Closing sustainability gaps on family farms: Combining on-farm co-innovation and model-based explorations

P. Colnago*, W.A.H. Rossing, S. Dogliotti

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


In Uruguay sustainability of family farm systems is threatened by soil degradation, low yields and excessive workloads resulting in low labour productivity, low family income and high erosion rates. The productive and environmental performances of most Uruguayan family farms are well below levels achievable with current resource availability. This paper aims to show the productive and environmental improvements simultaneously possible by addressing resource management and organization of the farm system as a whole. We report results from two learning cycles on 4 case study farms and address their interdependence. The first cycle involved on-farm re-design in a co-innovation process that led to significant improvements in the performance of the case study farms. The insights gained during co-innovation work were used to parameterize a bio-economic whole-farm model to explore the space for further performance improvement and to inform future co-innovation processes. The two learning cycles characterized three farm performance levels: the initial farm performance (IniFP), representing the state of the farm at the start of co-innovation, the improved farm performance (ImpFP) at the end of co-innovation, and the attainable farm performance (AttFP) estimated with the FarmImages model. Difference between ImpFP and AttFP represent the sustainability gap. After three years of co-innovation, family income on the four farms improved by 16 to 350%, while labour productivity increased by 11% to 214%. Model explorations showed that significant further improvement in socio-economic results was possible while maintaining soil erosion under the tolerance level. The strategies identified differed among the four farms depending on their resource endowment and the technologies available, confirming the need for a systemic perspective and tailor-made solutions. We show how an inclusive whole-farm approach comprising co-innovation and model-based explorations contributes to connecting scientific insights with practical contextualization to close sustainability gaps on family farms.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103017
JournalAgricultural Systems
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • Family income
  • FarmImages model
  • Labour productivity
  • Soil erosion
  • Vegetable-beef cattle production systems


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