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Coconut coir dust July 4th, 2021 by

Many years ago, I wrote one of my first articles, on “Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics” and published it in Humus News, a trilingual (Dutch, French, English) magazine from ComitĂ© Jean Pain, a Belgian non-profit association that has trained people from across the globe on compost making since 1978.

So recently, when one of our Indian video partners decided to make a training video on composting coir dust, I dug up my old article, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it still contained useful information.

Coconut coir dust or coir pith is the material that is left over after the fibres have been removed from the coconut husk. Coconut factories often have no idea what to do with this waste, so in many coastal areas in the humid tropics one can find heaps of this natural resource.

Whether economical or ecological motives are the driving force, in low external input agriculture systems in the tropics, farmers often use biowaste for soil conservation and sustainable land use.

While coir dust has negligible amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, making it a poor source of nutrients, it can store up to 8 times its dry weight in water. By applying a 15 cm thick layer of coir dust mulch around coconut seedlings in Sri Lanka, irrigation needs could be reduced by up to 55 %. In a pineapple coconut intercrop during the dry season, my coir paper reported that the top soil layer had a moisture content of 49 % under the mulch, compared to 10 % under a sandy ridge of the same height.

When coir dust mulch is applied to salt-sensitive plants care, has to be taken that the concentration of salt is not too high. The highest salt concentrations, though still low, are mainly observed in coir dust which is fresh and from coastal coconut trees. This salt concentration can be reduced by leaving the material in the rain, before applying the mulch in the field or nursery.

In a commercial tree nursery in Kenya, germination of cashew seeds is enhanced by applying a coir dust mulch. Besides, roots are not damaged after transplanting, thanks to the loose structure of the coir dust. Weeds in cashew plantations in India are suppressed by applying a layer of 7.5 cm of mulch in a 1.5 m radius around the trees. In Sri Lanka, this kind of mulch is mainly used in semi-perennial crops like pineapple and ginger. Coir dust mulch suppressed some of the world’s worst weeds, namely goatweed, purple nutsedge and the sensitive mimosa plant.

Besides suppressing weeds, coir dust mulch also helps to establish cover crops. Herbaceous legumes are often used as cover crop under coconut in Sri Lanka, but they are suppressed by weeds in dry weather. Applying coir dust tackles the weeds, but favors the leguminous cover crop during the dry season.

Coir dust consists mainly of lignin, a woody substance which is poorly biodegradable. About 90 % is organic matter and the C/N ratio is extremely high (> 130). The low pH of 4.5 – 5.5 offers an extra protection against biodegradation, as many micro-organisms do not survive once the pH drops below 4. Slow biodegradation of organic mulches has been recently more and more looked for, especially in the humid and sub-humid tropics, where fast mineralization of the organic matter and leaching of minterals are big problems. While coir dust can easily be applied as a mulch, the recently produced video suggests that it is better to compost the coir dust first when one wants to use it to improve the soil structure. The video shows how one can easily make one’s own organic decomposer that is rich in good microbes to break down the lignin.

Coir dust, being important to control weeds, improve soil physical conditions and increase water retention capacity, should be regarded as an important resource for soil conservation and sustainable land use in integrated cropping systems, and not as waste. The use of coir dust in the tropics, however, is not only hindered by a lack of knowledge, which the video aims to share, but is also seriously threatened as coir dust is increasingly exported to Europe where it is used as an horticulture substrate.

Further reading

Van Mele, P. 1997. Utilization of Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics. Humus News, 13(1), p. 3-4.

Related blogs

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related video

Coir pith – from waste to wealth

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Our valuable garbage June 27th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Bolivia may have the world’s only singing garbage men. Three times a week, a garbage truck pulls up to our corner blaring the tune: Viva Cochabamba! That’s our signal that all the neighbors should take out the trash.

This bit of fun hides a serious problem. There’s nowhere to take all of that garbage. The landfill at Q’ara Q’ara, south of the city, is full, and is becoming a tower of sculpted refuse. Neighborhood organizations often block the road into the landfill (in protest of any number of grievances, not all of which are even related to the garbage). When that happens, trash piles up in mounds on Cochabamba’s streets.

There is not really another good site for a new landfill, since the valley is prime farmland, rapidly being paved over for streets and houses. Land is too expensive for the city to buy another big chunk to make another trash dump.

Some citizen’s groups are offering a solution. For example, Denis de la Barra has recently made a video, suggesting that people stop thinking of their organic refuse as garbage. Instead, Denis urges us to think of it as valuable raw material to make compost.

To make a motivational video, Denis wanted to interview people in Cochabamba and surrounding municipalities who had made compost for years and applied it to their gardens. He found some of these gardeners in the outer municipalities, but fewer in the city of Cochabamba, which has about a million people. Not everyone in town has space for a garden. Those who do, tend to have a manicured lawn and ornamental plants.

