A disconnect between agricultural scientists and farmers often leads to the development of technologies that find few takers despite appearing highly promising. This divide results in many critical operational problems faced by farmers being unaddressed. But the losers in this game are not farmers alone. Farm scientists are left frustrated at their efforts going unrewarded or under-rewarded.
However, neither scientists nor research managers have been unaware of the need for closer interaction with farmers. Conventionally, extension agencies, which are controlled largely by state governments, are supposed to serve as the vital two-way link between agricultural researchers and farmers. But they have failed to play this role effectively. Therefore, targeted strategies have been called to ensure a closer interface between them.
Fortunately, some well-thought-out and tactical initiatives have been taken in the past in this direction. Some of these have served useful purposes, as well. The most notable were the Lab-to-Land programme (1979), the Operational Research Programme (1974) and the Institute Village Linkage Programme (1995). Besides, the World Bank-supported National Agricultural Innovation Programme (2006) also aimed - among other objectives - at encouraging collaborative research to address issues concerning the entire value chain from farm to fork. These programmes kept various stakeholders, including producers and consumers, in the loop while conducting research, though they fell short of making them partners in the process.
With this end in view, a new concept of Farmer-FIRST has been conceived by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which oversees the entire National Agricultural Research System (NARS), for trying out in the Twelfth Plan. This initiative, apart from retaining the positive features of the previous programmes, will take the process of the scientist-farmer interaction forward to involve the latter in every stage of technology development - from planning and execution to adoption and promotion of research project outcomes. Such an association will allow farmers to contribute their traditional knowledge and experience to the designing and implementation of research and development projects. This will essentially mean a distinct shift from the conventional top-down approach, which involved developing technologies in research institutes and then asking farmers to adopt them, to bottom-up planning and execution of research programmes.
The logic behind this concept seems sound. Farmers usually face numerous problems in their day-to-day farm chores, for which they do not have scientific solutions. The Farmer-FIRST approach will provide an opportunity for them to work hand in hand with scientists to find these remedies. Since farmers know the local conditions, the state of natural resources (such as land and water) and the technology-adoption capacity of the local people, they can chip in with useful inputs to ensure that the final outcome is relevant and practical.
Significantly, the Farmer-FIRST programme will not be confined to crop cultivators. It will also cover livestock farmers, fishers and others engaged in activities like seed production, bee-keeping, mushroom farming, earthworm-based vermicomposting, value-addition of farm produce and the like. All farm research bodies under NARS will follow this concept. These include 97 ICAR research institutes, 22 state agricultural universities, one central agricultural university, 632 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) and numerous regional centres of research institutes and farm varsities.
Each organisation will rope in 1,000 farm families from two to four villages. Small and marginal farmers, of course, will be prioritised, since they generally face daunting handicaps and are in greater need of workable and cost-effective solutions to their problems. Each initiative may further be split into sub-projects on different activities, such as crop farming, horticulture, dairying, poultry, fisheries, and others. The results of these initiatives will be shared with not only the local stakeholders, but also with the states' extension agencies, KVKs, voluntary organisations and others, for wider dissemination.
The Farmer-FIRST plan, thus, seems prima facie well-founded and capable of generating technologies that are practical and economically affordable for the common farmer. If implemented successfully and true to its spirit, it can be expected to quicken the pace of agricultural development and raise farmers' income by enhancing productivity with reduced costs.