Farming for the Future: Optimizing Land Use with FarmDESIGN tool

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Smallholder farming systems in Ethiopia are highly heterogeneous, diverse, and dynamic. Low yield, low soil fertility, and climate variability are problems faced by Ethiopian smallholder farmers that have an impact on food and nutrition security. Trade-offs can occur between productive, environmental, and socio-economic performance indicators. Therefore, capturing the heterogeneity of the farming system and analyzing trade-offs and synergies among various farm performance indicators is essential to obtain the best combination of practices that enhance the overall system productivity.

The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT in Ethiopia under the Mixed farming initiative is working with partners to identify the best practices for sustainable intensification and develop advisory guidelines to enhance overall system productivity while minimizing trade-offs between productivity, environmental impact, and socio-economic factors. FarmDESIGN tool is one of the proposed tools to guide the discussion on the identification, redesign and implementation of land use management options. It aims to optimize resource use and management at the household level. The team employed FarmDESIGN at the farm level in the Shurmu Kebele, Lemmo districts of Ethiopia.

To scale for a larger community a farm typology analysis   conducted to categorize farmers based on various characteristics such as socio-economic status, agronomic practices, demographics, farming methods and available resources. In the study district, nine main farm typologies have been identified. After the farm typology analysis the FarmDESIGN tool is applied at the individual farm level (i.e. sample from each typology) to assess the current farm conditions and provide optimization solutions for land use management.

To ensure representation, one farmer is selected from each farm typology through a focus group discussion involving development agents and model farmers. During the discussion, the team emphasized the importance of the FarmDESIGN model specific needs of smallholder farmers. The farmers expressed satisfaction with the application of the FarmDESIGN model highlighting its significance in evaluating farm performance and providing a comprehensive overview of all farming activities. They affirmed, “It is important to see the value of planning ahead of time and recording farm performance for the following season.”

Additionally, the team conducted a two-month household survey in the study district., integrating many biophysical and socioeconomic variables into the tool. Through in-depth interviews uncovered farmers’ concerns regarding their livelihoods and preferences in terms of resource management and intervention. After being briefed on the overarching goal of the FarmDESIGN model and its output, many farmers expressed their main objective as increasing yield and income while reducing labor requirements, while only a few farmers mentioned improving human nutrition as their primary interest.

‘FarmDESIGN doesn’t just focus on yield; it considers the delicate balance between productivity, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic factors.’  Getachew Tesfaye project coordinator, Alliance Bioversity-CIAT. It asks ‘How can we boost income while protecting the soil and improving family nutrition? This holistic approach ensures long-term success, not just quick fixes,’ He further emphasizes.

Researcher interviewing a farmer in Shurmu Kebele, Lemmo district. Photo by ABC

FarmDESIGN isn’t just a tool, it’s a hand outstretched to farmers like Teshale Mandero in Shurmu Kebele. From gathering data to crafting solutions, it walks beside them every step of the way. This shared journey builds trust, ownership, and paves the way for lasting change. Teshale Mandero beams with optimism as he says, ‘Through FarmDESIGN guiding us, we can secure our families’ food and weave brighter futures for all.’

Proposed potential solutions to mixed farming for smallholder farmers

The team has successfully generated a range of potential solutions to enhance the economic profit, soil organic matter balance (SOM), and human nutrition balance of the farm. By redesigning current farm resources and integrating new intensification options, the initiative can make significant strides in achieving these objectives.

The optimization result demonstrates that adding more crop destination/residue and own farm manure can raise SOM level. Additionally, the integration of cattle has played a crucial role in increasing family income, expanding the supply of organic manure, and ultimately enhancing SOM levels.

Observations indicate that there are certain trade-offs and synergies between different objectives. For example, there is a relatively small trade-off between the objectives of increasing SOM balance and minimizing labor balance. On the other hand, synergies are evident between the objectives of maximizing operating profit and increasing SOM balances, as well as between profit and labor balance. These findings highlight the complexity of farm management and the need for a balanced approach to achieve multiple objectives simultaneously.


We are grateful for the Mixed Farming System initiative and Excellence in Agronomy Initiatives. The work is also supported by the Accelerating the Impact of CGIAR Climate Research in Africa project.

Authors: Meron Awoke Eshetae, Wuletawu Abera, Mohammed Ebrahim, Lulseged Tamene, Haimanot Seifu

Featured image: Ethiopia’s wheat production landscape. Photo by ILRI


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