Risk, small farmers and total resource management – insights from Dr Bob Orskov

I was up in Aberdeen in early February giving a lecture for the Centre for Sustainable International Development. While there, I met a remarkable man  – Bob Orskov – a researcher who’s worked with small farmers around the world for decades. (I regret to add that Bob died in April 2021- see here.)


A lifelong specialist on livestock, he argues strongly for the need to look at farming holistically if you are to help small farmers. Now in his late 70s, he still travels extensively to promote sustainable, resource efficient farming systems, in which small farmers are key to such total resource management. He spent most of his career at the Rowett Research Institute and now has a small office in in the James Hutton Institute Aberdeen, formerly known as the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute

A farmer’s son from Denmark, he told me how he came to be a researcher and about the key lessons from his long career in a short interview, which you can hear here.

He urges people in so called ‘developing’ countries to be very critical when thinking about copying approaches from the industrialised countries.

Bob stresses the need to listen to small farmers, recognise that risk is the key factor that affects their decisions, and that they look at their farming operations as a whole – as plant breeders need to do, for example in looking at what is considered the by-product, the quantity and nutrient content of straw, for example, as well as the main product, the grain. One reason is because in resource efficient, mixed farming system usually practised by small farmers in developing countries the animals get the by-product.

He also thinks change is needed both in the reward system for researchers, so those doing practically focussed work not published in the prestigious international journals is better rewarded, but also institutionally with underpinned prices and a suitable market infrastructure that supports resource efficient sun, water and wind driven multiculture farming.

The Orskov Foundation promotes sustainable development for the poorest rural communities in the world by integrating of agricultural education with community projects.

About Geoff Tansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I was also a member of the Food Ethics Council from 2000-2021 and chaired the independent Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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2 Responses to Risk, small farmers and total resource management – insights from Dr Bob Orskov

  1. dianabuja says:

    Good words! I live and work with smallholders in Burundi, central Africa – and have worked throughout the continent. Bob’s thoughts are spot-on And focussing researchers on application to users and not just on blue-ribbon journals is so critical and I see no opening (or very little) in that direction. The idea that ‘extension’ will take over the ‘technology’ and ‘provide’ it to farmers is outdated and shown (by me, including others) that it’s very difficult to effect, esp. in the poorer and war-torn countries.

    We need to hear more from the Bobs of the developing world!

  2. Dear Bob Orskov
    Is of my agree its comments about risk for farmers in low inputs conditions, in this moment stay in Calceta city of Manabí Province from Ecuador like Invitated professor of University of Camaguey and prepared my version of my Dr.Sc. Thesis of seconde levels, with the theme of the potentials of seasonal milk production on Cuban dairy systems with similar principles more or less to the New Zealand and Irish seasonal milk production from pastures with low costs and sustainable form of make a livestock an mode of live…
    I will apreciate my opportunity to visit MLURI on november 2004 like visitant researcher with the programs tarining with you and Dr Robert Mayes, and always remenber theses days with pleasure and interest
    Enjoy the end of 2014 and that 2015 to be a great year of sucessfuls works and improve your lifes and its family
    Very sincerely yours
    Ph.D. Raúl V. Guevara Viera

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