Bolivian Farmers Conduct Field Trials

For the past three years, 101 Quechua farmers in the hills of North Potosi, Bolivia have been working with scientist in farmer field trials involving 90 potato varieties. Almost 300 site-specific field trials at varying elevations produced valuable information for researchers, but more importantly created an environment for farmers and researchers to work together. Local small farmers have been motivated to train 2,850 others to use the methods they have learned. The work that began in 1989 was the first time that the area had been served by the government or extension services, when Julio Beingolea, an agronomist with the NGO World Neighbors, developed a simple system to help farmers conduct field trials.

How it Works

Sixty farmers began training with four three-day seminars conducted by Beingolea in North Potosi. Farmers discussed why more systematic methods, documentation and analysis were required. They then learned the principles of designing a field trial: planning the experiment, conducting it, harvesting the crop, evaluating and interpreting the data and publishing the results. The farmers practiced planning scientific field trials in three locations on small farms nearby. They were invited to return a month before harvest for a seminar on how to record and statistically analyze the data.

Participating farmers each planted an area of about 12m2, which was divided into three replications, each containing five 3 x 2.7 m plots. The small plot size reduced the cost risk -- a key issue for small farmers -- and made smaller harvests easier to document and compare. This was particularly important for crops like potatoes that produce large volumes of plant material. The four subplots were planted with various treatments of the farmer's choosing; for example, varying compost applications, or diverse potato varieties such as Waycha, Alqaimilla, Diseree and Cardinal. Two-day monthly seminars followed to provide instruction in appropriate agronomic practices such as pest control. Extensionists and farmers visited the test sites every 10 to 15 days to evaluate progress and to help farmers address any problems that arose.

One month prior to harvest, farmers attended the second seminar to learn data collection and statistical analysis. They were taught to calculate yields in kilograms per hectare, the sum of squares and coefficient variability plus other statistical measures. Farmers found that mathematical formulas using their own data were far more interesting than anticipated.

Farmers were proud to invite their neighbors to attend the harvest of the field trials. Farmers produced their own data, which were double checked and prepared for publication. The results were shared with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Agriculture and scientists at the International Potato Center (IPC.)

Farmer research helped scientists to conclude that the Diseree and Cardinal potato varieties developed in Holland do not perform well at Andean elevations of 3,500 meters. The Waycha variety introduced from IPC's experimental station, on the other hand, did quite well in the sandy loam soils. The importance of conserving native potato varieties was demonstrated by the flavor and high yield of the indigenous Alqaimilla variety. Trials demonstrated the importance of proper seed selection and treatment. They also demonstrated the benefit of rotational cropping in smaller areas, rather than planting a greater area to one crop to meet subsistence needs.

Based on what they learned, these farmers can select potato varieties better suited to their locations and use appropriate practices such as deep tillage prior to planting to help them increase yields. Moreover, the farmers now have the skills to conduct their own research so that they can continue to improve their practices.

New Way, New Hope

It is becoming evident that current methodologies of agricultural research and extension fall short in reaching those who need it most. Farmer field trials do not decrease the importance of formal research methods. Rather, they further the cause of these methods by bringing the data to farmers and enabling them to evaluate research data in their own situation. This can be done at low cost to the provider (US $286 per experiment), low risk to the farmer, and in a way that preserves and enhances personal, social and cultural values and pride. Most importantly it can produce fast and significant change in the food security of impoverished nations. Ruddell, Edward. 1993. Engaging Peasants to Conduct Site-Specific Scientific Field Trials. Unpublished papers.


E. Ruddell, World Neighbors
Casilla 20.005
Santiago 20
Fax: 56-2-217-1154