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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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National Program 207: Integrated Farming Systems
Action Plan (2002-2007)
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1 - Part I: Introduction
2 - Part II: Attributes of Integrated Agricultural Systems and Associated Projects
3 - Part III: Strategies for Developing IAS Projects
4 - Part IV: Examples of Integrated Agricultural Systems Research in ARS
Part I: Introduction

As we enter the 21st century, American agriculture faces both 'the best of times and the worst of times.' Agriculture will be expected to help meet food, feed, and fiber demands of a world population that is anticipated to grow from approximately 6 billion in 1999 to between 8 and 11 billion by 2050. This essentially guarantees the need for the plant and animal products that are produced. However, American farmers and ranchers, who often have limited flexibility because of their fixed geographical locations, must also deal with increasing international competition, more sophisticated consumer demands in the marketplace, and an increasing public concern regarding both on- and off-site impacts of their production practices. In addition, current prices for many commodities are at 20-30-year lows while production costs have not decreased and, in many instances, have increased. Balancing these economic, environmental, and social demands requires a high degree of management skill and knowledge because every farm or ranch is a complex system of interacting components that exists in both a natural and socio-economic environment.

To help meet these multiple demands, this Agricultural Research Service (ARS) national program, Integrated Agricultural Systems (IAS), is designed to facilitate the synthesis, evaluation, and transfer of information to all types of agricultural operations using a 'systems approach.' The decision to conduct research in a flexible and holistic manner rather than using more traditional reductionist approaches was a direct outcome of a customer workshop in which it was repeatedly stressed that agricultural systems research must more appropriately represent the interactions, tradeoffs, and concerns faced by those who ultimately strive to use the tools and information products resulting from research. Workshop participants suggested that a systems approach also would provide a direct and immediate outlet for information being discovered and refined through more reductionist approaches within the other 22 ARS national programs.

A critical first step toward developing and implementing an IAS National Program is to more clearly define 'system' in this context. This definition is challenging because the term 'system' has become associated with processes at a continuum of scales. Every scientific, social, economic, and cultural discipline defines systems. This national program will focus at scales no smaller than multiple fields or paddocks and stress the importance of understanding interactions and emergent properties associated with various soil, plant, and animal factors affecting the physical area of concern. A second term that must be defined to discuss systems research is 'components,' which are simply the individual pieces that make up the system of concern. The challenge in communication is that almost every component is a system in itself with multiple components at a smaller scale. This continuum of 'systems and components' is a fundamental reason that traditional research approaches became increasingly reductionist. The primary goal was to understand more completely the mechanisms and the reasons that specific processes occurred.

As a result of reductionist approaches, previous research paradigms often focused on isolated problems. Given a specific problem, the typical solution was to provide a technological therapy to control the problem. Often the objective was simply to maximize productivity. This objective was considered a 'problem,' so research was carried out to develop tools to maximize the output of a particular product. The resulting technology was transferred to an outreach system, and 'extension agents' were tasked with convincing producers that this technology therapy would work in their systems. There was little effort to understand the problem or solution in relation to the production system. Unfortunately, this type of approach often leads to a treadmill effect in which stronger and more complex interventions are required to fix the problem. Producers must choose to increase nutrient, pesticide, or other input applications or to maintain production at current levels. Production systems often became larger simply to remain profitable and competitive in local, regional, or national markets.

There is no intent to discredit reductionist approaches. Fundamental information provided by those methods has caused American agriculture to be emulated throughout the world. However, just as experimental research on system components is needed to understand why certain responses occur, research is needed to help understand how agricultural systems respond and interact when implemented in real situations. Systems research, in the context of this national program, focuses on identifying linkages among components and quantifying resource use with respect to scale and location within the whole system. The intent is to evaluate interactions and emergent properties broader than specific technological responses associated with an agricultural production system. The system of interest includes such things as watershed characteristics, various infrastructures, neighboring farms and communities, climate, socio-economic and development issues, and civic organizations and the relationships of such components to regional and national concerns.

Emphasizing a flexible systems research approach will encourage collaborative research with nonagricultural scientists (e.g., economists, social scientists, community specialists) as well as with stakeholders interested in agriculture. Many of these groups play a critical role in developing and delivering functional agricultural systems but have traditionally played minor roles as ARS collaborators. Figure 1 illustrates the importance of integrating scientific knowledge and ARS resources with those of our partners to identify and understand the actual problem(s) and more efficiently target resources.

