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Credit unions have clout with farmers

STANFORD (US) — Because of their considerable influence among farmers in developing countries, credit unions should be included in efforts to improve agricultural sustainability.

“Most people tend to think that technology information flows to farmers through a direct pipeline from scientists, but that isn’t true,” says lead author Ellen McCullough, a former research fellow at Stanford University, now at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

To better understand how farmers decide to adopt new technologies, researchers interviewed growers, farm credit unions, and agricultural experts in the Yaqui Valley in Sonora, Mexico—the birthplace of the “green revolution” in wheat and one of Mexico’s most productive breadbaskets.

Matson has been working in the Yaqui Valley for nearly 20 years to determine how science can inform agricultural policy in an area grappling with the kinds of environmental challenges that plague other intensive farming regions.

While Yaqui Valley supplies most of Mexico’s wheat, the environmental costs are high. Valley farms pollute local drinking water, wreck coastal ecosystems, and foul the air with particulates that cause a variety of diseases.

“If scientists want to offer solutions to manage these environmental impacts, they need to understand what influences farmers’ decisions about technology and production strategies,” McCullough says.

The study, co-authored by Pamela Matson, professor of environmental studies at Stanford, is published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In Yaqui Valley, credit unions hold sway among the majority of farmers. In addition to providing loans, crop insurance, fertilizer and seed, credit unions have taken over the government’s role in providing technical expertise and management advice.

Valley growers also have a long history of working with the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, (CIMMYT) a world-renowned agricultural research center.

But most farmers take their cues from local credit unions and not from experts at CIMMYT. As an example, McCullough pointed to a collaborative effort between CIMMYT scientists and farmers to develop a nitrogen diagnostic tool that reduces fertilizer use without sacrificing crop yields.

The device, which gives real-time readings of nitrogen levels in the soil, proved early on that it could save farmers 12 to 17 percent of their profits. Most farmers rejected the new technology until CIMMYT convinced credit union officials that it was a worthwhile investment.

“The most successful innovations that have been adopted by farmers in the Yaqui Valley have come from collaborations among researchers, farmers, and local establishments, like the credit unions,” McCullough says.

“The Yaqui case negates the simplistic view of the one-way flow of scientific information from the agricultural research community to the user community,” Matson says.

“If researchers seek to produce relevant knowledge that ultimately influences decision making, they must recognize the dynamics of the local knowledge system and participate purposefully and strategically in it.”

The research was supported with grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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