Established 30 years ago by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Farmers Field School (FFS) is a group-based adult learning approach, which teaches farmers how to experiment and solve problems.
Also called “schools without walls”, its groups meet regularly with a facilitator to observe, talk, ask questions and learn. The approach requires a group of about 30 farmers, who meet on  a farm where they make field  observations,  relate  them to  the  ecosystem and apply their experience and any new information to make a crop or livestock  management  decision  with  the  guidance  of  a  facilitator.
The Sustainable Tree Crop  Programme  (STCP), run by International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA),  has  pioneered  the FFS  on  cocoa  integrated crop and pest management in Cote d‘Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and  Cameroun  since  2003.
Funded by the United States  Agency  for  International  Development  (USAID), over 125,000 farmers have benefited  from the programme,  which has increased productivity.
Under FFS, cocoa yields were on the average, about 40 per cent  higher, requiring about 20 per cent less pesticides.
According to experts, the FFS has helped to promote models that ensure livelihood, food and nutritional security of farming communities  across the country. This is because it incorporates practical modules on good husbandry, various performance and adaptation, multiplication of clean planting material and hands-on practical skills on various production and disease management practices.
Globally, about 20 million men and women farmers, livestock producers and fishers participate in FFS in over 90 countries.
One of the farmers championing the sustainability of the programme is the  Federation of Agricultural Commodities of Nigeria (FACAN) President, Dr Victor Iyama. This is because of what has been achieved with FFS,  especially good practices to improve food and nutrition security, and reduce poverty.
According to Iyama, FFS  has  improved farmers’ livelihoods, empowered farmers and as such should be encouraged and supported by the Federal Government. In most  parts of the country, working with Agricultural Development Programme (ADP), the FFS has provided a platform for knowledge building and sharing where farmers meet, interact and find solutions locally. They learn through hands-on training on various topics,  such  as soil, water and nutrient management, seeds varieties, crop cultivation, pest control, pasture management and conserving biodiversity.
Harvestplus Nigeria Country Manager, Dr Paul Ilona said the FFS is a workable approach to train farmers, adding that as an agricultural production-based training and farmer education tool, it has been shown to play a vital role in poverty reduction among  targeted smallholder farmers.
He explained that the FFS, based on  participatory discussion, strengthens farmers’ independent decision-making capacity. This  has enabled them to make the right market decisions in different situations, balancing profits and risks. As a result, using their market knowledge and the intensified crop production, he said, farmers have significantly increased their economic profits.
According to him,  the FFS is an interactive and participatory learning-by-doing approach, which offers farmers, pastoralists, fishers and foresters a platform to learn from each other, share experiences and field-test new options and ideas.
He noted that participants have enhanced their knowledge of agro-ecosystems, resulting in production systems that are more resilient and optimised the use of available resources.
The FFS has seen  rapid expansion. Only two years after its introduction in 2010, it has been adapted to cotton, rice, cashew, sesame and horticultural products. Since then, every year has seen adaptations to new crops.
In January 2015, the FFS material was available for 12 production systems.
To sustain its work, the FAO has announced  plans to establish 100 FFS in the Northeastern communities of Nigeria to boost agricultural production this year.
The United Nations’ body also said it needs about $18 million to meet the needs of agro-based households in the crisis-ridden Northeast. It also revealed that 51 experts have so far been trained  in the region. Twenty-five agricultural officers have equally been trained by the government, agricultural agencies and non-governmental organisations as facilitators, just as the FFS  community groups have been established in Maiduguri, Borno State.
Also, 26 experts across the three Northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe were trained between last July and August. The three-week workshop equipped experts with the skills to set up and run at least two, FFS per facilitator.
“FAO’s work in the Northeast goes far beyond the provision of livelihood-saving agro-input like seeds and fertilisers,” said Suffyan Koroma, FAO representative in Nigeria, adding: “We work with farmers to ensure that the input they receive are being properly utilised; that they are employing the most effective techniques in management of their crops and animals; and generally, ensuring farming households have the best conditions to boost their resilience.”
Koroma said smallholder farmers face huge hurdles in managing complex agro-ecosystems, adding that the FAO has delivered seeds and fertiliser to about 100,000 households.
However, access to land has remained a key issue as communities are restricted to only small parcels of land for production, no thanks to traditional growing and grazing areas, which cannot be used due to lingering security risks.
Farmers rely on sharecropping–planting on land belonging to others in exchange for a portion of harvest or rent less than one hectare of land for subsistence agriculture.

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