The process through IAS projects will become focused on specific targets will be highly interactive with participatory feedback and continuous revision of short-term goals. Important aspects of systems research are full understanding of the goals and strengths of the system, the rules by which it operates, and the relationship of these aspects to both the problem and the use of resources. Teams will strive to design projects that take advantage of natural ecological and biological resources whenever possible. Preparatory activities include gathering background knowledge, identifying linkages in the system, developing a database structure, and planning for sharing the knowledge derived from the solution including technology transfer. Initial research should focus on understanding the identified problem within the context of the related system rather than on proposing or implementing a specific solution.


Figure 1. Conceptual structure of the IAS National Program

Another important goal will be to understand the interactions among components at the whole-system level, particularly the components for which considerable knowledge is available. Projects associated with IAS often will focus on interactions of the components within a larger scale or context than that for which the information was originally obtained. For example, knowledge of eroded sediments, pathways for pesticide transport and degradation, nutrient and water use efficiencies, alternative crops, or genetically engineered plants and animals may be viewed in a much different context when interactions among these factors are extended to ecological or watershed systems beyond the farm. To better understand the system effects, participatory on-farm research often will be initiated to determine whether the components are mutually compatible or if one or more conflict with the effectiveness of others. For instance, does the production of an alternative crop require new equipment or lead to additional pests? Overall project goals will be to assist farmers and ranchers and their consultants in ensuring economic viability with minimal adverse environmental impacts and an awareness of effects on rural communities.

The conceptual approach of the IAS National Program differs from the traditional commodity or resource-based approach. Systems research is focused at an ecological-social level. Furthermore, the solution may not relate directly to the originally perceived problem, and completely new research approaches may be needed. These situations further emphasize the need for multidisciplinary teams with non-ARS members to provide a sufficiently broad perspective.

Program Foundation

The foundation of the IAS National Program is the definition of 'sustainable agriculture' as addressed by Congress in the 1990 'Farm Bill' [Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603 (Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1990) NAL Call #KF1692.A31 1990]:

Sustainable Agriculture - An integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term - (1) satisfy human food and fiber needs; (2) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the economy depends, (3) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls, (4) sustain the economic viability of farm operations, and (5) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

It is therefore important to state clearly that ARS, as a science-based research agency, applies all physical, chemical, and biological sciences to understand and solve agricultural problems. The foci and approaches are not limited to any specific ideologies, strategies, or philosophies that may be associated with the definition of sustainable agriculture. This national program will consider diverse tools and technologies to achieve more sustainable agriculture for all sectors of American agriculture.

A unique aspect of the IAS National Program is the emphasis on the 'infrastructure' to ensure that problems are addressed in a holistic manner. This infrastructure will include support for simulation models, databases, programmers, documentation protocols, and data management strategies as well as an emphasis on participatory and on-farm studies. There will be a development component as well as a research component. As stated previously, it is important to involve users and interested organizations in both components since they bring perspectives that often are much different than those focused solely on science or research. Involvement of the broader community ensures that the solution(s) will be economically and ecologically sustainable and facilitate development of appropriate solutions for specific communities or larger areas. The IAS National Program also will involve educational outreach to ensure that considerations important to relevant partners are incorporated into the development and application of solutions.

The need for this new, more holistic approach to the design and conduct of agricultural research was voiced throughout the IAS workshop and at other recent meetings with farmers, ranchers, agricultural consultants, and other stakeholders. A common theme was that tools and information are among the primary products wanted from an IAS research program. Owners and operators generally want to develop their own farm or ranch systems once they have the necessary information regarding individual components and their interactions. However, in some situations it may be appropriate for the agricultural research community to propose and design whole or partial management strategies. One example is information needed to facilitate the transition from farming with high levels of nonrenewable inputs to use of renewable resources. Others are the demand for science-based information on organic farming practices and a better understanding of how genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and other technologies will impact the entire environmental continuum. When making such transitions, the entire agricultural system needs to be evaluated to determine when and where to initiate changes. This holistic approach also is important for adoption of site-specific management practices, whether in the context of precision agriculture, sustainable agriculture, or both. An understanding of the on- and off-site effects of site-specific practices can help to mitigate many current stresses on urban, suburban, and rural relationships, whether related to plants or animals, or to the field, farm, watershed, or community level.

