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A lost Alpine agriculture January 10th, 2021 by

As more youth move to cities, in Africa, but also in South Asia and Latin America, development experts worry about the future of rural communities. So, we can learn a lesson by taking a glimpse at a region where most youth left agriculture some three generations ago.

An American anthropologist, Brien Meilleur, studied farming in Les Allues, a village in the French Alps, in the mid-1980s. Meilleur was especially well-qualified for the topic, as decades earlier, his own father had left Les Allues for the USA.

Meilleur interviewed elderly farmers at length about the days of their youth, roughly back in the 1940s. Now retired, they painted a picture of an agriculture in balance with nature, where farm families worked in synchrony. They had large cereal fields, divided into many individual plots. Each year they agreed upon a time to plow, and each household would plow their own small plot, within the big field. By plowing and planting at the same time they avoided trampling each other’s grain crop.  The big fields were on a three-year rotation, beginning with rye, then barley and finally fallow-plus-pulses.

Folks made wine and hard apple cider from fruit they grew themselves. They wintered cows, sheep and goats in stables, moving them in the spring to montagnettes, cabins above the hamlets where the families made their own cheese. Then every year on 11 June, in a grand procession, the whole village would move their livestock to the high Alpine pastures, with cowbells ringing and dogs barking. The animals would graze communally, on named pastures, moving uphill as summer progressed to ever-higher grazing, until they were brought back down on 14 September. Outside specialists were hired to come turn the milk into cheese, mostly a fine gruyere, which they sold.

Barnyard manure provided all the fertilizer the farms needed. To save on firewood, neighbors baked their bread on the same day in ovens in the hamlet square. About 80 or 90% of what people ate came from Les Allues itself. The roots of this rural economy went back to at least the 1300s, if not earlier. But, as Meilleur explains, this farming system had collapsed about 1950, at least in Les Allues. He mourns the loss of this way of life, and as I read his moving account, I couldn’t help but share in his sadness.

The collapse came about in part because of emigration. Young people were leaving Les Allues for the cities as early as the 19th century. But there were other reasons for abandoning agriculture. After the World War II, the villagers sold much of their farmland to the Méribel Ski Resort, established just above the highest of the village’s hamlets. There were now lots of jobs for local people, on the ski slopes, and in the busy hotels, shops and restaurants. The vacationers even visited the beautiful village in the summer, for golf, tennis and mountain biking, so there was employment year-round. The youth of Les Allues no longer had to leave home to find work; the jobs had come to them.

The old agricultural landscape changed quickly, as the pastures became pistes de ski, and the fields grew wild with brush. The livestock were sold off and the apple trees were strangled by mistletoe, as people abandoned a way of living that (in today’s jargon) was sustainable and carbon neutral, and the bedrock of their community.

It is easy to romanticize a healthy rural lifestyle, but the good old days had some rough times, too. The farmers of Les Allues managed erosion in their cereal fields by hand-carrying the earth from the bottom furrow to the top of the field every year, the most back-breaking soil conservation method I’ve ever heard of. For six weeks in July and August, people cut hay for six days a week from 5 AM to 10 PM, to feed their animals over the winter. To save on fuel, the families would spend winter evenings sitting in the barn, where the cows gave off enough heat to keep everyone warm. People ate meat once a week, maybe twice.

Given the amount of hard work, and the low pay, it is understandable that the young people of Les Allues left farming. It happened all over Europe. In England during the Industrial Revolution, many farm workers took factory jobs. While some moved to the cities, others commuted on the train, and stayed in their village (The Common Stream). Northern Portuguese farm laborers, who described their lives as “misery,” did not have the options of working in industry or in tourism. So, after 1964 they left Portugal to take construction jobs in France. The farmers who remained bought tractors to replace their vanished workers.

