Soil Fertility: Module 1

Module 1. Introduction to ISFM

Module Overview

This is a course on Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM). We consider ISFM to be an approach to sustainable and cost-effective management of soil fertility. ISFM attempts to make the best use of inherent soil nutrient stocks, locally available soil amendments and mineral fertilizers to increase land productivity while maintaining or enhancing soil fertility. ISFM is a shift from traditional fertilizer response trials designed to come up with recommendations for simple production increases. The goal of ISFM is to develop comprehensive solutions that consider such diverse factors as weather, the presence of weeds, pests and diseases, inherent soil characteristics, history of land use and spatial differences in soil fertility. It involves a range of soil fertility enhancing methods, such as improved crop management practices, integration of livestock, measures to control erosion and leaching, and measures to improve soil organic matter maintenance. ISFM strategies include the combined use of soil amendments, organic materials, and mineral fertilizers to replenish soil nutrient pools and improve the efficiency of external inputs. A critical factor to keep in mind when thinking about ISFM strategies is that it is very important to consider the socio-economic aspects of technological interventions recommended. What technologies will be feasible and profitable for farmers to adopt? How long before farmers can expect a return on their investment in these technologies? What about input and output prices? Is labour available? What are the implications of existing agricultural policies and marketing practices?

Some of you may have heard of other terms used to identify this approach. As you look through the literature you will see Soil Fertility Management (SFM), Integrated Soil Nutrient Management (ISNM), Integrated Nutrient Management (INM) and some publications refer to Integrated Plant Nutrition Systems (IPNS). Whatever name is used, the underlying principles of all of these is the same – the integration of a range of actions that result in raising productivity levels while maintaining the natural resource base. Key aspects of the approach include:

  • Replenishing soil nutrient pools
  • Maximizing on-farm recycling of nutrients.
  • Reducing nutrient losses to the environment.
  • Improving the efficiency of external inputs

ISFM’s basic focus is on sustainability. In our framework sustainability involves 3 essential components: (1) Adequate, affordable food, feed and fiber supplies; (2) A profitable system for the producer; and (3) Responsible safeguards for the environment.

In the following lessons we will be going into much more detail on this approach and what it involves. For those interested in a discussion of the major issues associated with ISFM and a history of human efforts to manage soil fertility we hope you will take the time to visit and read through the supplementary articles listed below.

Supplementary Reading

For some additional background on ISFM and a brief history of the ways farmers have tried to manage the fertility of their soils, interested participants should browse the following.

Lesson 1.2: Introduction to IFDC’s Recommended Conceptual and Operational Framework for Implementing an ISFM Program

As explained earlier, this course is all about helping you to design, develop and implement an ISFM program suitable for your local situation. It is based on the experience of various individuals involved with the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC). Since 1974, IFDC has been working to increase agricultural productivity in a sustainable manner through the development and transfer of effective, environmentally sound plant nutrient technology and agricultural marketing expertise. You can learn more about IFDC by visiting its Website listed below.

In its long history, IFDC has learned a tremendous amount about how to achieve its goals and the remaining lessons and modules will focus on IFDC’s approach to setting up programs for improving soil fertility management. Perhaps the most important lesson learned through this experience has been that client (farmer) participation is vital. This is because of several factors. One, soil fertility management is something that is done by farmers and farm communities and their actions and options are dependent on a range of complex biological, physical, social and economic factors. Only by involving them in the process can you ensure that the resulting program will meet their needs and be acceptable. A second important reason is that farmers know a lot about their environment, the various types of land, crops and management methods, which are useful to adapt ISFM strategies to the local context. This means that, when promoting ISFM, it is best to focus on ISFM processes instead of packages or ‘simple’ recommendations. The last key consideration stems from what is known about the principles of adult learning. Experience and research has shown that adults learn best when going through a cycle of experiencing – processing – generalizing and applying. The experiencing phase is very important, and it is strongest when the new experiences, on ISFM, are closely linked to the experiences they already have. In addition to involving farmers it is also important to involve a wide range of stakeholders in the process.

Like ISFM, this participatory approach goes by various names. You will often hear it referred to as PLAR (Participatory Learning and Action Research) or Farmer Participatory Research. Variants include PDCO (Participatory Diagnosis of Constraints and Opportunities) and Participatory Action Research. Again, the name we give it is less important than what it means.

Supplementary Reading

Lesson 1.2.1: A Logical Framework for ISFM Programs

The approch advocated in this course for addressing soil fertility problems and improving soil fertility management practices consists of 3 stages. The logical framework presented here describes the longer-term program stages, the expected results within each stage, and a series of activities that should be considered for achieving the results. The framework is flexible enough to allow for the differences between partner institutions (skills and experiences) and pilot zones and to stimulate the development of locally relevant solutions. The following model may help you to understand the logical framework used.

The framework consists of three stages. An exploratory stage, an experimentation and pre-extension stage and a scaling up and out stage.

Exploratory stage

This stage is needed to build-up partnerships, to identify the different actors (other potential partners, ‘integrated soil fertility management’ stakeholders), to assess – in more detail – the strategic-site selection criteria with a key-group of partners and stakeholders, and to address core-activities (and entry-points!) of the program. Entry-points can be the development of innovative ISFM technologies with a selected group of partners and stakeholders (i.e. farmers), but also input-dealer training or institutional innovation, focusing directly on the linkages between farmers, bankers, input-dealers and traders. In most cases, technical innovation will be among the entry-points, and a choice of the pilot-villages from where the program might start its activities has to be made. Information and communication networks, interaction levels between different stakeholders, responsibilities and capacities of partner institutions to play their role as ‘change agents’ need to be explored.