In addition to tools, information, and a better understanding of interactions among various components, anticipated products or outcomes from the IAS National Program include

  1. Scientific knowledge about agricultural systems. This will involve defining an agricultural system and describing how to study it; how to identify its significant components; and how to study the biological, physical, and chemical interactions among its components.
  2. More robust and better-structured approaches to integrate scientific knowledge from other national programs into packages that can be implemented by various stakeholders. This will be achieved through extensive interdisciplinary and multilocation research projects addressing agricultural problems identified directly by customers and through traditional research and technology transfer programs.
  3. Databases and information retrieval and analysis tools for farm management. While many such tools already are being developed through other national programs, IAS projects will promote the unification of such approaches through the use of data produced by other national programs (e.g., models for water, fertilizer, and pesticide management and for crop yield) as input to another specific application or to an overall farm/ranch management model.
  4. Technologies that enhance the viability of existing agricultural and animal production systems or that foster the development of more sustainable production.
  5. Structured approaches to involve agricultural stakeholders--including producers, service and input providers, extension and education organizations, regulators, and others--in the identification of research problems and priorities and the corresponding development of research efforts. This involvement will enhance the immediate usefulness of the research products, facilitate the technology transfer process, and contribute to development of science-based agricultural and resource management policies.
  6. Collaborative, science-based approaches to identify emerging regional agricultural issues; assess their relevance to productivity, the environment, and the economic well-being of rural and agricultural-based communities; and to determine the ARS role in addressing those issues.
  7. Collaborative, science-based approaches to analyze the long-term performance of agricultural technologies and their impact on the environment and rural communities.

Finally, it is anticipated that decision support systems will be one of the primary products associated with the IAS National Program. These tools generally will be designed for direct application to decision-making at farm or multiple field levels by integrating knowledge and information developed by ARS and elsewhere in the global agricultural research community. The target audiences for these tools will be farmers, ranchers, and their primary enterprise consultants, but benefits also will accrue to policymakers, financial and other service providers, and regulators. Key outcomes of IAS decision-support projects include agricultural management programs, individual computer-based decision aids, printed guidelines, Internet systems, databases, information resources, and other products. These tools will take multiple forms to make them accessible to farmers and others within a wide variety of educational backgrounds, skills, economic levels, and types of agricultural enterprises. New delivery technologies also will be sought but not to the exclusion of methods that have worked in the past such as field days, county farmer meetings, and on-farm consultations and demonstrations.

Planning Process and Plan Development

The vision, mission, project attributes, strategies, and research protocols outlined for projects associated with the IAS National Program were identified using a customer-oriented workshop in Denver, Colorado, and a subsequent participatory research planning process. A 20-member planning committee assisted the national program team in gathering input from ARS customers, stakeholders, and partners interested in agricultural systems research. Several ARS writing team members, representing various geographic locations, subsequently met to synthesize the information and prepare this document. Great effort was made to listen to diverse viewpoints and to identify the science-based issues to be addressed and solved to develop sustainable agricultural systems throughout the U.S. and around the world. The process was initiated by examining the characteristics of agricultural systems research as outlined by various groups of workshop participants (Table 1).

Table 1.

Characteristics of IAS research projects identified by 1999 workgroups of IAS workshop participants




Emphasize conservation and protection of soil, water, and air resources; manage pests and wastes with minimal ecological destruction; encourage biological diversity; reduce use of fossil fuel; increase profit and quality of life and reduces risk; conduct science-based research at scales appropriate for subsequent implementation by stakeholders and other clients; consider social and ecological system impacts.


Increase sensitivity to natural systems with less isolation and greater consideration for externalities and off-site effects; increase producer participation; be sensitive to farm-scale and social implications; help guide policy; add value and increase options.


Increase focus on component interactions, not reductionism; recognize that change is driven by computers and communication, globalization of economy, biotechnology and genetics, and consumer empowerment; conduct at appropriate scales including field, on-farm, community, and watershed; exercise vision and work backward from the data.


Conduct at scales greater than the field with active producer participation in design, data collection, and interpretation; commit to multi-year projects; conduct regional as well as local-level studies; involve different agencies, organizations and disciplines; include energy balance, profitability, and nutrient budgets; use broad treatment approaches.


