FarmDESIGN is a whole-farm model developed for the analysis and redesign of mixed crop–livestock farm systems. It is an exploratory model that seeks to give users an idea of the potential productive, economic, and environmental performance of a farm system over a year, given certain design decisions. The FarmDESIGN generates a set of crop and livestock configurations for the farm which meet different needs to different extents. There is no perfect solution, but rather a ‘solution space’ in which several configurations are possible, depending what outcomes the farmers seeks to optimize. The options are presented in a visual format, providing the basis for discussion, selection and implementation.

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In what context is this tool useful?

FarmDESIGN is useful where users want to help smallholder farmers to meet many simultaneous needs. Smallholders, despite their contribution to food production, are nutritionally vulnerable and score poorly on health indicators related to nutrition and dietary diversity. The paradox that these smallholders play a vital role in global food provisioning while simultaneously falling short of meeting their own nutritional needs grounds the argument that these smallholders should be the primary target of innovations to sustainably increase production, improve diets, and improve livelihoods.

Results achieved

Using an expanded FarmDESIGN model with two farm households in Vietnam, researchers found that the household budget, labour, and nutrition modules extended the model's usefulness by allowing researchers to identify and explain trade-offs and synergies between resource allocation and farm household objectives. Results indicate that several trade-offs exist between different household objectives on the two modelled farms, providing a micro-scale perspective into the insights of Kanter et al. (2018), who synthesized trade-offs at multiple spatial scales. These results suggest specific nuances that need considering when examining trade-offs and synergies at the farm–household scale. They also show that interactions between different components of the farm household may affect labour requirements and food availability.

A bio-economic modeling exercise using the FarmDESIGN model on farming systems in Ea Kar district (Vietnam) explored two possible pathways of livestock intensification, forage-based and grain-based cattle fattening, both of which led to higher operating profits – +35 percent for forage-based cattle fattening and +59 percent for grain-based cattle fattening. In this case, while grain-based fattening increased profits and lowered labor demands, it also negatively affected the soil organic matter (SOM) balance, reducing it by 99 percent. On the other hand, forage-based fattening increased the SOM balance by more than 200 percent. SOM helps improve soil structure to ensure suitability for planting and minimize erosion. SOM is also a storehouse of all essential plant nutrients. Quantitative modeling of complex mixed farming systems can help assess the potential impact of intensification strategies and it can support decision-making, targeting, and prioritization, considering the farmer’s interests and objectives.

Another study using the FarmDESIGN model of eight farms with varying levels of diversity and market orientation in the province had revealed negative nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) balances, clearly showing N and P mining in all eight farms. A similar study in Ratanakiri province in Cambodia showed similar results, suggesting that neither the farm’s plant and animal diversity, nor its degree of market orientation, influences the farm soil’s nutrient levels.

Variations on this method

Linking to IMPACT

Alliance scientists in collaboration with scientists from the Farming Systems Ecology group of Wageningen University & Research have developed a conceptual approach and a method which connects global to a farm level analysis. It integrates two simulation models – an economic global model, the IMPACT model, with FarmDESIGN. The integrated IMPACT – FarmDESIGN method can be applied to assess synergies and trade-offs between crop diversity conservation, nutrition, environmental protection and human nutrition considering possible future scenarios in the variety of sites and large-scale scenarios. The integrated IMPACT – FarmDESIGN method improves understanding of the motivation of farmers to practice mono-cropped systems versus biodiverse systems and design adequate policies. Our results can be also useful for farmers to help design their farms in a way that would better meet their complex needs.

Expanding FarmDESIGN

Researchers have improved FarmDESIGN by including two new entity types: ‘Household’ and ‘Household member’, and three new modules: ‘Household budget’, ‘Household labor’, and ‘Household nutrition’.

The new modules expand the scope of FarmDESIGN to conduct multi-objective optimization from the perspective of the farm household, rather than just the farm enterprise. The new ‘Household budget’ module includes economic indicators for off-farm activities and the value of consumable food, in addition to the total value of on-farm production, to calculate the new economic indicator ‘household free budget’. The new ‘Household labor’ module accounts for off-farm work and hired labor, in addition to on-farm work conducted by the farm family, to calculate the new social indicator ‘leisure time’. In the new ‘Household nutrition’ module several indicators related to dietary diversity, nutrient adequacy, and dietary patterns were included to assess the diet quality of the household; the nutrition indicator ‘dietary energy deviation’ is one of them.