Story about the field visit in Hoah Binh (written by Andrew Bartlett)
The Farmer and the Field Schools
A farmer service provider
Mrs Bui Thi Bay is a ‘key farmer’ in Phong Phu Commune, Tan Lac District of Hoa Binh Province. She is respected by other farmers in her community and is well connected with District Officials and the Farmer’s Union. She has also been actively involved in the efforts of the PSARD project to improve rural advisory services.
In 2011, Mrs Bui Thi Bay volunteered to join one of 20 Plant Protection Service Groups that were established in Tan Lac with the support of the project. After receiving 7 days of training, she was able to monitor crop pests and diseases, and provide advice on control measures.
The need for plant protection services is growing in Hoa Binh Province, with farmers now growing three crops of rice in irrigated areas, and rapidly expanding their citrus orchards on the hillsides. There are big questions about the environmental impact about of these intensive practices, and the vulnerability of families who are investing in cash crops with an uncertain market.
Service Groups are not allowed to act as sales agents for seeds or agrochemicals, but a new law passed in 2012 paved the way for the establishment of agricultural cooperatives. Consequently, in 2013, Mrs Bui Thi Bay and 6 other farmers established their own cooperative in order to provide a wider range of services to their community, while also generating revenue that will sustain their operations.
The cooperative in Phong Phu has quickly gained a good reputation, with farmers coming from 8 communes to seek advice on plant protection from Mrs Bui Thi Bay and her colleagues. Compared to local shops that sell agro-chemicals, the cooperative suggests that farmers only spray pesticides when they are really needed, thereby saving them money.
The cooperative also sells seed for a range of crops, and is able to carry out contract spraying. During the last cropping season they sprayed 14 hectares of rice, charging the equivalent of US$5 per 1,000 square metres. Also last year, Mrs Bui Thi Bay conducted two Farmer Field Schools, for which she was paid US$5 per FFS by the Farmers Union.
Different types of FFS
The FFs conducted by Mrs Bui Thi Bay consisted of two half-day sessions on rice production. The first session was on crop establishment (nursery and transplanting) while the second session was on crop management (including plant protection measures).
During the past 6 years, PSARD had supported 3,004 FFS in Hoa Binh, including 335 in Tan Lac District. Topics for these training events were selected by the local community, and 57% of those who participated have reported that they were satisfied with the activity. However, there are significant differences between these activities and the FFS that were implemented across Vietnam some years ago.
The first Farmer Field Schools in Vietnam were first carried out in 1992 with the support of FAO Programmes for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in Rice. Over the next 12 years, more than 29,000 FFS were implemented, attended by more than 870,000 rice farmers. In addition, more than 60,000 farmers attended FFS on other crops (vegetables, tea and cotton). In total, an estimated 8.5% of the total number of farmers in Vietnam attended FFS during this period.
The FFS conducted between 1994 and 2005 were season-long programmes that, in the case of rice, involved at least 12 sessions. During each session, farmers would carry out agro-ecosystem analysis and record observations on field plots with different treatments. The aim of this action research process was ‘farmers as experts’, who could make scientific decisions by themselves.
In the past 10 years, the learning process has been ‘simplified’ or ‘adapted’ so that it now involves far fewer sessions. Most FFS conducted under PSARD have 3 or 4 sessions. While it is possible to transfer useful knowledge and skills in these sessions, the process does not allow for the development of an understanding of agro-ecology, nor the opportunity to carry out field studies.
Both the original and the current FFS are examples of participatory extension. What they have in common is: farmer involvement in planning the activity, training in groups, and a focus on practical learning rather than theory. But the learning process and the ability of graduates is very different.
- Should we be using the same name for these different types of FFS? If the FFS label can be applied to such different approaches, what does it actually mean these days?
- Why was the original FFS approach not sustained? The easy answer is that it was too expensive, but could it also be true that farmer empowerment and agro-ecology are rarely prioritized by government extension agencies, except when this is being promoted within the bubble of a donor-funded project?
- Have we reached the end of the line for projects like PSARD? Participatory RAS approaches have been used for 20 years in Hoa Binh, hundreds of thousands of farmers have been trained, and people like Mrs Bui Thi Bay are now able to provide services to their community. Could it be time to say that the job is done?
- If new services still need to be developed, what are future priorities? Could it be that environmental sustainability and the resilience of rural livelihoods should be the focus for RAS in places like Hoa Binh, not productivity? But how can we convince farmers and government to engage in activities that do not immediately generate additional income?
 PSARD = Public Service Provision Improvement Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development in Hoa Binh and Cao Bang. Funded by SDC and implemented by Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in cooperation with the Vietnamese Government.
 Presentation by PSARD Project Coordinator, Tan Lac District, 4th March 2015