In the long and, as yet, unfinished campaign to establish a central role for farmers in agricultural research, Robert Chambers’ contribution catalysed and helped to nurture an informal, global coalition of social and natural scientists committed to pursuing the empowerment of poor farmers in agricultural research and development. The elements of a farmer-first approach were defined in 1987 as reversing conventional research in which scientists set research priorities in isolation from farmers, generate technology on research stations and in laboratories and expect extension services to persuade farmers to adopt their recommendations. Robert continues to be a force for change in ‘farmer-first’ approaches because he consistently brings to light new ways of looking at the field and he rejects complacency.