Just as previous generations of rural Europeans sought paid work off farm, the youth in places like West Africa and South America are now moving to the cities, and quite quickly. Many development experts bemoan this mass migration, even though it is a pro-active way for young people to take their destiny into their own hands, especially if they attend university in the city, before looking for work.

If past experience is any guide, some of the young Africans and South Americans who are now moving to town would stay in their villages, if they could make a decent living, and if they had electricity and other amenities. Life in the countryside will have to provide people with opportunities, or many will simply pack up and leave.

Further reading

Meilleur, Brien A. 1986 Alluetain Ethnoecology and Traditional Economy: The Procurement and Production of Plant Resources in the Northern French Alps. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington.

My own mentor, Bob Netting, wrote a classic ethnography of the Swiss Alps. Like Meilleur, Netting was also impressed with the ecological balance of traditional farming.

Netting, Robert McC. 1981 Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For the changes in Portuguese agriculture, see:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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Photo credits

Photos courtesy of Eric Boa.

Municipal compost: Teaching city governments December 27th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Much of farm produce ends up in city landfills, but with a little work and some smart ideas, towns can recycle their organic waste, as I saw recently in Tiquipaya, a small city in metropolitan Cochabamba, Bolivia.

For over ten years, Tiquipaya’s municipal composter has turned some of the city’s trash into the best organic fertilizer. Ing. Denis Sánchez, who runs the city composter, obviously loves his work and is happy to show groups around the tidy (and fly-free) operation.

The first stop is reception, where garbage trucks and cooperating citizens dump off refuse: the garden trimmings from the city’s parks, wilted flowers from the cemetery, waste from the market, and trash from nearly half of the municipality’s households. At reception, Denis’ crew does their most tedious task, separating the plastic from the organic. Cooked food waste is a nuisance because it rots quickly and has “very bad microbes,” as Denis puts it.

Denis is certain that the compost picks up good microbes from its surroundings. Compost’s good microbes smell good and the only slightly bad odor is from the fresh garbage in the reception area. The composter is only four blocks from the town square, so the city government would not tolerate any bad smells. In reception, the fresh, “green” refuse is mixed about half and half with “brown” waste, such as dried tree leaves pruned from city parks. Mixing was easier when the compost plant had a chipping machine that would chop up all the tree branches. The machine broke down a few years ago, so now the crew occasionally gets a caterpillar to come in and roll over the tree branches to break them up. The small bits go into the compost and the big pieces are sold as firewood.

From reception, the blend of brown and green trash goes to the “forced air” section. Compost needs air, which can be provided by turning over the pile, but that’s a lot of work. At the Tiquipaya plant, perforated hoses force air up into each 40-ton pile of compost. The crew waters the compost once a week, for seven weeks, and during that time they do turn it one time, for an even decomposition.

After seven weeks the compost is taken to mature, like a fine wine. It is heaped up and every week it is watered, and also turned with a little front-end loader. The aged compost is then sifted in a rotating drum to remove any big pieces. The resulting fine compost is then sold to the public.  The municipality also fertilizes Tiquipaya’s city parks with the compost, so they do not have to buy any fertilizer. The city also uses the compost as potting soil to grow ornamental plants.

Of course, it’s not all easy. One limitation is education. The municipal market has separate bins for organic and plastic garbage, but most patrons toss all their trash into one can or the other. Three of the city’s eight garbage routes send a truck one day a week to collect organic trash from households. On each ride, Denis sends a member of staff along to remind residents to leave out their plastics and cooked food waste. It’s a constant job to educate the public, so sometimes the municipality rewards cooperating families with plants.

A second limitation is labor. Even with some clever machines, the hard-working staff (three full-time and four part-time, besides Denis) can process about 5.5 tons of trash per day, of the 40 tons that Tiquipaya produces. The city could compost 20 tons of rubbish, with a bit more space, additional workers and investment.

Denis says that it costs 312 Bs. ($44) to make a cubic meter of compost, which he sells for 120 Bs. ($17), a loss he has to accept because “no one would pay its true cost.”