Increase emphasis on complete integration of all factors affecting the production system; increase emphasis on understanding system biology as well as economics; conduct studies at multiple scales appropriate for questions being asked.


Be inclusive rather than focused on a specific component or components; evaluate 'adequately defined' risk; integrate traditional research into real world situations; involve farmer or rancher with entire process; do not assume 'regulatory' approach by identifying practices as 'approved'; include an information component.


Include broader expertise and a greater range of information; explicitly define value system since science can not be value-free; utilize on-farm research; include economics as critical for sustainability and quality of life for contentment; be cyclic not linear.


Include all biological components and understand biogeochemical cycles and interactions between components; track for consumers, environmentalists, and others who need to know; include marketing and fluid transfer of information; use multidisciplinary approach, on-farm studies, and multi-year timelines; integrate environmental protection and economic opportunities; use community-based approach.


Provide mechanism for multidisciplinary teamwork; include quality of life and community impacts; include Native American cropping practices; provide for information and technology transfer in language producers can understand.


Ensure that research is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable and that markets are a major driving force; focus on interrelationships; use land for best-suited purpose; recognize that each farm or ranch is unique; recognize the need to get along with neighbors and community.


The workshop groups were then asked to identify specific barriers, requirements, and problems that often prevented or limited the usefulness of systems research and to suggest ways to overcome those real and/or perceived barriers (Table 2).


Table 2.

Real and perceived barriers to implementing IAS and corresponding potential solutions on strategies


Barriers, Requirements, and Problems

Solutions and Strategies


Disciplinary tunnel vision; how to handle massive, multilocation and multidisciplinary data sets; balancing between publishing data and providing it to stakeholders; lack of input from women, minority, small-scale farmers and consumers; lack of physical sites dedicated to IAS research projects; lack of follow-up regarding long-term impacts of research products; no consensus on how to measure success at system level; traditional research too fragmented for systems applications; failure to recognize operator impact in decision- making.

Look outside of agriculture for ways to study integrated systems; utilize more on-farm (real-world) studies; involve stakeholders in all phases of the research; study longer, more complex rotations and cover crop associationsCincluding effects on fertility, weeds, insects, disease, and product quality as well as quantity; investigate successful holistic farming operations; increase scientist awareness of and sensitivity to risk.


Lack of long-term information to support high-risk, low-capital, or nontraditional systems; existing information is not readily available for farmers, extension personnel, NGOs and others; lack of appropriately defined databases, models, management information systems, and decision support; lack of communication between agriculture and urban/suburban neighbors; lack of people-friendly decision-making tools; lack of awareness of current tools and technologies among potential users; loss of agricultural literacy within the broader community.


Be sure the products are what operators want; strive for greater participatory input and participation in all phases of the research and technology transfer; develop educational programs that include on-farm activities and career opportunities; be specific in identifying producer benefits associated with IAS projects; increase communication between researchers, producers and customers; maximize use of Internet for information transfer; create new partnerships for information delivery.


Rewards often given to individuals instead of team; Agribusiness has too much influence on Congress and the ARS program; agency boundaries result in conflicting missions; research infra-structure emphasizes and rewards reductionism rather than holistic approaches; lack of integration between food quality/safety and product development; ARS needs product development and not only science; competitive rather than cooperative funding environments; lack of top-level support for systems research; lack of communication between researchers and farmers, ranchers and consumers; lack of mechanisms to promote interdisciplinary and interagency cooperation; infrastructure is not set up for IAS research; lack of public funding for systems research.

Reward teams and provide greater long-term support for research sites, simulation models, and decision aids as well as good science; make initial contact with native American farmers and traditionally under-served farmers and reward scientists for working with these groups; engage urban population in products they can support.


Unknown outcomes (financial, ecological, and social), system evolution (long-term costs versus benefits), and interactions associated with changing systems; lack of market opportunities and community support for alternative systems; lack of alternative crops and/or pest management strategies compatible with whole systems (both organic and inorganic); limited understanding of interactions at the production and commercial scale; poor understanding of transition time.

Promote development of a better understanding of agricultural system impact on the health of agricultural workers, neighbors, and local communities; develop regionally appropriate information.


Inadequate tools to replace those lost because of environmental constraints; lack of forecasting that includes risk matrices and techniques to reduce risk; no real-time sensors for complete monitoring of product from start to finish; lack of techniques to preserve product identities; lack of benchmarks for water and air quality and soil resources.

