Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. —Dr. Seuss

The genesis of this handbook began with a project supported by SARE during the first round of research and education grants the program offered. At the time, I was searching for a way to transition from marine ecology into agricultural research after having recently graduated from University of California, Davis with a PhD in zoology. It was 1988; ecologists in agriculture were still rare and ecology was not widely considered to be relevant to agriculture. When our interdisciplinary team’s proposal for an agroecological study comparing organic and conventional vegetable farms in California’s Central Valley was selected as one of the first SARE-funded research projects, we were ecstatic. My role in this project set me on a path that eventually led me to write this handbook.

In the course of carrying out this on-farm research I became convinced of the need for much more interdisciplinary, systems-based research to support the transition to sustainable agriculture. In particular, because I was trained in a field where it is commonplace to study real ecological systems, I was astonished by the scarcity of information about how actual farms function as complex ecological systems.

In all the years since, the central challenge of sustainability has not changed. Humanity must find a way to produce abundant, nutritious food without undermining the prospect for future generations to do the same. However, our understanding of what is required to meet this goal has evolved to include fundamental knowledge about ecological and social systems grounded by practical, farmer know-how, and our view of agriculture has expanded to embrace the idea of “multifunctional agricultural systems,” a concept that recognizes that farming systems can produce food, fodder and fiber while also providing additional “ecosystem services” to humans. Ecosystem services are the other life-support outcomes produced by the biosphere on which we depend, such as water purification, soil formation, nutrient and water cycling, and climate regulation, to name a few. The revised mission of the USDA reflects this evolution in thinking and recognizes the value of multifunctional agricultural systems in achieving sustainability. Toward that end, environmental conservation, rural development, human nutrition and health, and farm productivity and profitability are all considered to be key goals of agriculture by the USDA and countless institutions involved in the agricultural sector. As a result, the need for systems thinking in agriculture has never been greater. Furthermore, the value of agroecological, systems-based and interdisciplinary research approaches as well as on-farm studies that target these multidimensional goals is now widely recognized.

I hope Systems Research for Agriculture will serve as a user-friendly guide for natural and social scientists, extension professionals, educators and policymakers seeking to implement an interdisciplinary, systems approach to agricultural research. I also hope it will be used to help train the next generation of agricultural scientists so that they can draw on this research approach to complement conventional, disciplinary research methods.

Systems Research for Agriculture begins with a brief introduction to the theoretical basis for agricultural systems research, followed by detailed, step-by-step guidance on how to form effective interdisciplinary teams and design and carry out systems research, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary projects. Conducting systems research is not like baking a cake, so there is no specific recipe for success. Instead, I have tried to provide many examples to illustrate the diverse range of strategies that have been used in effective systems projects. The topic of systems research in agriculture is vast and growing at a rapid rate. I feel that I have only captured the most basic information, despite all the work that has gone into this book. There simply was not room to cover everything, so I have tried to provide a reasonable list of additional resources to supplement this handbook.

The original intention was to develop a short booklet on this subject, but during the writing process it grew into an ambitious handbook of five chapters. Along the way, many people made important contributions, and I am indebted to all of them. I am grateful to Southern SARE and Dr. Jeffrey Jordan for recognizing the need for this handbook and funding the early stages of the work. His foresight made it possible to begin this project, by enabling me to gather experiences from many different people early on in the writ-ing process. As a result, Systems Research for Agriculture contains the collective experiences of many of the nation’s leading agricultural systems researchers. I am also grateful to Louise Buck, who played a key role in carrying out the groundwork that shaped the content of this handbook. Early in the project, she organized focus groups and conducted phone interviews with scientists who are leaders in agricultural systems research, many of whom reviewed the final product. Louise also contributed substantially to chapter 2.

I am thankful to the many people who served as sound-ing boards and who reviewed individual chapters or the entire manuscript at various points in the process, including Jill Auburn, Michel Cavigelli, Doug Constance, Nancy Creamer, Heather Karsten, Laura Lengnick, Mark Lipson, Marla McIntosh, Michelle Miller, Stephen Mirsky, Paul Mueller, Sieglinde Snapp, John Teasdale and Kathleen Yeater. I appreciate their useful comments. The book would not be what it is without the editors: I wish to thank Dave Malakoff as well as the countless past and present SARE Outreach staff for their editorial roles, including Valerie Berton, Andy Clark, Diana Friedman, Kim Kroll, Dena Leibman, Abigail Massey, Sean McGovern, Rachel Patter-son, Mandy Rodrigues and Andy Zieminski. In particular, I want to acknowledge the contributions of Diana Friedman for shaping the introduction and chapter 1 so that interdisciplinary agricultural systems research is clearly linked to the SARE mission.

I am extremely grateful to the many farmers who have been generous with their time, contributing to my research and helping me to truly understand farming. They include Brian Caldwell, Jean-Paul Courtens, Jim Durst, Lou Johns, Lou Lego, Klaas Martins, and Ann and Eric Nordell. Lastly, I want to acknowledge and thank those colleagues whose ideas and insights have influenced my understanding of agricultural and ecological research: Deborah Letourneau, Mark Lipson, Chuck Mohler, Sieglinde Snapp, Ariena van Bruggen and Michelle Wander.

Laurie Drinkwater

June 2016