Farmers and Scientists Working Together

Livestock and beekeepingPost-harvest activities


Example 1 – Farmers and scientists re-discover and improve a traditional livestock cure

Sheep farming is common in the highlands of Peru. But a continuing problem for some sheep farmers is a parasite called ‘sheep ked’. This parasite weakens sheep, and damages the hide and fleece. The sheep do not produce as much meat, and the hide and fleece cannot be sold for high prices, so farmers lose a lot of money. For many years, the farmers used agricultural chemicals to control the parasite. But eventually the chemicals became too expensive.

Women farmers in the community met with agricultural scientists to search for answers to their sheep problem. At one of the meetings, a villager suggested an indigenous remedy, known by her grandmother. The remedy used the leaves of a local plant. She said that if you rub the leaves on the hides of affected animals, you could see the parasites dropping off within a few seconds.

The women wanted to try it. The scientists were willing to help. They knew that these leaves were used as an effective pest control in many parts of the world. But it was too much work for a farmer to rub down 30 animals, which is about the average size of their herd. So the scientists did some experiments. They found a way to mix the leaves with water, and create a liquid solution. The solution could be used as a ‘sheep dip’. The farmers were already familiar with ‘sheep dips’ from their earlier experience with agricultural chemicals.

Two women volunteered their flocks for an experiment. One flock had no treatment for the parasite. The other flock was treated with the indigenous dip remedy. The whole village gathered to watch the first day of the trial. Everyone collected enough local plants for the experiment. The men of the village performed the dipping, as this is traditionally a male role in the community.

The results? After 60 days, the sheep that were dipped in the traditional remedy had half as many parasites as the other group. They had also gained more weight. And they were healthier. The farmers said that the traditional remedy was as effective or more effective than the chemicals. The scientists agreed. And the indigenous remedy was less expensive.

In the future, the farmers and scientists working together hope to make improvements by: making sure there is enough of the wild plant for everyone; finding ways to finance and maintain dipping equipment; making sure that everyone uses the remedy to prevent re-infection on common pastures; and by finding a way to use dried instead of fresh leaves.

Example 2 – Farmers and scientists work together to save seeds of survival

The country of Ethiopia has a wide variety of grain crops, including thousands of traditional varieties of wheat and barley. Several grain crops, including sorghum, teff, and some species of millet actually originated in Ethiopia. For centuries, Ethiopian farmers have carefully selected the best varieties for their highly variable local environments.

Farmers have increased crop diversity by:

  • exchanging seed with their neighbours,
  • growing several varieties of the same crop in one field, and
  • growing seed from plants which are interesting crosses between cultivated crops and their wild or weedy relatives.

For several decades this local knowledge has been threatened. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ethiopian farmers grew fewer local varieties. Instead they started to grow modern high-yielding varieties of grains. But these high-yielding varieties needed a lot of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Some farmers couldn’t afford these inputs. And, the modern varieties often did not yield well because they were not suited to a climate with drought, frost, and other climatic stresses. Some of the new varieties were attacked by diseases and pests, and some failed completely.

In the 1980s, there were more problems – wars and droughts in the country.

Many farmers were forced to eat their stocks of seed. International donors sent huge amounts of imported seed.

Indigenous varieties were further threatened. Much traditional farming land was also destroyed during this time.

Then in 1988, Ethiopian farmers, the national crop gene bank, and a Canadian NGO began a project called ‘Seeds of Survival’. The project helped farmers grow and improve indigenous crop varieties on their farms.

Farmers received a supply of locally-grown sorghum, wheat, and maize seeds. They planted the seeds, cultivated the crop and harvested and collected the seeds. The farmers returned some of the seeds to the gene bank. Some seeds were distributed to other local farmers. Twenty-six traditional varieties of sorghum and twelve varieties of maize were saved through this effort. Farmers used traditional techniques to select, grow and store the seeds.

Scientists at the gene bank helped the farmers in several ways. They took the seeds which the farmers provided and crossed them with other seeds. In that way, they made the seeds more tolerant to pests and drought, and more nutritious. Scientists also helped the farmers breed local varieties with higher yields. Within a few years these varieties yielded higher than both the modern varieties and the farmers’ own traditional varieties.

The scientists and farmers also worked together to improve traditional storage methods, such as the use of underground pits and clay pots. Today scientists and farmers in Ethiopia continue to work together to face new challenges.


Contributed by: Vijay Cuddeford, Toronto, Canada.

Reviewed by: Helen Hambly, Research Officer, International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), The Hague, The Netherlands.

Information sources

SOS/E: Promoting Farmers’ Seed – its conservation, enhancement and effective utilization“, by Melaku Worede. A paper presented at the Scandinavian Seminar College Africa Project Workshop, Harare, Sept. 27th – Oct. 1st, 1998. SSC-Africa Project, c/o Peter Gregersen, Centre for Development Research (CDR), Gammel Kongevej 5, DK-1610 Copenhagen, Denmark. E-mail:

Local veterinary medicine: Women farmers in Peru share local recipes“, by Constance McCorkle, Appropriate Technology, Volume 26, No. 3, December 1999, pages 30-32. ITDG Publishing, 103-105 Southampton Row, London, UK, WC1B 4HL. Email:

The Potential of Agroecology to Combat Hunger in the Developing World, by Miguel A. Altieri, Peter Rosset and Lori Ann Thrupp.