This thesis explores the Farmer Field School (FFS) model as a platform for adaptive research, experiential learning and communication amongst multiple stakeholders. The inquiry focused on FFS programs that were implemented from 2001 to 2010 in three sequential projects funded by AusAID CARD. Over 5,000 farmers and 300 extension officers from 16 different provinces in North, Central and Mekong Delta regions of Vietnam were trained in citrus integrated crop management and good agricultural practices using season-long FFS curricula comprising 21 sessions.
At an empirical level, the inquiry concentrated on the utility of the FFS platform for development and implementation of good agricultural practices, and at a conceptual level as a utility for farmer education through experiential learning and participatory research. The research presented in this thesis explores the effects of the FFS model that was not utilised as extension in the form of technology transfer, but rather as a platform for adult learning, changing tutelage to an active discovery process and empowering farmers by developing their critical thinking and analytical and decision-making skills. In addition to the effects on farmers, the thesis also explored the impacts of the FFS programs on other stakeholders, including researchers, extension officers, local government officials and private industry.
The research was based on the sustainable livelihood framework and utilised quantitative and qualitative methods, making connections between the outcomes and processes and drawing a distinction between intervention and its effects. The strength of the methodology streamed from the multiple perceptions presented to clarify and verify observations and interpretations, allowing triangulation.
The theoretical framework looks at development theories and how they shaped agricultural research and extension over the past century, and explored the paradox of sustainability of agricultural practices and rural development in the context of a globalised capitalist world that implies unsustainable consumption and growth. A short history and political context of rural development in Vietnam is presented and the causality between the collective agriculture, land ownership and impacts of FFS on collective action is presented. The Vietnamese citrus industry was portrayed based on secondary data and results of the current research.
Farmers’ knowledge about pests and disease as well as their skills to manage citrus production significantly improved as a result of participation in FFS. Changes in knowledge ii and skills resulted in changes in practices, that included reduction of pesticide sprays, judicious use of less disruptive pesticides and a substantial increase in the use of compost and the antagonistic fungus Trichoderma for control of phytophthora root rot disease. This had a positive impact on the number of beneficial insects in the citrus orchards, and farmers also claimed an increased number of fish in canals surrounding the orchards. These changes of practices in many cases resulted in increased farmers’ net income due to one or more of the following factors: reduction in input costs, increase in yield and improved fruit quality. The majority of farmers started keeping records of inputs they used and income from the sale of citrus, which allowed them to make informed decisions about their choice of inputs. Participation in FFS increased farmers’ self-esteem, strengthened their networks and improved their social standing within their community.
The results show that the FFS model provided utility to a variety of stakeholders to achieve their objectives. The utility of FFS for the funding body was the stimulation of rural development through improving smallholders’ knowledge and skills, resulting in changes in practices through the implementation of integrated pest management (IPM), and later Good Agricultural Practice (GAP). For the Plant Protection Department, FFS had multiple utilities: it was used to build the capacity of their staff through training and action research; it provided financial and knowledge support to produce extension materials; it served as a platform to strengthen and extend their networks with research institutions, local government, pesticide companies and NGOs; and it gave them the opportunity to take a lead role in MARD-sponsored GAP implementation in citrus, which they would consider as prestigious. For Vietnamese and Australian researchers, it provided an excellent platform for communication and participatory research in citrus IPM. This research led to the formulation of location-specific integrated crop management strategies. Even more importantly, it provided the researchers with opportunities to experience the citrus farming system as a whole and led them to acknowledge the need for transdisciplinarity. The local government officials saw FFS as a utility for development. For government officials, developmental impacts are powerful proof of their efficacy which they can use to legitimise their positions to the smallholders who are their main constituency.
The results and arguments presented in this thesis challenge the notion that the FFS model is fiscally unsustainable, by demonstrating the versatile utility of FFS as a platform for experiential learning, participatory research and multi-stakeholder engagement.