The plant was created with an investment of 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) and has an annual labor cost of 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financed by the municipal government. The compost plant has had financial and technical support from Catalonia and Japan.

The crew seems to be enjoying their morning at the plant. It is light, active work in the glorious Andean sunshine with friendly colleagues.

Tiquipaya’s large neighbor, the city of Cochabamba, has a wretched problem with its landfill, now full and rising like a tower while the surrounding residents often protest by blockading out the garbage trucks, forcing the trash to pile up in city streets.

Cities have to invest to properly dispose of their garbage. People who make trash (including the plastics industry) can be charged for its disposal. The public needs to be taught how to buy food with less plastic wrapping and how to recycle green waste at home. The good news is that cities can recycle much of their rubbish, selling the plastics, and producing compost to improve the soil and replace chemical fertilizer.

Denis thinks of his plant as a school, where others can learn. In fact, several small cities (Sacaba, Vinto, Villazón, and some in the valleys of Santa Cruz) have started similar plants on the Tiquipaya model. Denis is proud to show his work to others.

With some enlightened investment, a city can turn its garbage into useful products and green jobs while avoiding unsustainable landfills, which simply bury the nutrients that farmers have won from the soil.

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COMPOST MUNICIPAL: UNA ESCUELA PARA LAS ALCALDÍAS

Por Jeff Bentley

27 de diciembre del 2020

Mucha de la producción agrícola termina en los rellenos sanitarios urbanos, pero con un poco de esfuerzo y unas ideas claras, los municipios pueden reciclar su basura orgánica, como vi hace poco en Tiquipaya, una pequeña ciudad en el eje metropolitano de Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Hace más de diez años, la compostera municipal de Tiquipaya ha convertido parte de su basura en un excelente fertilizante orgánico. El Ing. Denis Sánchez dirige la compostera, y obviamente le encanta su trabajo y el mostrar su planta bien ordenada (y libre de moscas) a grupos de ciudadanos.

En la primera parada, la recepción, los camiones basureros y algunos vecinos colaboradores, dejan su basura, las podas del ornato público, flores marchitadas del cementerio, basura del mercado y de casi la mitad de las familias del municipio. En recepción, los trabajadores realizan lo más tedioso, separando los plásticos de los orgánicos. Los restos de la comida son una molestia porque se pudren rápidamente y tienen “algunos microbios muy malos,” como Denis explica.

Denis afirma que el compost adquiere buenos microbios de su entorno. Los microbios buenos huelen bien y el único olor un poco desagradable viene de la basura fresca en recepción. La planta está apenas a cuatro cuadras de la plaza principal, y la alcaldía no toleraría ningún mal olor. En recepción, la basura fresca, la “verde”, se llena mitad-mitad con los desechos “marrones” tales como la hojarasca de los parques urbanos. El mezclarlo era más fácil cuando la compostera tenía una máquina que picaba todas las ramas. La máquina se descompuso hace algunos años, y ahora de vez en cuando traen una oruga que pisotea las ramas para quebrarlas. Los pedazos pequeños entran al compost y las piezas grandes se venden como leña.

Después de la recepción, la mezcla de basura verde y marrón pasa a la sección de “aireación forzada”. El compost necesita aire, que se puede proveer con el volteo, pero es mucho trabajo. En la compostera de Tiquipaya, usan tubería perforada para empujar el aire a cada pila de 40 toneladas de compost. Riegan las pilas una vez a la semana, durante siete semanas, y durante ese tiempo las voltean una vez, para lograr una descomposición pareja.

A las siete semanas, llevan el compost a madurarse, como un vino fino. Hacen montones de compost que se riegan y se voltean cada semana con una máquina mini cargadora. El compost madurado es cernido en un dron rotatorio para sacar cualquier objeto grande. El compost fino se vende al público. La alcaldía fertiliza los parques de Tiquipaya con el compost, así que no tienen que comprar fertilizante. Además, usan el compost como sustrato para producir plantas ornamentales.

