Volume 12, Number 15 December 4, 2009
The Systems Approach to Farm Management
By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad
The “systems approach” is defined as a problem solving methodology which begins with a tentatively identified set of needs. It has as its result, an operating system for efficiently satisfying a set of needs which are acceptable or “good” in light of trade-offs among needs and the resource limitations that are accepted as constraints in the given setting (Manetch and Park, 1982). There are two prominent attributes of the approach: 1) it overtly seeks to include all factors which are important in arriving at a “good” solution to the given problem; and 2) it makes use of quantitative models, and often computer simulation of those models, to assist in making rational decisions. This framework will be used to help the farm manager “break down” his task into conceptual parts, then put those parts back together again to establish a “system” that works for his managerial needs.
The major phases of the approach are: feasibility evaluation, abstract modeling, implementation design, implementation and system operation. As seen in Figure 1, the movement of the process is from a set of needs to be satisfied (at the top) toward an operational system (at the bottom) capable of satisfying the needs which exist. The solid lines and arrows indicate the path of flow through the process as you move through the sequence of functions which must be carried out in order to achieve system objectives.
Feasibility Evaluation has as its goal the generation of a set of feasible system “alternatives” capable of satisfying needs which have been identified. The steps in feasibility evaluation are reproduced in Figure 2. Feasibility evaluation begins with a careful analysis of needs to determine whether the needs do, in fact, exist and if they do, to state them in an operationally useful form. (For instance, we say in the Ministry of Agriculture of the Nation of Islam, that we want to supply the black people in America with one meal a day according to the Teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. This goal to satisfy the need is both limited by what are the foods that we should and should not eat along with the logistical problem of producing and distributing these food products to 40 million or more people spread out over an
area 2,000 by 3,000 miles. Therefore, each of our future farm managers will be doing their part to satisfy this need and must know how they fit into the overall “system”.) The “output” of Feasibility Evaluation is a set of realizable alternatives which appear capable of satisfying the identified needs.
Implementation Design has as its purpose to completely specify the details of system and/or management strategy designed in the abstract during the modeling phase. “Completely specify” means developing a complete set of instructions that will lead to the operationalization of the desired system. This would include specifying the necessary preparations for implementation including data and budgetary needs along with the procedures for accomplishing specific functions.
Implementation is to give physical existence to the desired system. In this case the system is the farm. Since the systems approach is iterative, information developed in this phase on the workability of the system would act as feedback for the modifications needed for implementation of a Working System.
Similarities between the steps in the systems approach and Johnson’s (1977) problem solving model (Figure 3 below) indicate the generic nature of both processes. Also, the systems approach can be observed to coincide with the basic thesis development i.e., problem statement (feasibility evaluation), investigating how others have brought light to the problem in the form of a literature review (developing a set of feasible solutions), developing of model to be tested
(abstract modeling), statistical methods and hypothesis testing (implementation design), analysis and recommendations (implementation). However, the systems approach goes further and actually involves the decision-maker or those who will be affected by the system to participate in its development. This is why we in the Ministry of Agriculture try to involve its members in all phases of development of the system that will satisfy the stated needs as expressed in our Mission Statement.
The systems approach makes the assumption that it is the end user and not a so-called “expert” that will determine the adequacy of the system outputs. This is important when dealing with a normative (subjective) discipline such as economics where the role of the professional is to educate the manager, but learn from other theorists. However, our research assumes that there already exists “successful farm managers” and that we can learn from what they do.
Another benefit of the systems approach to very unstructured problems is the introduction of detailed diagrams which guides the decision-maker and helps to prevent the exclusion of necessary parts to complete the working system. This does not mean that no parts can be omitted either knowingly or unknowingly, but diagramming the process helps to focus on the essentials. “Mistakes do not exist in the Nation of Islam”. Mistakes happen, but through proper analysis and learning from those mistakes, we do not repeat the same mistakes over and over again. If we leave out a step in our problem solving techniques, we should be aware that we did and watch for repercussions from those omissions to further test the process going on in our heads.
The Farm System
A “system” is a set of interconnected elements organized toward a goal or set of goals (Manetch and Park, 1982). A basic systems model along with definitions of component parts is given in Figure 4. The systems approach forces a conscious recognition of what is and is not
under the manager’s control and who are the relevant managers of that system.
The “Farm System” shown in Figure 5 includes the farm/family with its different production enterprises and consumption units which transform land, labor, and capital into outputs such as production, income, cash balance, consumption, education, net worth and debt. The transformation process is determined by the design parameters of the system which consists of land are, soil productivity, labor availability, input availability, input/output coefficients, and per-capital consumption. The controllable inputs under the direct influence of the manager are levels and types of production, marketing strategies, and investment policies. The “System Environment” includes those inputs which are exogenous to the system or outside of the direct influence of the manager including: weather, the biological process itself (except for genetic engineering), output prices, input prices, government programs, wage rates, interest rates, and credit availability. Although the manager may not be able to directly influence these factors, knowledge of them and their probable directions is needed to make adjustments in his farm system. In other words, a careful study of history will reward our research. Therefore we must develop the historical timeline that brings us to the agricultural and economic environment that we must work in and as awakened Muslims must work to change.