China’s rural farmers face daunting challenges. With a large population and limited arable land, agriculture here has always been highly intensive, which has led to soil depletion and frequent overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, many of dubious quality. Meanwhile, China’s growing middle class has higher expectations for quality food, prompting retailers and restaurants to demand improved supply systems for food. As a result, farmers are adapting with new crops, technologies, and business models.

But many farmers still lack the information and tools needed to apply safe and sustainable farming methods. In an effort to address this need, Walmart, which has been operating in China for close to 20 years, formed a partnership with BSR in 2011 to provide training on sustainable agriculture to farmers in its supply chain. We had several objectives for this three-year program:

  1. Help farmers learn about and apply more sustainable techniques on their farms.
  2. Improve the environmental impacts of these farms by reducing chemical usage and improving ecosystem health.
  3. Help farmers by reducing their own health risks from pesticide use and by improving their products’ quality and, therefore, their incomes.
  4. Improve the quality and safety of fresh produce to satisfy consumer demands.

From 2011 to 2014, BSR worked with Walmart China to design and implement a program that trained fruit, vegetable, and livestock farmers on sustainable agricultural techniques (see our previous article for details on how the program worked). Now that the project has concluded, we have taken some time to evaluate how our work improved farm practices and products, along with the health and livelihoods of farmers and communities. We also took stock of why our approach was effective, and what lessons could be applied to other training programs.

Our Impacts: How Simple Changes Improved Products and Farmer Welfare

Working with agricultural experts, we trained nearly 5,000 farmers at 64 farms located in 22 of China’s provinces. Our training method created a multiplier effect, allowing farmers to share their knowledge through informal channels in order to reach a greater number of beneficiaries. We actively encouraged the involvement of women, and 35 percent of participants were female. The topics we covered included identification and control of pests and diseases and integrated pest management approaches, soil testing and use of organic fertilizers and soil conditioners, orchard care through pruning and soil management, identification and prevention of disease in livestock, and improved record-keeping to track inputs and effects.

Our evaluations of select farms revealed that farmers were retaining and applying their new knowledge and techniques. In many cases, these methods helped reduce the application of harmful chemicals. One vegetable farm, for instance, used crop rotation to reduce disease, allowing farmers to cut pesticide use by 60 percent. At another vegetable farm that implemented safer methods for handling pesticides, farmers reported a drop in physical effects such as dizziness.

Because one of the project’s goals was to improve economic benefits for farmers, we also evaluated this. As seen in our video about the project, farmers did report increased income and savings as a result of our program. By using less pesticide, farmers saved money, and by controlling pests effectively, they reaped higher crop yields and incomes. Grape farmers reported that better control of pests reduced their losses by more than 30 percent and increased yield by 10 to 20 percent. One group of vegetable farmers saved nearly US$2,000 per hectare by reducing pesticide use. In some cases, the quality of the produce was also improved: At a date farm, training participants reported that better management of pesticides resulted in fruit with a much smoother surface that captured a higher price on the market. Meanwhile, simple techniques like planting grass in apple orchards helped to improve soil quality and protect tree roots from water-logging during summer floods, when many fruit trees were killed.

Why This Model Worked—and What We Can Apply Elsewhere

Our goal was to provide highly targeted, practical training for farmers that would maximize both the quantity and quality of learning. We believe our approach was successful because the content was tailored and focused on practical skills and knowledge, which farmers could easily apply. Our use of demonstration plots also proved the efficacy of new techniques and promoted wider adoption.

Another element that helped us succeed was our decision to target a smaller group of farmers and technicians who already played an information-sharing role, rather than holding large-scale lectures. According to our evaluation, each training participant shared their knowledge with an average of 13 others, whether through casual chats over tea or during secondary training events. Farmers reported that their neighbors sought them out to hear new insights and tips, confirming that our training reached beyond the direct participants.

These lessons have implications for other training models focused on sustainability.

First, it pays off to spend time in the beginning to listen and learn. This helps training leadership identify and understand the target audience and their needs.

We also took some time to understand the business context, and then created a training model that was relevant to evolutions in the industry. During our initial research, we found that the agricultural sector was changing rapidly, with new business models for farm management, from top-down direction to decentralized contract farming. This affected our decision about whom to target as our ideal training participants, and how to maximize the scale and reach of our efforts by embedding knowledge into existing management structures rather than training only small-scale farmers directly.

We also considered whether smartphones or videos might be useful tools, but concluded that the complexity and location-specificity of training content meant that small-scale, field-based sessions would be most effective in influencing farming behavior. Program design should be based on careful consideration of all the options, from traditional, tried-and-true models to innovative, technology-based approaches, and program managers should be prepared to adapt and learn from early feedback to improve effectiveness.

We look forward to implementing these lessons in BSR’s other training and development efforts, whether designing and implementing programs on women’s leadership in factories or continuing to promote more sustainable farming practices.

The Green Farmer initiative was supported by the Walmart Foundation, along with other programs, to promote sustainable farming and rural women’s empowerment in China. For more information about our impacts, see our video and flyer.