Claro que cuesta trabajo. Una limitación es la educación. El mercado municipal tiene basureros separados para plásticos y orgánicos, aunque los usuarios a veces mezclan todo. Tres de las ocho rutas del carro basurero recogen solo residuos orgánicos un día de la semana, y cada vez, Denis manda un funcionario de la planta para hacerle recuerdo a la gente que no incluyan sus plásticos ni sus restos de comida. La educación pública es un esfuerzo constante. De vez en cuando regalan plantas para premiar a los buenos vecinos.

Una segunda limitante es la mano de obra. Aun con maquinaria, el esmerado personal (tres a tiempo completo y cuatro a tiempo parcial, además del Ing. Denis) logra procesar unas 5.5 toneladas de basura por día, de las 40 toneladas que Tiquipaya produce. Con un poco más de espacio, personal, e inversión podrían compostar 20 toneladas.

Denis cuenta que cuesta 312 Bs. ($44) hacer un metro cúbico de compost, lo cual vende por 120 Bs. ($17), una pérdida que se acepta porque “nadie pagaría su costo real.”

La planta se creó con una inversión de 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) y tiene un costo anual de mano de obra de 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financiada por la alcaldía. La compostera ha tenido apoyo financiero y técnico de Cataluña y del Japón.

Parece que los trabajadores municipales disfrutan de su trabajo en la planta. Es trabajo físico, pero liviano al aire libre mientras que permite la charla entre colegas.

La ciudad vecina a Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, tiene un problema severo con su relleno sanitario, que ahora está lleno y crece como una torre, mientras los vecinos frecuentemente protestan, bloqueando la entrada a los camiones basureros, hasta que la basura se deja en montículos por toda la ciudad.

Las ciudades tienen que invertir para deshacerse correctamente de su basura. Se puede cobrar impuestos a la gente que genera la basura, incluso a las industrias de los plásticos. Hay que enseñar al público a comprar comida con menos envases plásticos, y cómo reciclar la basura verde en casa. La buena noticia es que las ciudades pueden reciclar gran parte su basura, vendiendo los plásticos y produciendo compost para mejorar el suelo y para reemplazar a los fertilizantes químicos.

Denis piensa en su planta como una escuela, donde otros pueden aprender. De hecho, varias ciudades pequeñas (Sacaba, Vinto, Villazón, y algunas en los valles de Santa Cruz), han construido plantas similares, usando el modelo de Tiquipaya. Denis está dispuesto a compartir sus conocimientos con otra gente interesada, sintiendo mucho orgullo por lo logrado.

Con un poco de inversión inteligente, una ciudad puede convertir su basura en productos útiles e ítems de trabajo verde, mientras evita los rellenos no sostenibles, que simplemente entierran los nutrientes ganados con tanto esfuerzo por la producción agrícola.

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Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

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Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

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Reviving soils November 8th, 2020 by

Globally an estimated 20 to 60 million hectares of land in developing countries are acquired by foreign companies and investors. This so-called “land grabbing” has taken place for various reasons. The most obvious one is the hunger for maximising profit. The devastating effects on deforestation for the expansion of biofuels, sugar cane, palm oil and soya bean for animal feed are well known. A less visible reason is to secure food by those who have seen large areas of land in their home country become unsuitable for farming. This is particularly the case for India and China, where the Green Revolution model of industrial farming has been promoted for decades. Today, due to this industrial model of farming about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water. According to Dave Montgomery in his book Growing a Revolution, half of the soil carbon in the midwestern USA has been lost. At EU level, soil erosion affects over 12 million hectares of land – about 7.2% of the total agricultural land – and leads to €1.25 billion loss in crop productivity.

