piloted include the use of radio programmes, training videos, and databases to communicate research findings. The farmers’ stories will now be featured on a website to document the conference, in the form of audio files and written transcripts, translated into all the languages spoken by the participants. The site will also contain video clips of the storytelling, which can be sent by mobile phone.

Sami Jaber, a farmer from Al Sweida in Syria, began his story with a saying: “If you don’t plant it, you don’t experience it.” The organisers are hopeful that retelling the stories, whether in person, online or by phone will help to spread the knowledge that comes from experience, for the benefit of other farmers and the crop breeders who work on their behalf.

With contributions from Nadia Manning-Thomas, IWMI

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September 2008

Further information: