What the Conference Was About
Traditional agricultural research means much to scientists but little to farmers. Statistical significance criteria much beloved by researchers are not related to the scope, practical meaning or usefulness of experimental results to farmers. Scientists and farmers deal differently with uncertainties. The spatial and temporal variations that farmers manage in crop and livestock production are typically far greater than any trial treatment effect. Farmers are then unable to scale up recommendations within their farm management system. The widespread application of Fisher’s statistical methodology (dating back to the 1920s) has allowed for a simplified evaluation of papers to be published in scientific journals at the expense of the recognition of, and successful adaptation to, the real-life conditions faced by end users. This is a major enduring problem with real consequences on productivity, profitability and environmental outcomes. Farmer-centric on-farm experimentation (OFE) leads to transformational change in agricultural research and innovation in line with OECD Co-operative Research Programme theme III “TRANSFORMATIONAL TECHNOLOGIES AND INNOVATION.”
Innovative agroecological practices are advocated by various governments but farmers are slow to transition because risks, costs and other requirements are high. Similarly, digital technologies hold great potential to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture and increase farming incomes while satisfying several societal demands. Yet, the worldwide agricultural sector holds the lowest level of digital maturity. The necessary agroecological and digital transitions are very slow because, on the one hand, they are disruptive, and, on the other hand, they are mostly brought up through inherited top-down approaches that endure in spite of not being suited to the agricultural innovation context. The rapid adoption of locally adapted sustainable practices will happen only if innovations stem from farmers’ needs and experience closely intertwined with trusted agronomic, social, economic and education science. In a context where limited bottom-up innovation pathways hinder the development and adoption of new practices, farmer-centric On-Farm Experimentation (OFE) provides a privileged pathway that can contribute to the transformation of agri-food systems. It is a practical and adaptable mechanism to bridge the interests of farmers, researchers and other stakeholders that can substantially add to research and innovation in agriculture by combining the different types of knowledge and expertise required across the agricultural sector. OFE is based on a deliberate process of data-supported exploration, embedding research into real-world farm management to create ideas and insights that are valuable because directly relevant to farm managers. OFE can both promote and benefit from digital technologies to collect, exchange and process contextualized data to develop locally salient insights, supporting both agroecological and digital transitions. This synergy was at the core of the OFE2021 conference.