Science aims to continuously provide new ways to improve human livelihood. For farmers in vulnerable regions where soil quality is on the decline and climatic shifts are impacting crop yields, the research efforts of scientists are a beacon of hope for sustaining the productivity of their farms. If farmers were consulted at this very moment on what they thought scientists should work on, what would they say? Would their answers reflect the areas of research currently prioritized in institutions? Would their answers differ depending on what part of the world they came from? To shed light on these questions, we embarked on an ambitious project to provide an evidence-based report on what farmers expect from scientists. In this article, we share our journey and discuss how the realities of farmers shape their demands.
Phase 1: Designing a survey. / Big dreams.
There were two of us in the beginning. Fresh-faced and eager, we outlined our vision for the project: to get a global representation of farmer opinions and identify trends. We selected regions from four climatic zones to sample from (Fig. 1A), as we hypothesized that farmer demands would vary across a latitudinal gradient. For example, in the polar and subpolar zone, a farmer would probably be more concerned about mitigating soil compaction from early snowmelt compared to crop disease outbreaks, which are more common under the warm and humid conditions of the tropical zone.
Next, we began brainstorming questions to ask the farmers. We decided that a survey with short answer questions and a few longer answer questions would be the best format to gather both quantitative and qualitative data. As plant scientists with a STEM background, it can be difficult to put on a ‘social science hat’ and work with research methods that are centered around human engagement. Fortunately, there are resources available online, e.g. the Human Nature blog (https://humannature.co.uk), that can help with combining these two disciplines. We were quite excited to develop in this area, as understanding the perspectives of people, especially stakeholders and beneficiaries, is a transferable skill across workplaces.
We structured our survey very carefully, avoiding unconscious bias and loaded questions. It may come as a surprise to hear that making an impartial and effective survey takes more time than you’d expect! You want to make sure you gather all the relevant information that will help you test the hypotheses and preconceptions you may have, while trying not to reveal these to your participants, as this may inadvertently affect their answers. You need to be as objective as possible, and each question must have a purpose. For example, we wanted to know a bit about the financial status of the farmers. Asking ‘how much money do you have?’ would have been inappropriate. Instead, to infer this information, we asked how they set up their farm, how big the farm was and how many people worked on it.
We chose multiple-choice style questions for most of the survey so that it would not take too long to complete (farmers have a lot of agricultural tasks to attend to all year round!), and to increase the chances of getting sincere answers. Sometimes answering direct, personal questions can be more daunting than simply selecting a category you fall into. Our two longer answer questions: “What can scientists do to serve farmers better?” and “If you could have a scientist for a day to investigate/improve something on your farm, what would it be?”, were designed to be very open-ended so that the farmers could easily express their individual opinions.
Soon after putting together the first draft of our survey, we became four Plantae Fellows working on the project. Four heads are better than two, and we had come to realize the true scale of what we had set out to do. We would no doubt need a great deal of collaboration. Once the survey was finalized and we had created a consent form with help from ASPB Plantae staff, we set out to globally sample farmer opinions.
A copy of the survey and consent form we designed and used for this project is available here.
Phase 2: Data collection. / The phone’s ringing, but no-one’s home.
To get farmers to share their thoughts, opinions and demands, there is a need to establish trust. Without trust, people are unlikely to open up about how they feel, even if they have the option to participate anonymously. Trust can be established by 1) being transparent about the aims and importance of the data you want to collect, 2) showing reputability, and 3) finding common ground. In the survey’s consent form, we clearly outlined how we intended to use the farmer’s opinions and stated our affiliation with ASPB Plantae. Interestingly, we chose not to include titles (e.g. Dr.) when introducing ourselves. A doctorate shows that you have engaged in original research and that you have some analytical skills and perseverance. To those familiar with the PhD journey, a ‘Dr.’ title may inspire respect; to a farmer living in a remote area with no access to higher education, hearing this title could have the opposite effect. It might create a rift between you and them due to perceived differences.
When we meet someone for the first time, our interaction is geared towards finding what we have in common with them, whether it’s values, interests or previous life experiences. Any point of commonality can be helpful in establishing trust. Have you ever entered a small shop in a foreign country, only to find that the owner is from your hometown? Suddenly, you are being given recommendations on the best places to visit and having frank conversations about life in that foreign country. In our scenario, the equivalent would be chatting to a farmer about a crop which they cultivate and you conduct research on, or bringing up your love for homegrown food by describing your windowsill herbs. This kind of interaction would certainly help you find common ground and establish trust, leading to greater engagement with the survey. Sadly, between the four of us, we had very few farmer contacts and no time or funds to travel to farms. We had to rely on intermediaries.
