Category Archives: Soil

Learning from when farmers & scientists disagree about soil (2014, Article)

Geoforum‘They don’t know what they are talking about’: Learning from the dissonances in dialogue about soil fertility knowledge and experimental practice in western Kenya

ABSTRACT: Knowledge-based development interventions for improved natural resource management have long advocated for the integration of local and outsiders’ knowledge. Participatory and conventional approaches frame this as a dialogue between “local” and “scientific” knowledges, using the relative strengths of each stakeholder’s experience to reinforce knowledge gaps. While the epistemological and methodological challenges of such dialogue are well-documented, this study uses a community-based learning project for integrated soil fertility management in western Kenya to explore the less understood dynamics of dissonance between and within knowledge systems. While participatory research did build a dynamic expertise for soil fertility management shared by both smallholder farmers and scientists, divergent expectations and understandings emerged after the initial enthusiasm of shared learning. This included scientists assessing farmers as “not very good” researchers and farmers seeing researchers as “not very good” farmers. Dissonances between actors’ different understandings of soil, the research process, and each other had multiple implications, including on the validity of conclusions reached by different actors and on the possibility for scientific support for local experimentation. While many dissonances ultimately fueled learning and improvements to the project, this required both farmers and scientists to move beyond initial critiques of each other’s knowledge and practices. At their worst, dissonant knowledge claims were actually political ones, hiding competition for control of the development process. Recognizing the nature and extent of dissonances is therefore a crucial step in understanding how best to apply limited resources and disciplinary expertise within participatory teams attempting to build hybrid knowledge.

Download the pdf from my ResearchGate site here.

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Working with Farmer’s Experiments (2012, Chapter)

Contested AgronomyRamisch, J.J. (2012) ‘This field is our church’: The social and agronomic challenges of farmer participatory research.  Chapter 9 in Sumberg, J.E., Thompson, J. (eds.) Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World.  London: Earthscan. Pp. 146-174.

Download the unrevised pdf from ResearchGate here.

Certain types of participation have gained legitimacy amongst agronomists in national and international research centres, e.g. “farmer field schools” and other group-based experimentation / demonstration approaches; participatory ranking exercises for variety appraisals; wealth ranking or other problem trees to identify constraints.  This participation imperative means that on-farm research now necessarily engages twin (social and agronomic) objectives – “empowerment”, greater knowledge sharing, and improved social capital on the one hand, which in turn are supposed to foster improved crop husbandry on the other hand, visible as improved crop performance and yields, soil fertility, etc.  However, it is not clear that the research products and data gained from these activities are effectively advancing either agronomy or farmers’ welfare.

Case study material from national and international agricultural research on soil fertility management in Kenya illustrates some of the challenges of implementing such participatory technology development.  These challenges are related to the political, social dynamics of group-based learning, to the complexities of knowledge generation and sharing in a real, social context, and to the suspect validity and rigour of data generated in these hybrid ventures.  Even projects that explicitly tried to subvert these problems were only moderately successful in implementing changes, and many examples show how difficult it was to generate useful (i.e. publishable) agronomic data or conclusions.  Local actors ended up perceiving the researchers as “not very good farmers”, while research teams found farmers to be “not very good researchers”, obviously not the middle ground that these participatory approaches hope to achieve.

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The Meanings of Farmers’ Experiments (2011, Chapter)

Knowing NatureRamisch, J.J., (2011) Experiments as ‘performances’: Interpreting farmers’ soil fertility management practices in western Kenya. Chapter 15 in Goldman, M., P. Nadasdy, M.D. Turner (eds.) Knowing Nature: Conversations at the Intersection of Political Ecology and Science Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 280 – 295.

Download the unrevised pdf from ResearchGate here.


A growing body of literature describes the interface between formal agricultural research and the knowledges of local communities.  While this research has advanced the awareness of rural practice it usually does so with utilitarian goals of “integrating” knowledge systems or validating local practice in more cosmopolitan forums.  Yet encounters between development actors are power-laden such that claims of “knowledge”, evidence of “learning”, or indeed the very construction of “local practice” are contestable subjects.  Specific examples from community-based learning and development projects in western Kenya illustrate the performative and negotiated nature of both local and formal knowledge as applied to constructing and interpreting “experiments” relating to soil fertility management.  The diversity of practices and outcomes reveals the problems of generalizing principles about actual soil fertility management strategies without an understanding of their social context.

