Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 425–440 | Cite as

Seeing below the surface: making soil processes visible to Ugandan smallholder farmers through a constructivist and experiential extension approach

  • Lauren PincusEmail author
  • Heidi Ballard
  • Emily Harris
  • Kate Scow


Ugandan smallholder farmers need to feed a growing population, but their efforts are hampered by declining soil fertility rates. Agricultural extension can facilitate farmers’ access to new practices and technologies, yet farmers are understandably often hesitant to adopt new behaviors. New knowledge assimilation is an important component of behavior change that is often overlooked or poorly addressed by current extension efforts. We implemented a Fertility Management Education Program (FMEP) in central Uganda to investigate smallholder farmers’ existing soil knowledge and their assimilation of new scientific concepts into their knowledge framework. Qualitative data were collected through participant observation, farmer interviews, and focus groups, and coded for using a priori and emergent themes. Our exploration revealed some notable similarities between farmers’ soil knowledge and scientific concepts, particularly in regards to soil health concepts, a discovery that could facilitate communication between extension agents and farmers. However, certain scientific concepts are either unknown to farmers or discordant with existing soil knowledge; these concepts are unlikely to be assimilated by farmers without convincing and concerted extension efforts. Importantly, we found that the combination of new scientific knowledge and hands-on experimentation with novel practices gave farmers far greater confidence in implementing improved soil management practices. Our study provides evidence that extension programs should engage directly with farmers’ existing soil knowledge to develop their understanding of key biological concepts and confidence in implementing improved practices.


Agricultural extension Experiential learning Soil fertility management Uganda Smallholder farmers 



Community Based Organization


Diammonium phosphate


Fertility Management Education Program


Integrated Soil Fertility Management


National Agricultural Advisory Services


Natural Resources Conservation Service


Training and Visit



We are indebted to the farmers involved in this study who volunteered their time, land, and labor to this study and who were willing to engage in countless discussions on soil with us. We are grateful to Mugagga Kayondo and George Ojwang for their skillful field assistance. Financial support for this research was provided through a graduate scholarship to the first author from the National Security Education Program and the Horticulture Innovation Lab. The Horticulture Innovation Lab is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, as part of the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative called Feed the Future. The contents are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government. This research was conducted by the first author in partial fulfillment of a Ph.D. degree in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lauren Pincus
    • 1
    Email author
  • Heidi Ballard
    • 2
  • Emily Harris
    • 2
  • Kate Scow
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Plant SciencesUniversity of California, DavisDavisUSA
  2. 2.School of EducationUniversity of California, DavisDavisUSA
  3. 3.Department of Land, Air and Water ResourcesUniversity of California, DavisDavisUSA

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