Major Highlights From the Presentations
Experience suggests that farmers need little persuasion to engage in OFE as experimenting on the farm is a process they routinely do and therefore understand. Alongside learning from peers, experimenting is, by far, the dominant learning process of farmers globally, with this universality acknowledged at the roundtable and throughout the conference. But beyond farmer-led OFE, scaling up collaborative farmer-centric OFE requires defining precisely how the process creates value for varied stakeholders, how this value is shared, and how scientific disciplines can contribute. This is necessary as impact pathways for OFE contrast markedly with those of conventional research.
The conference highlighted that change is as much about us and our institutions as it is about technology. Change occurs when people change, transformation occurs when changes scale up through networks and organizations. The underlying change throughout, most cited during the OFE2021 conference, is in knowledge and shared culture. There is a need to better identify interactions between digital technologies and the varied organizational environments and dynamics that nurture (or impede) transformational change—including within scientific institutions and the innovation ecosystems they are part of.
Farmer-centric experimentation has great potential to improve the design, adoption and integration of farm management practices. The round-table and workshop showed how all stakeholders, including farmers, commercial product and service providers, scientists and policy makers, have an interest in seizing this opportunity to improve precision, efficiency and impact in relation to their broader food systems. The invited and submitted presentations gave examples showing that OFE was adaptable to a large diversity of issues: OFE exists in smallholder and broadacre farming, at local and greater scales, in industrialized and developing countries, with various degrees of farmer-centricity and digital maturity levels. When available, well-targeted analytics can be deployed to exploit the valuable data collected on the farm. However, no critical mass of OFE documentation exists to catalyze activities and enable institutional culture with a long tradition now requiring evolution change.
The webinars and conference made it very clear that OFE approaches and applications are highly diverse, which is an asset and a challenge at the same time. To a large extent, this diversity reflects the range of institutional contexts worldwide. This diversity is not transitory and is expected to persist over time. To keep all individual initiatives engaged in the much larger concept that OFE is, the conference and the workshop showed that it is important to clarify what the intended nature of change through OFE is (and is not). For this, there is a need to communicate well the 6 principles of OFE: 1) farmer-centric; 2) real systems-based; 3) evidence-driven; 4) expert-enabled; 5) co-learning-targeted; 6) scalable. A clear example that this need extends to institutional change was a recurrent observation that among the submitted (non-invited) presentations there was still a strong bias toward science-led rather than farmer-centric work, despite presenters being very well engaged in the conference and believing that their work was 'farmer-centric.' Another transdisciplinary requirement that OFE must address is to jointly move away from plot-based agronomy to develop landscape-scale agronomy, and from outdated linear knowledge transfer models to innovation ecosystem thinking. Both dimensions are necessary to support the scaling of insights. Old and new actors acknowledged that this is a real change process in itself.