The difficulty with working with intermediaries, is that they, like you, have responsibilities and limited free time. If they are helping you out as a favour, then be prepared to encounter delays. We contacted several academics, researchers and farming organizations/communities through email and social media. Most responded positively and were keen to get us in touch with farmers, but this initial enthusiasm fizzled out over time. Some intermediaries encountered difficulties in getting survey participation, some never got back to us, while others probably needed some more chasing up. In the end, we were able to get 11 farmer participants – 10 from Nigeria (tropical zone) and 1 from the USA (temperate zone)(Fig. 1A). While this pool is not a comprehensive representation of all our sampling zones, it offers some interesting insights on the perspectives of farmers from the regions. Before we delve into the data we collected, it is worth reflecting on what we could have done differently during this phase of the project.
A number of issues came to light during the distribution of the survey, and fixes may have improved the procedure as a whole. The lack of suitable survey incentives was one notable gap. In academia, we frequently use incentives like coupons, raffles, cookies, or cash payouts to encourage participation in questionnaires and studies. Respondents are encouraged by these rewards, as they show how much their time and opinions are valued. Similar incentives customized for the farming community might have raised survey engagement and participation.
During the distribution of the survey, it also became clear that despite being four Plantae Fellows, time and manpower were limited. Given that all of us are currently affiliated with universities and pursuing a PhD or postdoctoral studies, time constraints were a significant limiting factor. This restriction might have been overcome by working with plant community organizations, which frequently act as forums for the sharing of knowledge between farmers and plant scientists. We could have possibly improved the quality of collected responses by utilizing these networks to reach a wider willing participant pool and to access the communities’ shared experiences and insights.
Another significant obstacle was budgetary limitations preventing us from directly engaging with farmers, especially those in remote areas. Online surveys are handy, but face-to-face conversations are the best way to truly grasp farmers’ viewpoints. For example, in-person interviews that are recorded can catch subtleties that textual responses would overlook, and they offer more thorough knowledge of the thoughts and difficulties faced by farmers. By allocating funds for travel expenses, it would have been possible to engage directly with farmers, allowing for more personalized interactions and maybe producing richer, context-specific data.
It may also have been possible to investigate other communication options, for both survey distribution and communicating with intermediaries. Despite being a popular form of communication, emails can get lost in an overloaded inbox. Reaching farmers might have been easier with a more proactive strategy, including making phone calls to middlemen. Direct communication made possible by personalized communication increases the likelihood of participation and experience sharing from respondents. This strategy would have been especially successful in areas with poor internet connectivity, guaranteeing a wider and more diverse response to the poll.
In summary, by addressing the lack of suitable incentives, utilizing community networks, providing funding for in-person farm visits, and investigating more efficient communication avenues, our survey process may have been improved. We would have been able to more adeptly maneuver around the particular difficulties associated with farmer surveys, cultivating a more thorough comprehension of their experiences and fortifying the bond between plant scientists and farmers.
Phase 3: Data analysis. / Corralling stories.
Prior to analyzing our data, we digitized surveys which had been filled in by hand. This involved carefully transcribing the answers into a spreadsheet – luckily, they were all in English, so there was no additional translating step! Having the responses in a digital format allowed us to explore our data more easily, especially for questions where we had asked the farmers to respond on a scale of 1–6.
Our first observation from our sample set was that farmers have faith in scientists, though they do not appear to be very knowledgeable on how science shapes their farming. When asked whether they felt “Scientists understand farmers’ needs”, most farmers were affirmative and a few answered, ‘I don’t know’ (Fig. 1B). This shows the farmers’ positive association with scientific research efforts in agriculture. As scientists, we have a huge responsibility to meet the needs of those who believe in us and who rely on our work to improve their standard of living and welfare. To achieve our full potential, we need to be transparent with our research and involve the non-scientific community in discussions. Were our farmers up to date with the latest scientific developments? When asked, over half of them disagreed/strongly disagreed. To probe why this was the case, we examined what sources they relied on for exchanging farming tips and what influenced their use of technology.