As people have seen the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished at will to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that help plants to take up the nutrients in organic matter, and soil minerals. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

While acquiring land in other countries as a strategy to secure domestic food supplies has created its own problems, it is hopeful to see that more sustainable initiatives triggered by civil society are gaining momentum, and receiving support from their governments. President Xi Jinping recently announced on television that China wants to stop destroying natural resources and instead become a global leader for green technologies. Through his speech he formalised the rising aspirations of Chinese civil society for healthy food.

For several years, the central government in India has strongly advocated “zero budget natural farming,” a form of regenerative agriculture that restores the health of soils without external inputs. By ending the reliance on purchased inputs and loans for farming, natural farming also aims to solve extreme indebtedness and suicides among Indian farmers. Many Indian states have adopted policies that support various forms of agroecology.

When one of our Indian partners produced a farmer training video on how soils can be revived with good microbes, a traditional practice that is now being widely promoted, I thought this would be helpful for our garden as well. When we moved into our house in north-eastern Belgium, some of the land had been under intensive cultivation for decades. The soil was hard and dead. Even though I had mixed some cow manure into the planting pits before planting my fruit trees 4 years ago, they have struggled during summers that seem to have become dryer and hotter year after year.

I watched the good microbes video from the Access Agriculture video platform and downloaded the factsheet. All I needed was fresh cow dung, cow urine, molasses and chickpea flour. But we don’t have cows, only a few sheep, and to have cow dung loaded with good microbes one would have to approach an organic farmer. So, I decided to collect fresh dung from our sheep and give it a try.

Jeff wrote in an earlier blog that farmers and farmer trainers in Bolivia mix dung with their hands without any reservations. Likewise, I have often witnessed during my interactions with farmers in South Asia how respectful they treat dung, as if it were gold. Hence, I started to mix the ingredients. The days before setting up my experiment I had collected my own urine, and because I didn’t have molasses to feed the good microbes I settleed for what we had in the house, brown sugar.

Farmers in India also mix leaves of the neem tree into the solution to help control insect pests and diseases. I replaced neem with a strong-smelling medicinal plant that we have in our garden, called “boerenwormkruid”. After having added all in 10 litres of water, I placed the drum in the shade, as good microbes don’t like direct sunlight.

For 10 days, I let the mixture ferment to increase the number of good microbes, stirring it twice a day to release the gases that could inhibit fermentation. The sweet-sour smell was a good indication that fermentation was successful. The result was a home-made variation of commercially available effective microorganisms, and an Indian recipe adapted to Belgian conditions. I kept the filtered solution in recycled plastic milk bottles. Every 2-3 weeks I mixed one of the bottles into 100 litres of water to then pour the solution around my 30 something fruit trees with a watering can, each tree receiving just enough to moisten the mulch around their base.

Seeing is believing. And doing it yourself adds conviction. In just 6 months the soil around our fruit trees has become black, soft and crumbly, keeping rainwater much better. I am confident that the humus and rich soil life will help the trees cope much better with the changing climate.

While we have destroyed much of our farm land for decades, the solutions to revive our soils are available. Green technologies spread faster when there is political goodwill and when farmers have the opportunity to learn from their peers, across borders. That is what Access Agriculture tries to achieve through its rich video library.

Scientific name

Boerenwormkruid is Tanacetum vulgare. The English common name is tansy.

Credit

The top photo from soil erosion in Ethiopia is by Pascal Boeckx.

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Further reading

GRAIN — GRAIN releases data set with over 400 global land grabs”. www.grain.org.

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

Panos Panagos et al. 2018. Cost of agricultural productivity loss due to soil erosion in the European Union: From direct cost evaluation approaches to the use of macroeconomic models. Land Degradation & Development, 29(3), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ldr.2879.

2 thoughts on “Reviving soils

  1. When we try something on our own, we learn while doing, then sharing becomes confident ! It can be shared with many others later as a tested good practice. I liked the experience, many of us need to do such things more frequently!