Experimentation and pre-extension stage

Initially the program starts working in some pilot-villages, to come to grips with the reality farmers are facing and to start the process of mutual learning. Researchers and extension workers promoting ISFM techniques must be able to translate their ideas and recommendations in a way understandable and convincing enough for farmers. Moreover experience shows that top-down transfers of technologies rarely succeed. Every initiative should start from farmers’ perceptions on soil fertility problems. In this phase, the primary objective is to develop an efficient dialogue between researchers, extension agents and farmers. Farmers’ knowledge plays a crucial role in such a dialogue. Researchers and extension workers, however, participate actively in the development of ISFM management techniques and strategies appropriate for the specific circumstances of different groups of farmers. It is only through such a process of mutual learning that farmers’ decision-making capacities with respect to ISFM techniques will be enhanced. Gradually, the program focuses on a pilot area instead of some pilot villages. The experimentation and pre-extension stage is the most intensive stage of an ISFM program. Two iterative, and partly overlapping participatory learning cycles (DATE cycles) can be used during this stage and will be covered in more detail in the next lesson.

Scaling-up and -out stage

In this stage, the institutionalization of key project results is the most important issue. The involvement of partner institutions will be less intense, and targeted to the facilitation of further institutional change and improvement that is needed to keep-up the process of technological innovation, input-distribution, access to finance for both farmers (or farmer-groups) and input-dealers, and the search for marketing facilities that maintain the competitiveness of the agricultural sector in the pilot-region.

Lesson 1.2.2: ‘DATEing’

In the previous lesson we mentioned two related participatory learning cycles that have been shown to be effective change models. Each cycle consists of aD(iagnosing), A(ction planning), T(rying things out), and E(valuating) phase. The first DATE cycle is conducted at field to village level and focuses mainly on participatory learning and action research, involving a limited number of farmers (research-DATE). The research-DATE emphasizes farmer experimentation and participatory learning, and building of partnerships between soil fertility management stakeholders (farmers, credit providers, input dealers, research and extension agencies, government) from field to village level. The second DATE cycle is a participatory learning and action extension cycle (extension-DATE) with an emphasis on the dissemination and adaptation of successful technologies from the research-DATE from village to regional level, and support to institutional change that reinforces linkages between farmers, bankers, input-dealers and traders.

The following figure may help you understand these cycles and their relationship.

Lesson 1.3.3: Strategic Site Selection

You will have noticed in this introduction to IFDC’s approach that the first step in setting up an ISFM program is to select a strategic site where initial research will focus and participatory approaches developed. As we mentioned, this is a major goal of the exploratory stage and helps to ensure that farmers become effective partners in the research and development activities to come. The selection of a strategic site is crucial. ISFM projects will be successful to the extent that they target production systems that are – or have considerable potential to become – intensive, market-oriented systems and have comparative advantages for ISFM-based intensification. The guiding principle for site-selection (both for the zone as well as for the villages within each zone) is the ‘potential’ for sustainable agricultural intensification based on ISFM strategies.

Locations that have such high potential are characterized by such factors as:

  • Relatively good agro-ecological conditions (i.e. high potential for intensive crop or animal production);
  • High pressure on the land in relation to the carrying capacity of natural resources;
  • Proximity of important markets with a relatively high purchasing power (large – industrial – cities; ports);
  • Comparative advantage in the production of certain crops having prices that are relatively high and stable (cotton, sugarcane, rice, fodder farming/animal husbandry, etc.);
  • Relatively high degree of farmer investment in agriculture (e.g., soil and water conservation methods, experimenting with alternative uses of local resources) and of rural organisation (management of natural resources, economic interest groups, etc.);
  • Relatively good infrastructure;
  • Encouraging policies (availability of inputs, credits, extension and research etc.).

The process of strategic site selection provides an excellent opportunity to lay the foundations for the entire ISFM program. It should involve identifying the different actors and potential partners, analyzing their capacities and establishing partnerships. Partners should be encouraged to modify and comment on the strategic-site selection criteria. If done well, this initial activity will result in a team of so-called ‘change agents’ of researchers, development workers and local stakeholder. All team members will have the opportunity to discuss the objectives of the project and the way of ‘working together’. Village-meetings in the strategic site will help to validate the objectives and the approach of the project and to mobilize farmers and other stakeholders to become involved.


Athough this approach has proven itself it must be recognized that it is not universally accepted. Critics maintain that under this model:

  • Only regions with a high actual and medium term potential for ISFM profit and the low potential areas are further marginalized;
  • Only well endowed farm-households profit from the ISFM-projects, while poor farmers and women do not have the capacities to participate.

IFDC’s views are that ISFM-projects should result in independent, farmer-led agricultural intensifications – with limited support and short-term subsidies. A focus on comparatively lower potential zones will probably increase financial outlays of the project and will make long-term dependency on the project very likely. We also believe that economic growth in high potential areas will have influence on production systems and economic development perspectives in low potential areas. Some of the ways this can happen are through labour migrations and increased levels of food supply, at lower prices.

Also, ISFM is – in principal – not more profitable for larger and richer farmers than for smaller farmers. The prerequisite for benefiting from ISFM is access to such factors as credit and labour. If measures are taken to provide these, then poor farmers can indeed be considered high potential.