The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation, seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations. We use all our resources to attend, unite, and empower those we serve.

Founded in 1953 and independently endowed by William and Maude McKnight, program interests include regional economic and community development, Minnesota’s arts and artists, early literacy, youth development, Midwest climate and energy, Mississippi River water quality, neuroscience research, international crop research, and rural livelihoods.

The Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) works to ensure a world where all have access to nutritious food that is sustainably produced by local people. We do this through collaborative agroecological systems research and knowledge-sharing that strengthen the capacities of smallholder farmers, research institutes, and development organizations. CCRP funds collaborative research between smallholder farmers, leading local researchers, and development practitioners to explore solutions for sustainable, local food systems. We focus our support in twelve countries on two continents where poverty and food insecurity have created “hunger hot spots.” Our theory of change maps two interrelated and distinct pathways through which our work is intended to make an impact. One is support for agriculture systems (individual farms and adjacent farms in an area that share common environmental, cultural, and socio-economic characteristics) to improve performance at the farm level. The other is support for institutions (national research institutions, farmer organizations, non-governmental organizations, and others) to increase the relevance and impact of agriculture research and development efforts, which provide the foundation for sustained improvements in farming.

A Farmer Research Network (FRN) is a collection of farmer groups that engage in research, together with researchers and development organizations.

  • Why engage smallholder farmers in research? There are about 525 million farms worldwide, 404 million of which are smaller than two hectares. These small farms provide a source of livelihood to roughly one third of humanity, including 70 percent of people living in extreme poverty. This is why smallholder farmers are considered to be the backbone of global food security. Over the past 50 years, there has been a gradual shift in the role of farmers from passive recipients to active participants in research intended for their benefit. FRNs aim to further strengthen the role smallholder farmers play in all phases of agricultural research projects.
  • Research: What is the vision for FRNs and how does it complement traditional research? Despite their importance, the heterogeneous needs and opportunities of small farms are only partially-served by the centralized, transfer-of-technology approach that still dominates agricultural research today. CCRP has promoted the sustainable intensification of agroecological farming methods, advocating the enablement of smallholder farmers to adaptively blend their local and experiential knowledge with modern scientific knowledge and methods, in order to develop adequate solutions to their problems. Yet challenges remain in learning how to: (1) scale up successful experiences and institutional arrangements, (2) ensure equitable access to agricultural innovations, and (3) build effective feedback and accountability systems between all actors involved in the innovation process. FRNs are seen as way to work towards addressing these challenges in the agricultural research and development system.
  • Networks: Why emphasize networks? Farmer research networks have the potential to amplify the impact of farmer-driven innovation systems. We know that farmers routinely and spontaneously rely on their own experiments to learn and test new ideas, but they also learn from the ideas and experiments of others within their social network, including scientific researchers. Furthermore, it is estimated that 250 million farmers in developing countries belong to a grower organization, which allow farmers to build social capital, to learn collectively and to manage their shared natural resources. In short, a network enables ideas and methods to be tested, shared, discussed, refined and adopted, if relevant.

For smallholder farmers, we expect improved agroecological performance, more sustainable livelihoods, and enhanced agency. We expect to see farmer groups and organizations, NGOs, government bodies and researchers collaborating in rigorous, pertinent research in a broad range of contexts, which provide large networked datasets combining local farmer knowledge and global academic knowledge. We also expect to see stronger, more vibrant rural organizations as institutional capacity is strengthened and farmer organizations are engaged in genuine collaborative research.

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