Our dataset from Nigeria showed that farmers relied more on farming knowledge from sources that were in close geographic proximity to them (Fig. 1C). All farmers were very engaged with the local farming community, but less so with the international one. In addition, we also noted that only one farmer (the only one to have a leased farm), was subscribed to a scientific publication, suggesting that high subscription fees may be a real barrier to accessing specialist farming knowledge. We expected farmers’ use of technology to be correlated with the size of their farm based on economic reasoning, however, this was not the case. Instead, technology use was positively correlated with the farm workforce (Fig. 1D), i.e. the more people working on a farm, the more technology. Again, this implies money as a probable limiting factor. A farmer who is able to afford extra hands on his farm is probably more likely to afford technology and helpers with the expertise/training to use it.
Aside from monetary barriers, poor communication infrastructure is also likely limiting farmers from tapping into avenues of farming knowledge and expressing their views in unions and organizations, which are more accessible in other countries, such as the USA. Solutions to bridging the communication gap between farmers and scientists are detailed very nicely in a recent Plantae article by Dennis Baffour-Awuah and Idowu Obisesan. To effectively communicate their research to farmers, scientists can use various strategies. One approach is to engage farmers in field demonstrations. Another useful tactic is to use social or traditional media platforms to connect with farmers. Scientists can also visit farmers’ communities to understand their daily lives and build trust. Additionally, employing Agricultural extension officers can help bridge the gap between scientists and farmers. The authors also stress that it is crucial that scientists receive feedback from farmers to improve their work.
When it came to analyzing the data for the long-answer questions of the survey, we generated a word map (Fig. 1E). “Disease”, “pests” and “seeds” frequently came up in farmer responses from Nigeria, highlighting their need for scientists to work on disease-resistant and improved seedlings. This supported our initial hypothesis that latitude plays a key role in the expectations that farmers have from scientists in terms of areas of research. On the other hand, our participant from Massachusetts, USA provided contrasting and interesting comments that are certainly food for thought: “A lot of farmers, particularly organic farmers, are struggling with how to stay profitable in the face of climate change which has brought more extreme weather to many regions of this continent. I would like to see plant scientists try to help farmers adapt and develop solutions to these challenges that don’t involve adding more toxic chemicals (produced with a heavy carbon footprint) to our land, aquifers and waterways. More emphasis on traditional plant breeding rather than GMOs., which organic farmers can’t use.”
We were quite struck by the sense of desperation that came across in some of the responses from Nigeria. “Anything that can improve my farming”, “provide us money for farming” and “help us with funds to farm,” were some examples. “I need nothing, I have been doing it alone for many years”, was a humbling reply by one of the farmers from southwestern Nigeria when they were asked what scientists can do to serve farmers. While these answers reflect a degree of ignorance in the capacities that scientists can offer help, they also echo a clear lack of connection between these farmers and a strong support network.
In a way, our project was a success because despite not reaching our initial goals of surveying regions across all the climatic zones, we were able to amplify the voices of a subset of farmers that would not have otherwise been heard. And every voice counts. We hope that one day we can fulfill our desire to conduct a global in-depth survey on what farmers expect from scientists and we welcome anyone reading this with the same motivation, drive (and perhaps some funds!) to reach out to us.
Acknowledgements – We would like to thank all farmer participants who took the time to fill out our survey – we have shared this article with those who indicated they would like to see it upon completion. Special thanks go to Ajadi Ibrahim and Olaiya Sheriff for being excellent intermediaries in Nigeria, and Emily Magkourilou for her time spent translating the survey into Greek.
About the Authors
Abdulkabir Abdulmalik is a graduate student at the CEPLAS Graduate School, Germany and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He has research interest in molecular plant biology, and computational biology. Abdulkabir enjoys writing and shares a passion for science communication. You can find him on X/Twitter at @Omeiza_PlantDoc.
Dennis Baffour-Awuah is a science communication enthusiast who has many years of experience practicing broadcast journalism in Ghana, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He loves to be referred to as the pop scientist because he loves to blend pop culture and science as a lifestyle. You can find him on X/Twitter at @dennisgameplay.
Besiana Sinanaj is a postdoc at the School of Biosciences in the University of Sheffield, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. In her current role, she is investigating the function of plant-fungal symbioses under various abiotic conditions; outside of work, she plays sports, dances, cooks for pleasure and runs her own art company. You can find her on X/Twitter at @BesianaX.
Arpita Yadav is a Post-doctoral Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. Using Tobacco BY-2 cells as a model, she is attempting to understand the connection between cellulose synthesis and growth anisotropy. You can find her on X/Twitter at @arpita_yadav_.