By Laura Ediger, Environmental Manager, BSR
The only place dark enough was a small room in the corner of a storage building, so the group of 20-odd farmers crowded around the door peering in at the images projected on the wall. For the next two hours, everyone listened as Liu Guosheng, a professor from the Hebei Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, explained how they could treat yellow rust on their pear crops, also known as “chicken-foot disease” (pictured, right) for the marks it leaves on the skin of the fruit. But instead of coaching them on spraying pesticides, the professor was teaching farmers about an integrated pest management approach that incorporates better cultivation and hygiene practices.
Scenes like this are happening across China, as part of the Green Farmer training project that BSR is implementing in partnership with Walmart China. The initiative is aimed at helping fulfill Walmart’s global goal to train 1 million farmers in its supply chain. Doing so in China provides a unique opportunity to address concerns about food safety and environmental impacts, while enabling farmers to use more sustainable agricultural practices. It also gives BSR a chance to apply its supply chain experience to pilot a program aimed at addressing the unique challenges and needs of a disparate group of farmers.
To design an effective training program, we started out in the field, visiting sites ranging from pomelo farms in Fujian, to grape farms in Liaoning, and vegetable farms in Guangdong Province, which is better known for its factories than its farms. During each visit, we held in-depth conversations with managers, technicians, and farmers about what and how they wanted to learn. Each of these farms has unique challenges, due to the crop, soil type, production system, and the level of technical knowledge and skills, but most farms are relatively sophisticated and modern. We quickly realized that we wouldn’t be able to provide a standardized package of sustainable agricultural principles and practices but instead needed to home in on the top information needs of each farm and match those farms with experts who could give them concrete practical recommendations on what to do differently.
To do this, we created a five-step process that is standardized in its approach but flexible by design to enable adaptation to local needs.
Identifying needs: Our program starts with a one-day needs assessment led by an expert facilitator who uses a variety of techniques, from in-depth discussions with farm technicians and managers to interactive voting exercises for a roomful of farmers, to understand the most pressing challenges and concerns at each farm. In addition to exploring issues with pests and diseases, or soil management, the facilitators also ask about potential health and safety risks, such as what people wear to protect themselves when applying agrochemicals. By the end of the day’s activities, the facilitator and farm manager agree on one or two priority topics for the first training.
Finding the trainer: At this point, BSR plays the role of matchmaker, identifying an agricultural expert who has the requisite set of knowledge, skills, and experience communicating not just in a university classroom, but to farmers who haven’t necessarily had much formal education. Ideally, we find an expert who is based in the same province, not only for the local knowledge of agricultural ecosystems and specific pests and diseases, but also because many farmers in the program primarily speak regional or local dialects. Based on the results of the initial assessment, we work with the selected expert to create a training agenda that covers both general principles, such as the overall approach to integrated pest management, and specific technical recommendations addressing the farmers’ current needs.
Training: In addition to selecting a suitable expert and crafting training materials that meet a farm’s specific needs, we maximize impact by training the right people. While the business models and management structures of the farms do vary widely, nearly every operation has a core set of technical personnel and lead farmers. By focusing the initial training on a smaller group of key decision-makers, we are able to provide a much more in-depth and interactive experience, including field demonstrations, which allows those individuals to test and share their knowledge with others as part of their day-to-day work.
Agreeing on actions to take: Toward the end of the two-day training, we ask the expert and training participants to identify a set of concrete actions that the technicians or farmers will take to apply the new knowledge they have learned. These discussions can get heated, as farmers debate what might and might not work and what they are actually willing to try. In an occupation with low margins and high risk, everyone seems to have a story of a neighbor who tried a new product and lost their entire crop, so new techniques are often tried on a small plot as a cautious experiment.
Measuring impact: After the training, we follow up with farmers to measure the program’s impact. We want to track both how far information has spread and whether practices have changed. Despite a few anecdotes of rapid change, such as one farmer who started building compost piles the day after our training, the adoption of new practices in agriculture tends to be slow, governed by both the seasonal nature of production (a specific pest might not appear until next year) and the conservative nature of farmers in a risky business. In this context, we don’t expect dramatic results in the short term but rather a more gradual adoption of better practices over time. In support of this longer-term approach, we encourage farmers to stay in contact with the agricultural experts so they can ask questions about how to use alternative techniques or consult the experts on new challenges.
As we roll out the program across China, we continue to ask ourselves: How can we make the program sustainable over the long term? Our goal is to create a resource that outlasts the generous funding from the Walmart Foundation and becomes an integral part of the relationship between Walmart China and the farmers in its supply chain—a way to help both businesses and ensure a supply of high-quality fruits and vegetables in Walmart stores from Beijing to Shenzhen. For this, we will continue to rely on the approach we use across our supply chain work in other industries, integrating capacity-building into business priorities and practices, transforming the relationship between customers and suppliers, and fostering supplier ownership of their own sustainability agendas.