Key Themes and Concepts
The analysis and management of ecosystems to produce food and fiber requires integrating diverse ideas and perspectives and a careful and deliberate appreciation for complexity. The nitrogen cycle and market dynamics, for example, are both critical aspects of agricultural production, but they are often studied in isolation. System approaches such as this one are attempts to keep the interaction in mind. "Farming systems" is closely related to other system-approaches, such as agro-ecosystems and cropping systems, but at a higher level of emergence where associated social and economic questions cannot be bracketed and set aside.
The embedded knowledge that a farmer can bring to understanding farming systems is highly complimentary to what a scientist can offer. This integration is a critical aspect of my work, which maintains a traditional agronomic focus on steps that individual farmers can take to improve their systems and situations. The ways in which farmers adapt to changing constraints, opportunities, and knowledge is therefore both a means and an end in my research.
I began working in agricultural ecology with a focus on crop interactions, integrated pest management, and other topics common to the agroecology and sustainable agriculture literature. While I have maintained these interests, my work has increasingly shifted to questions related to soil ecology, nutrient cycling, input efficiency, and other issues better characterized as soil fertility management. I have found these latter topics to be exciting and underexplored fields of research while also being common points of inefficiencies where farmers, through better management practices, can dramatically improve their production while often also reducing their inputs and environmental impacts.
While I have worked in diverse production systems worldwide, such as organic vegetables in Oregon and wine grapes in California, the majority of my recent work has been in low-input and semi-subsistence systems in the global tropics. Productivity, input efficiency, and economic viability are all still critical issues in these systems, but they must be pursued with an eye towards the larger context. The concept of food security does well at capturing some of the larger and integrated issues. Given my focus on farmer decision-making, my understanding of food security emphasizes individual and household level security and the steps that farmers can take to improve this.
Picture captions: (1) Casper Saefo'oa overlooking his tribe's land on Malatia Island, Solomon Islands, (2) a proud farmer in Louga, Senegal, showing off his favorite millet variety from a five variety field trial (credit: Saidou Sidibeh), (3) Casper and me investigating the breakdown of organic material in one of his experimental garden plots, (4) two sisters in the Casamance region of Southern Senegal helping their mother with the cowpea harvest, which is the first crop to mature during the short rainy season and is therefore critical to household food security (credit: Sekou Coly).