Create a global data collection and retrieval system for plant, animal, water, and air quality and soil resources data; develop alternative tools to stay abreast of regulations; ensure software is easy to use; develop tools that determine relative risk of using alternatives; develop new chemicals, biological solutions, crop rotations, and other practices.


Lack of markets for new products or uses for traditional commodities; lack of product differentiation; vertical integration in poultry, hog, and dairy operations; global competition; return on investment; transportation costs and alternatives.

Develop programs to evaluate and share risks associated with IAS adoption; provide data for crop insurance needs; establish working group to help identify market trends and opportunities; include a marketing aspect in all IAS projects.


No apparent strategies to predict effects of changes in policies, practices, markets, and trade regulations here and overseas; no clear understanding of what drives change; lack of understanding by regulatory agencies of system tradeoffs and the requirements to produce agricultural products, i.e., lack of whole-system understanding.

Develop systems that make it possible for young people to farm; strengthen USDA commitment to supporting farmers in regulatory issues; strive for level playing field regarding international imports and exports; ensure research is appropriate for family farms and ranches.


The issues and concerns raised by the customers, stakeholders, and partners were consolidated into themes by the planning team and voted on by non-ARS participants. After further examination, the themes were placed into four categories, which were not mutually exclusive: (1) researchable projects by ARS scientists, (2) requirements and/or guidance for conducting IAS research, (3) development projects, or (4) topics more appropriate for agencies, organizations, or persons outside of ARS. The issues that generally fit Category 1 (researchable by ARS) focused on a systems approach to agricultural production issues associated with small-to-medium-sized farms, organic systems, precision farming, and environmental impacts. They also stressed the need for research to understand existing systems, alternative pest management strategies, risk management, transition from one system to another, and low capital options. Issues emphasizing the research process (Category 2) emphasized on-farm approaches including economic and marketing considerations, environmental impacts, information transfer to all agricultural sectors, and examination of low capital options. Issues considered as primarily developmental projects rather than research focused on analyses of existing systems, improved communications between researchers and users, better database management and accessibility, and sensitivity to risk.

Finally, some issues, outside of the ARS mission, emphasized social, political, policy, and institutional barriers as well as marketing and additional communication concerns. Nevertheless, these issues will be addressed whenever appropriate and possible by, for example, cooperative activities with agencies and organizations that focus on these concerns. Obvious overlap among the four categories occurred because elements of many issues applied equally to more than one category. The process of using customer input from the workshop and elsewhere to develop the IAS National Program was considered very successful.

The IAS National Program Action Plan, based on this substantial customer input, is intended as a philosophical framework for developing agricultural systems projects. To ensure use of a systems approach, the framework emphasizes that a typical IAS project will draw upon many disciplines to integrate science-based knowledge with policy and socio-economic considerations into tools and technologies that assist decision-making in agricultural enterprises. IAS projects will take many forms. Sections within the action plan therefore identify 'Attributes' of typical research projects associated with this national program and 'Strategies' to guide project planning to include those attributes. A final section, 'Case Studies,' provides examples of current projects that meet many of the requirements identified by customers as desirable for future projects directly associated with the IAS National Program. A draft of the plan was circulated to ARS scientists and modified in accordance with their comments.

Beneficiaries of this Research Program

The primary beneficiaries of the information developed and transferred through this national program will be farmers and ranchers. A better understanding of the interaction of the various components will enable them to design and manage more economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable operations. Other beneficiaries include NGOs; local, state, and federal agencies; agribusiness; resource managers; policymakers, and land stewards that need information and techniques to evaluate the status and trends occurring within their agricultural systems. Indirectly, the public at large will benefit through improved water, air, and soil quality; recreational areas; and a sustainable, nutritious, and safe food, feed, and fiber supply.


Science-Based Sustainable Agricultural Systems


To develop sustainable agricultural systems by forming broad participatory partnerships that integrate ecologically based resource management and interdisciplinary science with whole-system knowledge and experience into environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially acceptable tools and technologies, with effective delivery to all customers and stakeholders.

ARS locations currently conducting research programs under the IAS National Program are listed in Table 3.

Table 3.

ARS locations conducting systems research associated with the IAS National Program
















St. Paul








University Park




Mississippi State




Fort Collins




College Station




























Clay Center


















El Reno


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Last Modified: 12/15/2008
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