Systems Research

Introduction to Systems Research

Most agricultural research that is conducted is reductionist in nature. That is, a problem is addressed using component-based, single discipline research to answer a specific question, and the results generally provide a short-term solution.

The goal of Southern SARE is to promote sustainable agriculture as defined by the authorizing legislation set forth in the 1990 Farm Bill. To accomplish this mandate, SSARE has found it useful and necessary to manage the program and to promote sustainable agriculture in a participatory and inclusive manner, meaning that SSARE works to include diverse institutions and organizations, multiple scientific disciplines, and a collective of individuals and groups in its governing structure, as well as in the research, education, extension and training projects it funds.

In considering how SSARE’s research programs fit with regional research, education, extension and training efforts, reductionist research is viewed as less applicable, or less helpful, for achieving program goals.

SSARE seeks projects that explore a systems approach to sustainable agriculture. Systems research is based on the concept that a system is a function of its parts, or components, and that each component interacts, interconnects, interrelates, and in some cases influences each other. Interaction and dependency between system parts, in essence, add to the whole. From this perspective, breaking a system into components actually causes the researcher to lose some of what is under investigation. How much those parts and their interactions do or do not relate to agricultural sustainability is the question the researcher must answer.

Vivien Allen, Paul Whitfield Horn Professor Emeritus, Texas Tech University and an early pioneer of systems research, recognizes that within our ecosystems, whether it is a natural ecosystem or an imposed ecosystem, nothing is constant. “Systems are created by the relationships among the parts that are in transitioning states in a network of interactions. Thus, no individual piece can be extracted from the system, examined in isolation, and expected to remain as it was within the system. The approach must be to observe its behavior within the system itself,” says Allen. “While much has been discovered through component research, it is limited to closely controlled conditions. It is, however, a vital part of systems research although this is often not recognized. It is not a case of ‘either or’, but the two must act in concert to find answers to some of today’s most urgent questions.”

Developing Systems Research Proposals

Agricultural systems are dynamic and incorporate social, economic, political, physical and biological components. Systems research is more complicated, more expensive, and usually requires more time to unravel the nature of relationships. In order to adequately address each component in system, researchers should incorporate three elements into their proposal: 1) Involve diverse scientific disciplines; 2) Involve different types of institutions; 3) Involve farm household members or other farm level workers, managers or workers in off-farm agribusiness firms, or end-users such as consumers or rural community residents.

Multiple Disciplines

Real-world agricultural problems seldom occur within disciplinary boundaries; rather they cut across multiple dimensions of an agricultural system. For this reason, research-based solutions to such problems should take into account the perspectives of scientists from different disciplines. The number and type of disciplines required for a systems approach depend on the type of agricultural system under investigation, how the problem is defined, and the availability of expertise.

Multiple Institutions

It is essential that researchers include a variety of different institutional partners to bring greater insight into the investigation.

Such institutions can include:

  • 1862 land-grant universities, which have a greater number of scientists and scientific disciplines than other agricultural research institutions, and often have strong ties to large-scale farming operations, off-farm firms and commodity groups;
  • 1890 institutions, which have developed a farm-household centered approach to agricultural development, especially in regards to diversified small-holder, limited-resource, and minority farmer agriculture;
  • USDA government agencies ranging from NRCS to ARS;
  • NGOs and producer groups, which fill a variety of roles including networking, advocacy, and working on issues such as social justice, environmental protection, farm-worker safety, minority farmer advocacy and promotion of family farm survival; and
  • A host of other institutions and colleges working on issues of rural and agricultural development and agricultural sustainability.

Farmer or End-user Involvement

Because systems research shifts the research focus from isolated components of systems toward understanding relationships among system components, perspectives of producers are essential for a research project. In fact, the SSARE program regards producers and other end-users as researchers on a par with university and government researchers. Therefore, producers and other end-users are required to be part of the research process from early design through implementation to evaluation.

Most of the research funded by SSARE has been done on issues related to sustainability of agricultural production. But as SSARE funding priorities have expanded to include off-farm linkages to rural communities, as well as post-harvest, marketing, distribution and food access issues, the concept of end-user has also expanded. For a project looking at production, processing and marketing of farm products in a sustainable manner, consumers and consumer groups as well as processing operation managers and workers could be considered as end-users, in addition to farm-level workers. Therefore, projects, which attempt to address problems beyond the farm gate, may need to bring different types of end-users into the research design process.

Social Science in Systems Research

There is an inherent social science element to sustainable agriculture: one of SARE’s three main pillars of sustainable agriculture is the enhancement of the quality of life for farmers/ranchers and communities.

It is expected then that some aspect of social science be a part of systems research. Systems thinking in agriculture evolved through four different approaches:

  • Cropping systems research: A top-down, science-based approach in studies of slowly changing ecosystems;
  • Farming systems research: A local bottom-up, client-centered approach that focuses on problem-solving rather than research theory approaches;
  • Agroecosystem-based research: A focus on the interrelationships between organisms and their environment. The system itself can be as small as a cell or as big as a watershed and can encompass human and economic elements;
  • Knowledge systems research: The integration of both local knowledge and science-based knowledge to make the research relevant to stakeholders. Methodologies are rooted in social learning or interactive research approaches.

