Farmers needs are key to acceptance of new crops

August 29, 2003

New agricultural crops stand a better chance of helping to fill the world's bread baskets, says a University of Maine economist, if plant breeders take farmers' needs into account early in the crop development process. A new research report by Timothy J. Dalton, assistant professor in the Dept. of Resource Economics and Policy, is one of the first to demonstrate farmers' preferences using a quantitative approach.

Dalton's research could help agricultural research organizations work with farmers in developing countries to increase food production. His paper, A Hedonic Model of Rice Traits: Economic Values from Farmers in West Africa, won a second place award in the T.W. Schultz competition for the best contributed paper at the 25th International Conference of Agricultural Economists in Durban, South Africa in August. The paper will be published in the journal Agricultural Economics in 2004.

Dalton is also co-author with R. G. Guei of a book chapter, Ecological Diversity and Rice Varietal Improvement in West Africa, that was cited in a recent article on the Green Revolution in Science magazine.

Indigenous, low yielding African rice tends to be aromatic and used principally for ceremonial purposes, Dalton explains. Over the years, Asian rice, first brought to Africa in the 1600s, gradually became a primary staple in some areas. Since the 1950s, rice breeders have developed new varieties by crossing Asian strains and, in the past ten years, by crossing African and Asian varieties. Those new varieties, however, have not been well accepted. To find out what farmers value in their crops, Dalton conducted a project in 1997 in the West African nation of Ivory Coast with Monty Jones, an internationally respected rice breeder. At the time, both Dalton and Jones worked for the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA).

"What we did is take rice varieties at an early stage of development and give them to farmers to find out what they see as promising. This is the participatory research approach in which farmers get involved at the early stage so they can have input into what's valuable to them."

While high-yield varieties developed through traditional agricultural research methods have been adopted successfully in some areas of Africa, less than 11 percent of the cropland in the upland West African rice belt is planted with them, says Dalton. Through his research, he found that farmers value factors such as plant height, days to maturity and processing characteristics more than how much a plant yields.

"For example, traditional rice varieties take five months to mature. What we found is that farmers really wanted varieties that would mature in 110 days. Shaving off 40 days worth of labor was much more valuable than any yield increase. That allows them to free up labor for other crops and do other things. It also reduces the farmer's risk since the crop is not as exposed to pest infestation, animals eating the crops and other potential losses."

Plant height was also an important factor. The new varieties associated with the Green Revolution tend to be dwarf or semi-dwarf plants that put more of their energy into the grain rather than stalks and leaves. However, farmers in the region harvest their rice by hand and preferred a stalk that was close to waist high.

"You can imagine bending over, stooping down to the ground and harvesting. That was very important to farmers," Dalton says. In choosing crops to plant, "there are compromises that need to be made. The farmers are saying that they value shorter duration varieties. They still want them about waist high so they can harvest them easily, and they would be willing to trade off high yield for those conveniences."

Farmers also consume much of their rice in their own households. As a result, their crop preferences tend to vary from those of farmers who raise more of their crop for the market, he adds.

"What I've done is derive some of the economic values of different crop traits which can then be used by breeders to move directly toward useful technologies," says Dalton. "My paper is novel in its use of a quantitative approach, but the trend toward more participation by farmers in research and development is getting to be commonplace throughout international ag research groups in developing countries."

During their two-year research project, Dalton and Jones created a plot with 60 different strains of rice from around the world, "a shopping center for new varieties." They invited local farmers to visit the plot at several stages of crop development and tell the researchers what they liked and didn't like about each strain.

The following year, the researchers gave seed samples of preferred crops to the farmers to grow under their own conditions. Dalton then asked farmers to indicate what they liked and didn't like about each strain and how much they would be willing to pay for the seed.

The results suggest that increases in food production are likely to occur through a sequence of steps as farmers adopt crops with characteristics that they prefer, eventually increasing overall rice production, adds Dalton.

At UMaine, Dalton conducts research on the needs of Maine's agricultural industry. He has focused on the economics of potato field irrigation and the cost of milk production. He is a member of the governor's panel on dairy industry sustainability. Dalton teaches microeconomics and is scheduled to teach a course on world food supply and the environment in 2004.
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University of Maine

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