An interesting article from SciDevNet about farmer empowerment through Farmer Field Schools (FFS) reminded me of a great little programme that we had running in Samoa in the late nineties.Â Farmer Field Schools began as a training and extension approach for integrated pest management of rice, largely supported by FAO in Asia. Since then FFS have been used for a variety of agricultural crops, systems and problems, including livestock, and have spread to other regions of the world.
The article prompted me to reflect on earlier efforts that we made at the Alafua Campus of the University of the South PacificÂ in Samoa, using similar “field-based” approaches to help students and farmers (as well as researchers and extensionists!) learn about taro diversity and improvement. In 1993 Samoa was devastated by an outbreak of taro leaf blight. Initial responses using pesticides and cultural methods were futile and while introduced “resistant” varieties helped, the disease was still a major problem.
At Alafua Campus we started a University Breeders Club and a participatory farmers club known as the Taro Improvement Project (TIP) to address issues of taro genetic erosion and improvement. Don’t forget that the problem initially arose because the country was covered by aÂ massive monoculture of a marketable, but very susceptible, taro variety. The newly introduced disease spread like wildfire. Unfortunately, this is a situation which still exists today in some Pacific Island countries.
The Breeders Club1, which comprised mostly students, was an effective “hands-on” approach for teaching students the fundamentals of taro pathology and breeding for disease resistance, as well as the importance of maintaining on-farm taro diversity. At the same time, new taro lines were produced which could be quickly handed over to farmers from TIP for field evaluation.
It was an elegant approach that worked well, involved field-based teaching and workshops and a lot of learning for everyone involved. Within a matter of years, new taro lines with resistance to the disease were produced and in the hands of farmers. Farmers understood the pathology of leaf blight and had a greater appreciation of its management, including the importance of maintaining on-farm taro diversity.
At the time there were plans to put everything together as a FFS-type curriculum and training guide that could be used to train additional “FFS Trainers” so that the approach could be scaled up in other taro growing countries. Sadly this hasn’t happened. And nothing probably will until taro leaf blight turns up announced on the doorstep of another Pacific Island country. What was evident from the Samoan experience was how effective the FFS approach was as a training and extension methodology for farmers to learn about agricultural biodiversity. It would certainly be interesting is to know about other FFS that have been solely dedicated to agricultural biodiversity. What contexts or constraints were they addressing? What were the achievements, what were the problems? What types of training resources and curricula were developed?