A new way of bringing ‘farms’ and ‘systems’ together

farm system drawing

by Jim Sumberg, Stephen Whitfield and Ken Giller

How do we understand farms as systems, and farms as part of systems? The terms and definitions that researchers use affect how we see farming and agriculture in relation to ecology, society and politics.

So is it time for a rethink?

The words ‘farm’ (or ‘farming’) and ‘system’ are used in many combinations, but three of the most common are:

  1. a ‘farm system’: referring to the conceptualisation of an individual farm as a system, a set of inter-related, interacting components or sub-systems
  2. a ‘farming system’: referring to a single category within a broader typology, where the category groups together farms that are ‘similarly structured’ (Ruthenberg, 1976 [i], p.3; also Dixon et al., 2001 [ii]).
  3. a ‘system of farming’: in the sense of a more or less systematic and consistent way of going about the business of farming; as in: ‘I have my system’ (my way of doing it)

Another important combination is ‘farming systems research’ (FSR) – a more or less formalised approach within applied agricultural research to describing one or more ‘farming systems’ (in the sense of [2] above) in order to identify and address ‘constraints’ to productivity (e.g. see Collinson (2000) [iii] or any of the many FSR training manuals).

There is much current research and analysis in relation to (1) above. The literature is characterised by an analytical focus at the farm level; the use of one or more key ‘systems concepts’ (such as boundary, feedback, complexity, emergent properties, equilibrium, dynamics, resilience etc); and methodological diversity (from participatory methods to complex, integrated models).

Ruthenberg dealt with farms fundamentally as ‘economic units’, but he also had a deep appreciation of their technological basis. At the same time, he recognised that farms are tied to ecological, social and political systems and processes. Over the last four decades, research on ‘farms as systems’ has increasingly sought to grapple with and integrate these other dimensions.

A new definition of ‘farming system’

In a new editorial in Outlook on Agriculture, Ken Giller looks again at the terminology of ‘farming systems’. Building on Giller’s piece, we cast the notion of a ‘farming system’ in a new light.

In identifying different farming systems, both Ruthenberg and Dixon et al. emphasise the homogeneity of farms within a particular farming system (i.e. they have ‘similar structure’). This approach may make for a clean typology, but it does not reflect the reality of agrarian economies – or everyday agricultural production – in much of the world.

In reality, a given farm is likely to have links (flows, synergies, dependencies etc) to farms with dissimilar structure, as well as to non-agricultural and non-rural parts of the economy.

These links are integral to the farm system and to the broader economy.  In this sense, a ‘farming system’ is conceptualised as a heterogeneous population of interacting ‘farm systems’ with links to the non-farm and non-rural economies.

In an earlier blog post, we suggested that incorporating the STEPS Centre’s 3Ds – directionality, distribution and diversity – could help breathe new life into research on farming systems in the tropics. The expanded conception of a farming system that we suggest above creates a more solid basis for this, and should allow more fruitful analysis of the ecological, social and political dimensions of agricultural sustainability.

About the authors: Jim Sumberg is a researcher with the Future Agricultures Consortium and the ESRC STEPS Centre. Stephen Whitfield is a PhD student at the Institute of Development Studies. Ken Giller is Professor of Plant Production Systems at WaCASA (the Wageningen Centre for Agroecology and Systems Analysis) at Wageningen University.

(Image: Mixed farming system. Illustr. By Fernando Funes-Monzote from leisaworldnet on Flickr)


[i] Ruthenberg, H. (1976) Farm systems and farming systems. Zeitschrift für Ausländische Landwirtschaft 15, 42-55

[ii] Dixon, J., Gulliver, A., and Gibbon, D. (2001), Farming Systems and Poverty: Improving Farmers’ Livelihoods in a Changing World, FAO, Rome.

[iii] Collinson, M. (2000), A History of Farming Systems Research, CABI, Wallingford.