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Repurposing farm machinery September 20th, 2020 by

Many farmers in Europe and North America are burdened with debts due to the heavy investments they have made over the years to buy farm machinery. A new tractor easily costs 100,000 Euro or more. New agricultural policies often force farmers to change as well. When environmental policy outlawed the spread of liquid manure on the surface of the field, manufacturers quickly adapted: manure is now directly injected into the soil. But this may oblige farmers to get rid of machinery that still works. What solutions can research offer to repurpose farm equipment? These thoughts have gradually come to my mind, living in a farming village in north-eastern Belgium and observing the various changes.

Farmers creatively adapt in many ways. Our friend, Johan Hons, uses a leek planter to transplant sweet maize seedlings on his organic farm to reduce the need for weeding. Like many farmers, Johan has his own workshop where he adjusts equipment to suit his needs.

American and European farmers see the soaring prices of equipment as one of their key challenges. Besides, equipment has become so complicated and repair is stymied by proprietary software and a lack of available parts. As a response, many farmers are now buying simpler, and much cheaper second-hand tractors from the 1970s and ’80s.

Also, local service providers have repositioned themselves and taken over many of the farm operations. And the fewer local service providers there are, the more pressure they can put on farmers, often charging fees that further eat into farmers’ meagre profit margins. Many machines, like the ones that inject liquid manure into the soil, have become so big that they are often wider than the country lanes, damaging them and forcing cyclists to jump off the road to save their lives whenever these machines roar by.

But there are also positive changes in the development of new machinery, which are not about making them bigger and heavier. Until last year, our local machine provider needed three tractors to collect grass for silage. One tractor raked up the grass and filled a wagon pulled by a second tractor. Meanwhile, a third tractor hauled the grass to the farmstead, to fill the silo, before running back to the field so the second tractor could empty its load. No time was wasted. This year, I noticed a single machine picking up the cut grass. This meant that the tractor then needed to drive to the farm where the silage was made, but to finish this entire field with just one tractor only took an hour longer than with three tractors and drivers, a big savings in labour, machinery and fuel.

Due to tillage and use of agrochemicals, many soils have become depleted of organic matter and soil life. As agricultural policies for decades have supported industrial agriculture, all farmers own their own pesticide spraying equipment. So, will these become obsolete when farming transitions to more sustainable models? Or could pesticide spraying machines be used to spray the soils and crops with Effective Microorganisms or other natural biofertilizers, to bring life back into our soils and boost crop health in a natural way?

To enable the transition to more sustainable farming, appropriate machines will be required. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has been studying intercropping for several years, involving conventional and organic farmers. By growing a variety of crops in narrow strips they were able to attract beneficial insects and slow the spread of crop disease. The researchers also found that yields are similar to those found in monocultures and labour requirements are comparable too. Reading their study, I immediately thought how intercropping would work in a highly mechanised setting. Adjusting machinery will likely be part of the solution.

With the action plan laid out in the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050. Different sectors of society each have a responsibility to make this happen. For agriculture, the ‘Farm to fork strategy’ stipulates that by 2030 pesticide use has to be reduced by 50% and chemical fertilizers by 20% in order to make food systems more sustainable.

Clearly, equipment manufacturers will continue to adjust the design of machinery, but this also comes at a cost. To keep as many farmers in business as possible, some creative thinking will be required on how to strike a balance between supporting industry to innovate and finding ways to repurpose the already available machinery park that farmers have already invested in. European family farmers are ready to adapt, but they are also being run out of business. Policy and research should lend them a hand, by inventing and promoting appropriate small machinery that can be used to serve multiple purposes. 

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More nature in fields through strip cropping. https://weblog.wur.eu/spotlight/more-nature-in-fields-through-strip-cropping/  

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en  

Credit: The photo on harvesting an intercrop is from Wageningen University & Research. The bottom photo of intercropped field with flowers is by Fogelina Cuperus.

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