Farmer field schools – experiences from Tamil Nadu

B. Vijayalakshmi, G. Ravi Kumar, S. Pattabiraman and Daniel Anand Raj

AME is devoted to improving the livelihoods of dry land farmers through promotion of ecological agriculture in the Deccan Plateau. AME working in the dry regions of Tamil Nadu, promotes crop improvements through various participatory learning processes. Farmers Field Schools (FFS) is one such process.

The FFS is a tool to build capacities of farmer groups and NGO staff in managing crop ecosystems, to make them better decision makers in promoting sustainable use of resources at the cropping, farming and watershed systems levels. Farmer Field School is a participatory approach, wherein training is imparted on the basis of farmers needs. Once the need is identified, season long practical training is imparted emphasizing on learning through discovery. Training is provided in the farmers field itself which enables better understanding of the field problems, their management and control. During the training a holistic understanding of the agro-ecosystem is facilitated among farmers.

AME started its work in the operational areas of Trichy, initially by conducting a Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Knowledge Systems (RAAKS) in 1997. The process brought out a number of problems being faced by the farmers of which pests and diseases management and soil-water conservation were the indicated priority areas. Thus, based on the farmers needs assessment, AME started its interventions with Farmer Field Schools with the objective of building capacities of farmers (mainly women in SHGs) in integrated pest management. However, AME has made some value additions to the conventional approach by integrating experimentation through Participatory Technology Development (PTD) and facilitating multi stakeholder concerted effort in conducting FFS. The various stakeholders involved were Department of Agriculture (DoA), Central IPM Centre (Trichy), NGOs and farmers.

FFS which started with training farmers and NGOs in Integrated Pest Management of paddy crop with 3 NGO partners in 1997, expanded to over 14 NGOs by 2002 including crops such as Groundnut, Cotton and vegetables. A total of 86 FFS have been organised, of which 36 were conducted on groundnut, 23 on cotton, 20 on paddy and 7 on vegetables. A total number of 1669 farmers and 245 NGO staff have been trained through FFS. Of late, FFSs are being conducted by the trained NGO staff themselves to farmers thus spreading it further.

FFS- A Learning Process

Though FFS was started to mainly train farmers in a specific technology with set objectives, as the process progressed, a number of issues started emerging, which led to refinement of strategies and approaches. Following are the approaches that have been followed in making FFS more effective.

  1. Dealing with multiple crops

As FFS started as a training programme dealing with a single crop for an entire season, it was found difficult to achieve the sustained attention and participation of the farmers because of his multiple and diverse needs. For example, a farmer, who attends FFS for a groundnut crop finds it difficult to concentrate only on it, as the time of groundnut crop harvest coincides with the sowing time for paddy. Moreover, it was identified that the needs of farmers are not restricted to just one technology of a single crop.

Therefore, considering the multiple interests of farmers in various crops, the focus of FFS was shifted from single crop approach to a farming system based approach. This shift in approach enabled to include some new components required for sustainable farming, such as enhancing organic matter. Technological options for enhancing organic matter content of the soil viz. FYM application, vermicomposting, on farm biomass generation through tree planting etc. were made components.

Gradually, experimentation and technology development was also integrated into FFS through Participatory Technology Development (PTD) which incorporates the principle of exploring various technological options (both indigenous and external) on issues identified in the management of the livelihood-determining crop.  When the FFS is designed and facilitated to address the core issue identified, it induces motivation and interest for immediate adoption. The need for good quality seed production, input supplies and marketing of good quality produce from FFS villages etc., were identified by careful facilitation and analysis of experimentation in the FFS.

Suitable technologies of other crops were also suggested whenever required. Based on learnings and experiences the process was built progressively in the next seasons to address complex needs (such as green manure and good quality seeds) at the cropping and farming system levels, beyond the scope of the single main crop with which the process began. This also enabled continued linkage with farmers throughout the year and hence stronger social mobilization, which resulted in increased attendance in FFS sessions.

  1. Family approach

It is general phenomenon observed that the responsibility of technology adoption lies on those who have undergone the training. This was found in AMEs FFS also where adoption of light traps were not followed by women who had attended the FFS. The use of light traps requires going to the fields, which are generally located away from the homesteads in odd hours of the day (6 – 8 PM). In cases where women are trained, the male members of the family feel it the responsibility of the woman to do the activities, which create more drudgery to them and this in turn leads to non-adoption of technologies. Thus though women enthusiastically learnt technologies, were not in a position to follow in full spirit thus leading to reduced interest among women to attend FFS.

To enable the sharing of responsibilities and bring about a gender balance, a family approach, where the participation of both the male and female members of a family, was therefore adopted.  The family approach not only resulted in higher attendance of farmers (85 – 90 %) as seen in the case of C.R. Palayam village of Trichy where FFS in cotton was facilitated, but the spread of technologies was also rapid. The female members discussed issues in their women self help groups while that of male members formed a farmers club, which was also actively involved in spreading the technologies.

In certain cases, children attending FFS have also been a vital factor influencing their parents in deciding pest management options. As part of FFS, drawing competition to children in managing Red Hairy Caterpillar (RHC) in groundnut evoked appreciable response from the farmers of Udayalipatti village in Pudukkottai district.

3. Bringing together various stakeholders

During the process, it was found that adoption rates of technological options tried out in FFS was very low even among farmers who attended FFS. This was mainly due to non-availability of quality inputs at the required time and lack of support during the post harvest stage.

