The Farming Systems Development Project in Eastern Visayas, Philippines, produced useful results at an extremely low rate. This was judged an inefficient use of research resources. Rather than make assumptions about existing conditions, the researchers returned to first principles and asked what is the farmer problem and what resources are available to solve them? Proceeding along this line of questioning was not easy, as new research techniques had to be developed to provide accurate answers. A systems approach was developed , and having understood the problem, logic and farming systems research principles provided a clear path through design that elicited farmer hypotheses and testing by farmers themselves. These processes are described in this paper. The background and an overview of project activities are provided, with examples to highlight the processes involved. Two key lessons summarise the experience: (i) it is important to listen to the farmers; (ii) farmer participation does not mean asking farmers to approve researchers' experiments, but eliciting their experiments and designs.