Farmer-led innovation brings farmers together with other stakeholders in a collaborative endeavour that recognises multiple forms of expertise. Critical engagement with mainstream models of agricultural science and technology (AST) development has drawn attention to the isolation of farmers as technology adopters within a compartmentalised model of AST development and dissemination. Academic, government and non-governmental actors and organisations are increasingly supporting facilitated processes in which farmers, scientists and engineers develop new knowledge, learning together about the nature of the problems being faced and the potential of different solution pathways.
Despite the centrality of learning to farmer-led innovation, its role has yet to be systematically explored. In response, this paper looks to understand the forms of learning and their contribution to farmer-led innovation during a three-year action-research project involving two groups of farmers from northern England and the Scottish Borders in the UK.
A researcher-facilitator convened a structured process of twenty meetings that together created opportunities for interaction, deliberation and re-framing of problems and solutions among groups of farmers, a university-based engineer, and wider stakeholders. Multiple qualitative methods were used to build understanding of the different farming contexts and to explore the issues the farmers wanted to work on. Meeting transcripts and fieldnotes were subject to thematic analysis, informed by the analytical framework of cognitive, normative and relational learning derived from the social learning literature.
Cognitive, normative and relational learning were found to be mutually interdependent and equally significant, building iteratively rather than linearly: the farmers and engineer assessed new information and reappraised existing situations; they did so informed by and informing a shift in understanding of their goals for new technology; and in so doing they relied on and developed the trust and confidence needed to acknowledge or challenge each other's perspectives. By orientating the group engagement process around the space to explore and challenge histories and contexts of AST, and by drawing on social learning principles to facilitate interaction between the different expertise of farmers and between farmers and engineers, learning emerged that interleaved technology co-design with incremental refinement of the shared norms and values embedded in the process itself.
A focus on learning helps deepen understanding of key mechanisms and processes that define and deliver innovation, and the findings suggest that priorities for farmer-led innovation process design should focus on modalities that open up spaces to negotiate both the purpose and products of innovation.