Social science disciplines are nested within the farming systems and knowledge system approaches. As such, elements of social science in systems research can include, but are not limited to, an examination of the following systems:

  • Regeneration of local/regional food systems including the production, processing, marketing, economics, and policies and programs that support such activities.
  • Development of concepts related to civic agriculture. Civic agriculture can be defined as a locally organized system of agriculture and food production characterized by networks of producers who are bound together and committed to sustainable agriculture principles.
  • Development of linkages between two or more different sub-systems of the supply chain: Production, processing, distribution, marketing and consumption.
  • A focus on the barriers and opportunities for the development of marketing cooperatives for alternative food products.
  • A focus on the policy and program implementation issues, particularly as they impact small, limited-resources and minority producers.
  • Increased understanding of cultural environments and how various sustainable ag approaches fit into those cultural contexts.

The list goes on. Proposals are encouraged from all disciplines within the social sciences including economics, sociology, anthropology, geography, history, philosophy, political science, and psychology.  Social scientists are also encouraged to collaborate with those in non-social science disciplines. When developing a systems research proposal it is important for one or more social science discipline to be included.

Identifying Methodologies

When exploring research methodologies, researchers should describe the overall agricultural systems to be investigated, as well as the components, discerning how the components fit together and interrelate to form a whole or a series of wholes.

Southern SARE views a number of research methodologies as potentially systems based. These approaches could include, but are not limited to, whole-farm planning or management, watershed level research, landscape ecology, farming systems research and extension, local/working/indigenous knowledge and participatory approaches, ethnographic or other interviewing and survey methods, holistic resource management, or formal quantitative modeling procedures. The type of systems approach is less important than the thoroughness and soundness of the development process, and how well the participants have integrated the multiple perspectives needed to investigate a research problem using a systems approach.

Researchers can also be flexible in choosing aspects of the agricultural system to investigate from a systems perspective. However, researchers should avoid efforts to evaluate the changes on indicators of productivity, profit or environmental protection from the introduction of a technology or technique not previously used on the farm- that is, a component-based approach that tries to isolate a single cause and effect relationship. Instead, researchers should consider the entire system under investigation including its social, economic, biological and mechanical aspects. Once the system is defined and understood, the researchers should focus on how some subset of these multiple aspects interact to enhance or limit sustainability of the whole system, and plan their investigations accordingly. This does not mean that experiment station and on-farm randomized block design experiments for evaluating the efficacy of fertilizer or pest control treatments are not eligible for funding through SSARE. However, such experiments should not stand alone, but be embedded within a larger investigation of related social, economic, and biological issues.

Categorizing Research Projects

SSARE offers three research categories for Research and Education Grants to encourage a systems approach to research: Production research (focused on actual production methods, they provide key parts of a larger holistic system, particularly as they relate to farmer participation); postharvest-food systems research (projects that focus on what happens past the farm gate, and can serve as a funding path for social science researchers); and a combination of production and postharvest-food systems research. The ultimate in systems research connects what goes on in the ground with everything that happens after a crop is harvested, including adding value, marketing, and infrastructure for processing and transportation, as well as policy making.

Research and Education grants include relevant priority areas that allow researchers to more accurately categorize their research project. These categories include: Emerging area, minority and limited-resource farmers; organic farming systems, environmentally sound practices/agriculture ecosystems; marketing/economic development; policy, project evaluation and quality of life and women in sustainable agriculture.

Sizing Up a System

Systems research can be used to examine relationships on a cellular level, in a landscape or across a watershed. A system can be a farm or a community or a geographic region covering several states. It can be as big as a 200-acre series of ecosystems or a one-acre apple orchard. Size doesn’t restrict the complexity of the research. Within that acre of apple trees for example, a diverse team of horticulturists, soil ecologists, entomologists, and technicians from many disciplines research the relationships between nutrient management practices and soil quality, tree nutrient content, fruit yield and quality, pest incidence, and management costs.

The physical size of a system is important only insofar as the boundaries contain all the elements or subsystems that relate to the other parts of the system. The research team just must agree on the locations of the boundaries. The boundaries may be geographic, cultural, or permeable. Most importantly, systems research keeps track of relationships among components within boundaries and flowing through boundaries.

The challenges of long-term research reflect the dynamics of real farming. Human elements, such as a learning curve or the need to recoup investments, add years to the profitability variables in a system. Some systems require leverage for land use or for resources to keep projects viable.

Systems are fluid, constantly changing, and, thus, challenging to examine but it is the platform within which researchers must work if they seek answers to define the principles that drive a particular system. It is the principles learned from the research that are the transferable information.

Systems Research Resources

Systems Research for Agriculture: Practical information for researchers, educators, and extension professionals seeking to understand and apply systems research to agriculture.

Perspectives on Systems Research: An educational video program for researchers exploring systems research, divided into several modules.

Systems Research Methods Handbook: An online handbook for those interested in systems research.