Ana and I have always made compost and several years ago we turned most of our front lawn into a vegetable garden, so Denis filmed part of his video at our house.

As Denis and colleagues explained later, on a radio panel discussion:

  • We all generate refuse, and local governments and citizens should take some responsibility for it.
  • Everything organic, from apple cores to lawn trimmings, can be recycled as valuable compost, and used as fertilizer, to grow healthy vegetables.
  • Citizens should share their experiences on composting and gardening.
  • Separate plastics from organic waste and only discard the non-organics, saving space in landfills.
  • We can all stop bringing home one-use plastic bags from the shops.

When people’s ideal garden is flowers around a smooth, green lawn (fertilized with chemicals), it may take a while to give compost and vegetables a chance. But this new video will get some people to start thinking about the connections between garbage, gardening and healthier food.

Related Agro-Insight blog story

Municipal compost: teaching city governments

Watch Denis’s video

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Produced by the Grupo de Trabajo Cambio Climático y Justicia (CTCCJ—Working Group on Climate Change and Justice), Cochabamba. 2021.

Panel discussion

Denis discussed the video in a panel on Radio CEPRA, a community radio station in Cochabamba, hosted by Arnold Brouwer, featuring Tania Ricaldi, of the local public university (Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn), and Ana Gonzales, agronomist and home gardener.

Access Agriculture Videos on making compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw

NUESTRA BASURA VALIOSA

Por Jeff Bentley 27 de junio del 2021

Puede que Bolivia tenga los Ășnicos basureros cantantes del mundo. Tres veces por semana, un carro basurero llega a nuestra esquina haciendo sonar la canciĂłn: ÂĄViva Cochabamba! Es nuestra señal para que todos los vecinos saquemos la basura.

Este momento divertido esconde un grave problema. No hay dĂłnde llevar toda esa basura. El botadero de Q’ara Q’ara, al sur de la ciudad, estĂĄ lleno y se estĂĄ convirtiendo en una torre de basura. Las organizaciones vecinales suelen bloquear la carretera de acceso al basurero (en protesta por cualquiera demanda no satisfecha, no siembre relacionada con la basura). Cuando eso ocurre, la basura se amontona en las calles de Cochabamba.

En realidad, no hay otro lugar adecuado para un nuevo botadero, ya que el valle es tierra agrĂ­cola de primera, que se estĂĄ pavimentando rĂĄpidamente para construir calles y casas. El terreno es demasiado caro para que la ciudad compre otro pedazo grande para hacer otro basurero.

Algunos grupos de ciudadanos ofrecen una soluciĂłn. Por ejemplo, Denis de la Barra ha realizado recientemente un video en el que sugiere que la gente deje de considerar sus residuos orgĂĄnicos como basura. En su lugar, Denis nos insta a pensar en ella como una valiosa materia prima para hacer compost.

Para hacer un video motivador, Denis quiso entrevistar a personas de Cochabamba y de los municipios cercanos que habían hecho compost ya hace varios años y que lo habían aplicado a sus huertos. Encontró a algunos de estos jardineros en los municipios exteriores, pero menos en la ciudad de Cochabamba, que tiene cerca de un millón de habitantes. No todos los habitantes de la ciudad tienen espacio para un huerto. Los que lo tienen, suelen tener pasto y plantas ornamentales.

Ana y yo siempre hemos hecho compost y hace varios años convertimos la mayor parte de nuestro césped en un huerto, por lo que Denis filmó parte de su video en nuestra casa.

Como explicaron Denis y sus colegas mĂĄs tarde, en una mesa redonda de la radio:

– Todos generamos residuos, y los gobiernos locales y los ciudadanos deberĂ­an asumir alguna responsabilidad al respecto.

– Todo lo orgĂĄnico, desde las cĂĄscaras de las manzanas hasta el pasto cortado, puede reciclarse como valioso compost, y usarse como abono, para cultivar verduras sanas.

– Los ciudadanos deberĂ­an compartir sus experiencias sobre compostaje y jardinerĂ­a.

– Separar los plĂĄsticos de los residuos orgĂĄnicos y desechar sĂłlo los no orgĂĄnicos, para ahorrar espacio en los botaderos.

– Todos podemos dejar de llevar a casa bolsas de plĂĄstico de un solo uso de las tiendas.

Cuando el jardín ideal de la gente son las flores en torno a un césped liso y verde (abonado con productos químicos), puede ser difícil dar una oportunidad al compost y las verduras. Pero este nuevo video harå que algunas personas empiecen a pensar en las conexiones entre la basura, el huerto y los alimentos mås saludables.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Compost municipal: una escuela para las alcaldĂ­as

Vea el video de Denis

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Producido por el Grupo de Trabajo Cambio ClimĂĄtico y Justicia (CTCCJ), Cochabamba. 2021.

