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Philosophy and principles

The FFS approach is based on the fact that the best learning takes place by doing, rather than telling. The facilitator does not lecture the farmers, but helps them to learn by asking questions and building on their experience and observations. Farmers are encouraged to make their own discoveries and draw conclusions. As an extension approach, FFS differs from the traditional, top-down “transfer of technology” method. Farmers interact with researchers to ask for help only when they cannot solve a problem by themselves.

Most FFS projects aim to provide training in skills to improve agricultural production, but of late there is an increasing trend to reorient FFS to include empowerment objectives. Some projects have also included other objectives such as reducing gender inequality, targeting minority groups, community development, and strengthening producer groups. (1)
(1) Waddington, H. and Howard White. 2014. Farmer field schools: from agricultural extension to adult education .Systematic Review Summary 1. London, International Initiative for Impact Evaluation.
Over the years, the scope of the FFS approach has expanded beyond agriculture/IPM to include issues such as water management, household livelihood security, improved access to public information by farmers, marketing networks, water and sanitation, and rural infrastructure development. Therefore, although it originates from agriculture, the FFS approach is fundamentally a participatory group approach for collective action and social mobilisation by the local community. (2)
(2) Jayashantha, D.L Chamila and Puvaneswary Ponniah. (2013). Strengthening rural governance: Farmer field schools as a strategy to build human capital in conflict affected Jaffna District of Sri Lanka. CARE International.

Key FFS principles

  • Learning by doing –adults learn better through experience rather than passive listening at lectures and demonstrations. 
  • Every FFS is unique, as far as content is concerned: Farmers decide what is relevant and what FFS should address.
  • Learning from mistakes - each person’s experience of reality is unique and valid.
  • Learning how to learn - farmers build their capacity to observe, analyse, and make conscious decisions.
  • Problem posing/problem solving - problems are posed as challenges not constraints.
  • Farmers’ fields are the learning ground - the field - crop or livestock production system - is the main learning tool.
  • Extension workers are facilitators not teachers - because their role is to guide the learning process. 
  • Unity is strength - farmers in a group have more power than individual farmers. 
  • All FFS follow a systematic training process - key steps are observation, group discussion, analysis, decision-making, and action-planning.

Source: Groenweg, K., 2006. Livestock farmer field schools: Guidelines for facilitation and technical manual. Nairobi: ILRI.


A typical FFS consists of 8-12 weeks of hands-on farmer experimentation and non-formal training during a single crop growing session. Farmers are expected to attend weekly classes over one growing season. For arable crops and/or tree crops, meetings may be held fortnightly. For livestock, FFS groups meet for a full year - one 4-hour session per week - making implementing medium-term field experiments related to livestock issues, especially breeding and feeding of cattle, easier. There are several preparatory steps leading up to the implementation of an FFS:

1. Identifying the focus of the FFS This is the most critical step in preparing for a FFS activity. It is important to spend sufficient time on this in order to avoid involving farmers in activities that are not of interest to them. The selection of the FFS activity depends on farmers’ needs, interests, and the problems that they are currently facing.

2. Identifying participants and forming the learning group Depending upon the focus of the FFS activity, identify around 30-40 farmers who share a common concern or interest in the topic (3)
(3) Groeneweg, K. (2006). Livestock farmer field schools: guidelines for facilitation and technical manual. International Livestock Research Centre: Nairobi, Kenya. p.1-11
. They must be able to attend all sessions, and willing to work together as a team and share ideas. Selecting more numbers of farmers initially helps as the group is likely to shrink after the first few sessions. It is also okay to select already-established groups like self-help groups, youth, and/or women’s groups. The facilitator’s familiarity with the history of the community, its cultural practices, gender relations, and potential areas of conflict are important elements in the selection process. Groups may consist of only men, only women, or mixed gender depending upon the culture and topic. The participants must be willing and capable of contributing financially or in material inputs, if required.

3. Identifying the learning site Any FFS requires a location to hold meetings and a study object i.e. a field or an animal. The site and/or the animal must be suitable for the FFS activity in a given season and must be representative of the problems in the area. It must be easily accessible, and ideally the farmer owning the plot or animal should be present for most of the time in the FFS sessions.

4. Training of facilitators The role of a facilitator is central to the FFS process. Each FFS needs a facilitator who takes participants through a series of hands-on exercises. Because it is not a typical extension approach, facilitators must undergo a special two to three week training program. Facilitators can be extension staff of government or non-governmental organisations, private companies, or graduates of a previous FFS.

5. Developing the curriculum Once the FFS group is formed, the facilitator develops the curriculum based on the main problems identified by the group. Together with the group, the facilitator decides which activities to take up in order to further explore the problems, test the solutions, and identify what kind of help/ resources are needed. FFS follows the natural cycle of its subject, be it a crop (seed-to-seed), or livestock (egg-to-egg), soil, or handicrafts. Key activities include agro-ecosystem analysis, field comparative experiments, group discussion, and learning exercises. Sometimes field visits to other FFS sites might also be included. Each activity is well structured, i.e. has a procedure for action, observation, analysis, and decision-making. The emphasis is not only on “how” but also on “why”. This helps to cover all aspects of the subject and link up with what is happening in the farmer’s own field so that the lessons learnt can be applied directly. If the curriculum is not sufficiently tailored to suit the needs and resources of farmers, they are likely to lose interest.

Typical FFS session in the original Indonesia programme

8.00 Opening (with a prayer where applicable); Attendance; Introduction to day’s activities.

8.30 Go to field in small teams; Make observation, take notes. Facilitator points out new developments.

9.30 Return to shade. Begin making agro-ecosystem analysis, drawing and discuss management decisions.

10.15 Each team presents results and the group arrives at a consensus on management needs for the coming week.

11.00 Tea/ Coffee break

11.15 Energiser or group-building exercise

11.30 Special study topic or second crop/ livestock study. This could include nutrition, or chicken, or parasites, or something else of special interest to the group.

12.30 Closing (often with prayer)

Source: Gallagher, K. 2003.Fundamentals of a Farmer Field School. LEISA Magazine.