It was on these lines that widening the stakeholder base from just technical institutions such as Department of Agriculture, CIPMC etc to others such as input suppliers, financial institutions and marketing agents was taken up by AME. Collective input purchase, which was initially facilitated by AME and later on shifted to the concerned NGOs with financial contribution by farmer groups, enabled almost 90% of farmers trained under FFS, to experiment with the technological options learnt through FFS. A farmer group in Thirumanthurai village of Perambalur district also undertook collective marketing of cotton harvest which resulted in an increased amount of Rs 100 per quintal.  This has encouraged other farmers who were not a part of FFS also to join the FFS farmers groups in adopting the technologies

Forward and backward linkages play a major role in technology adoption and farmer participation in FFS. Participation of all the stakeholders is essential for enabling farmers in leveraging the support for adoption of technologies in a sustained manner. Towards this end, the farmer groups in Pudukottai and Perambalur were linked to National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), by which it could access financial assistance for training programmes and input purchase (Case 1).

  1. Promoting off-season activities

 Larger demand and needs exists for creating local employment to sustain income needs of small farmers in off seasons, extending upto 9 months in a year, in rainfed areas.  This situation opens up options for starting agri-based enterprises (like seeds production, value addition, collective marketing) among the FFS trained groups.  These have the advantage over others types of enterprises, in terms of easy raw material availability, little investment on skill building and in easy marketing for meeting local needs.

For example, a farmer in Panikondanpatti village of Pudukottai district was trained in paddy, cotton and groundnut. As part of PTD, a varietal testing was taken up and CO 3 (groundnut variety released by Tamilnadu Agricultural University) was identified to be a good performer. The demand for quality seeds prompted a farmer to go in for breeder seed production of this variety, which had an assured buyback beyond his requirements. This proved to be an income generating activity, which has now attracted more farmers.

Another alternative, which is under consideration by women SHGs, is that of value addition and collective sale of pigeon pea (which is mainly grown as an intercrop in Groundnut based farming systems), which can earn higher net returns for farmers. On the production side, an assured market demand will influence the increase in the area under pigeon pea. This will also create impacts at the household nutritional security and health aspects. At the impacts level, these enterprises will create visible changes in the livelihood levels of the farmers.

  1. Improving documentation and sharing

Data collection and documentation are necessary components needed for FFS to facilitate sharing of experiences in a more systematic manner.  Analytical information and inferences from FFS data will also support the monitoring and evaluation processes.  Local level formats and logistic arrangements are to be placed well before the beginning of the process.  Arrangements for documenting the follow up exercises and the independent spread are vital, to realistically arrive at impacts created, over various stages of the process.

AME has been facilitating national level interactive workshops to share on farm results. Farmers from FFS groups have been able to share their experiences with adequate confidence in such multi stakeholder group mainly due the good back up of data collected during the season. One such example was that it was suggested by the cotton round table to increase intercrops to the extent of 20% based on previous data derived from FFS conducted in cotton during Kharif 2001. Recognition to farmers in such a platform also encourages them to serve as better extension agents for wider spread.

Major Outcomes

FFS in various crops have built up the capacities of farmer groups and NGO staff in managing crop ecosystems, to make them better decision makers in promoting sustainable use of resources at the cropping, farming and watershed systems levels.  It has helped farmers change their attitudes considerably from the “all insects are pests” mindset which made them resort to indiscriminate pesticide sprays. Post FFS scenario has proved that pesticide-free crop can be possible even in crops like Cotton, Paddy and Vegetables (like Brinjal),

Improvement in farm incomes and soil quality following the use of intercrops as a pest management option was another outcome. In Groundnut, trap crops (Cowpea, Castor, Pigeon pea, Sunflower) and other crops such as Sorghum / Bajra/ Blackgram performed multiple roles of income generation, insurance crop, soil nourishment etc.

The experimentation through PTD in FFS has effectively combined the indigenous knowledge with scientific technologies. The process also resulted in innovations (Case 2)

The major spread effect was that farmers who learnt the management options in certain specific crops started applying it to other crops. For instance, the FFS farmers in P.K. Agaram village of Trichy district who were trained in cotton began applying the available technologies to other crops such as onion and groundnut and realized appreciable results.

FFS had equally visible impact on women.  The capacity building process enabled them in getting due recognition in the family during the process of decision making on crop management. The drudgery involved in lifting water for spraying pesticides was reduced drastically as alternative management options for pesticides were understood. Intercropping remained largely the domain of women as they had the control on the income realized from it while it also influenced the nutritional security of the household.

The ultimate outcome of FFS was a decrease in cost of cultivation leading to higher net incomes. New avenues like collective marketing that opened up in cotton helped in further increase in the net incomes.


FFS approach is considered the most successful among various agricultural extension methods. However, the adoption of the technologies disseminated through FFS on a continuos basis, largely depends on the initiative and interest shown by the individual farmers and therefore may not be sustainable in the long run. To be able to sustain and spread on its own, the processes need to be institutionalised within the group, until which regular follow-up for the FFS trained groups is necessary. If facilitated in a meaningful way, the FFS approach could lead farmers to livelihood improvement at a relatively shorter time frame than other interventions.


AME Foundation acknowledges the NGO partners, stakeholders, participating farmer groups and SHGs, the contribution of whom was vital in consolidating these learnings.  Much of the data used are from the AME project Phase IV, and we thank ETC India (which implemented the AME programme) for its support.


AME Foundation (Trichy Area Unit) Plot No 37, Door No. 661, EVR Salai, KK Nagar, Trichy, Tamilnadu, India – 620 021, Email:

AME had begun working in Tamil Nadu as early as 1986 at Pondicherry, providing innovative training in ecological agriculture and alternative methods of farming. At present, AME works in 10 districts, with three NGO networks – LEISA,, ROOTS, and Vasantham consisting of more than 100 NGOs, in Groundnut, Cotton, Paddy, Vegetables as well as farming systems and watershed development.   AME was existent as a bilateral project before it became an Indian organization in 2002

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