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Making Sense of Soil Nutrient Balances (2010, Chapter)

Beyond the BiophysicalRamisch, J.J., (2010) Beyond the Invisible: Finding the Social Relevance of Soil Nutrient Balances in Southern Mali. Chapter 2 in German, L., Ramisch, J.J., Verma, R., (eds.) Beyond the Biophysical: Knowledge, Culture, and Power in Natural Resource Management. New York: Springer.  Pp. 25-48.

Download the unrevised pdf from ResearchGate here.

The cotton-centered farming system of southern Mali has gained a reputation both as a paragon of successful, cash-crop led development and also as an example of serious soil nutrient depletion (“soil mining”). This chapter engages and critiques the social and developmental implications of the soil mining narrative and the language and methodology of soil nutrient balances that underpins it. By deploying the language of crisis in an “invisible” realm, soil scientists and development practitioners assert claims to control and knowledge of productive resources that would otherwise be the objects of intense social negotiation. The data-intensive calculation process also creates a false sense of precision about the “invisible” world of soil nutrients whose relationship to a social context is unknown or only implied. Examples from field work at the southern frontier of the cotton zone illustrate the partiality of the knowledge conveyed by nutrient balances and reveal the importance of multiple other “invisible” phenomena that were excluded from or could not be easily incorporated into the nutrient balance methodology. In the highly contested terrain of agro-pastoralism, migration, and mobility, these phenomena would include the constantly renegotiated access arrangements to land, labor, and livestock. The social relevance of nutrient balances can therefore only be improved by situating soil fertility within a broader context of environmental and livelihood factors, visible and invisible.

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Learning from Kenyan farmers’ experiments with Soybean

Integrating new soybean varieties for soil fertility management in smallholder systems through participatory research: Lessons from western Kenya

Agricultural Systems 01/2008; DOI:10.1016/j.agsy.2007.10.002
Download the unrevised pdf from ResearchGate here.

ABSTRACT The aim of this paper was to understand the process of selecting soybean (Glycine max [L.] Merr.) promiscuous varieties by smallholders for soil fertility management in western Kenya. Eight varieties were screened on 2.5 m × 3 m plots that were managed according to farmers’ practices and evaluated through participatory monitoring and evaluation approaches. Farmers selected preferred varieties and explained their reasons (criteria) for making the selections. Seven promiscuous varieties had better yields than a local one. Farmers’ selection criteria fell into three broad categories relating to yield, appearance and labour. Selection criteria were not primarily aimed to improve soil fertility. This created a challenge to embed the new varieties within the local farming systems for soil fertility improvement. This study shows that farmer criteria for selecting varieties overlapped with scientific procedures. We propose co-research activities targeted to strengthen farmer experimentation skills, their understanding on Nitrogen addition, and the role of Phosphorus.

Indigenous knowledge reveals soil fertility status in Central Kenya

Scientific evaluation of smallholder land use knowledge in Central Kenya

Land Degradation and Development (Impact Factor: 1.99). 07/2007; 19(1):77 – 90. DOI:10.1002/ldr.815
Download the full text from ResearchGate here

ABSTRACT The following study was conducted to determine smallholders’ land use management practices and agricultural indicators of soil quality within farmers’ fields in Chuka and Gachoka divisions in Kenya’s Central Highlands. Data on cropping practices and soil indicators were collected from farmers through face-to-face interviews and field examinations. Farmers characterised their fields into high and low fertility plots, after which soils were geo-referenced and sampled at surface depth (0–20 cm) for subsequent physical and chemical analyses.

Farmers’ indicators for distinguishing productive and non-productive fields included crop yield, crop performance and weed species. Soils that were characterised as fertile, had significantly higher chemical characteristics than the fields that were of poor quality. Fertile soils had significantly higher pH, total organic carbon, exchangeable cations and available nitrogen. Factor analysis identified four main factors that explained 76 per cent of the total variance in soil quality. The factors were connected with farmers’ soil assessment indicators and main soil processes that influenced soil quality in Central Kenya. Soil fertility and crop management practices that were investigated indicated that farmers understood and consequently utilised spatial heterogeneity and temporal variability in soil quality status within their farms to maintain and enhance agricultural productivity.
See also:

Michael Tatuli Misiko (2004-2007) Ph.D. – Wageningen Univ.

Misiko ploughing
Misiko uses an ox-plough

Thesis: Fertile ground? Soil fertility management and the African smallholder. (Wageningen University, Netherlands. Full pdf available at:

Misiko led the field research component of the IDRC-funded Folk Ecology Initiative (2001-2008) and has published many articles (available at his site on ResearchGate) related to his doctoral research and the FEI.