Panel

Denis hablĂł sobre su video en un panel en Radio CEPRA, una radio comunitaria en Cochabamba, moderado por Arnold Brouwer, con Tania Ricaldi de la Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn y Ana Gonzales, ingeniero agrĂłnomo que tiene su huerto casero.

Videos de Access Agriculture sobre el hacer compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw

Our threatened farmers May 9th, 2021 by

Supermarkets in the USA bulge with everything from strawberries to steak, but this generous supply is threatened by a destructive agro-industry. In the recent book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott outlines looming disasters in California and the Midwest.

The Central Valley of California produces an astounding 80% of the world’s almonds and half of the pistachios, besides a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in the USA. This phenomenal production is irrigated with water that is mined, and can never be replaced. The Central Valley used to be a vast wetland. From 1930 to 1970 a network of dams and canals were built to capture snowmelt from the Sierra Madre mountains, for irrigation.

But the rainfall out west is erratic and some years there is not enough snow to irrigate all the nut trees, so well water makes up the difference. So much water has been pumped that the ground level has fallen by 29 feet (8.8 meters). As the subsoil shrinks, it loses capacity; it can now hold less water than before.

The Midwest used to be a home for diversified family farms, rotating crops of corn, wheat, oats and rye, and even growing fruits and vegetables. Cattle ate fodder produced on the farm itself. Since the 1960s, this integrated system has been replaced by a simpler one, of just maize (corn) and soybeans, while the livestock have been sent to factory farms. Crops and animals are now grown on separate farms. The hog mega-barns are so far from the grain farms that the pig manure cannot be used as fertilizer. Instead, the manure finds its way to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey, destroying a thriving fish and shrimp industry. The soil is now eroding at an estimated rate of 5.4 tons per acre per year (13.5 tons per ha). The rich black soil is vanishing fast.

A handful of corporations buy meat (Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods—owned by the Chinese WH Group) and just four companies make most of the chemical fertilizer in the USA, so farmers are forced to take the prices offered by these few buyers and sellers. This price squeeze forces many family farmers out of business. Between 1940 and 2018, the number of farms in Iowa declined from 213,000 to 86,000, a loss of 60%.

Much of this chemical-intensive farming system operates at a loss, but is made profitable by Federal Crop Insurance, operated by private companies, but subsidized by the US government.

Agriculture does make money for big companies. Monsanto, a corporation that made agrochemicals, saw its value rise from $5 billion in 2000 to $66 Billion in 2018, when Bayer bought the company. During these years, Monsanto consolidated its hold on the seed and pesticide industry. Almost all of the maize, soybean and cotton in the USA is now grown from varieties that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides, especially glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup. At first, farmers loved it. They could plant the genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seed and then spray the emerging plants with herbicides, killing all the weeds and leaving the maize or soybeans fresh and green.

The problem is that weeds invariably evolve resistance to the herbicides. So, seed companies engineer new crop varieties that can withstand more herbicides. Then the weeds become resistant to those herbicides. And farmers have to spend more on seeds and chemicals.

There is a way out. In California, agroecologist Stephen Gliessman grows grapes without irrigation. In the Midwest, farmer-innovators like David Brandt and Tom Frantzen work with researchers to create integrated livestock-cereal farms where cover crops rebuild the soil with organic matter.

I was heartened to read about these inventive farmers. But there are other things we can all do, to live better and eat better. We can:

Plant a garden.

Buy locally, from family farmers.

Eat organic food.

Vote for lawmakers who support anti-trust legislation.

Push for more research on organic farming and agroecology.

Further reading

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Out of space

Stuck in the middle

A revolution for our soil

Living soil: a film review

Against or with nature

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism April 11th, 2021 by

For 150 years, much of the public has become alienated from our food, often not knowing how it was produced, or where. Single-nutrient research papers (Vitamin C cures the common cold! Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease!) have eroded our perception of food and provided the basis for food companies to get us to eat more highly processed foods touted as healthier than the real food. The work of a few reductionist chemists has had an outsized influence on industrial food production, with devastating effects on soil health and human health.

In 1840, the German scientist Justus von Liebig observed that nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) were responsible for crop growth. Later in life, Liebig realized that these macronutrients were far from adequate. He even argued vehemently against the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers for many years, but his progressive insights were largely ignored by the fertilizer industry, which quickly understood that more money can be made by keeping things simple. Occasionally, some micronutrients such as Zinc (Zn), Magnesium (Mg) or Sulphur (S) have been added to blends of fertilizer, but the overreliance of these chemicals has had a devastating effect on soil ecology, air and water pollution.

Healthy soils are complicated systems, with a host of micro- and macro-organisms, from earthworms to beneficial fungi and bacteria, interacting with each other to create a living soil. Many universities have shied away from this complex ecology, creating departments of soil physics and soil chemistry, but not ones for soil biology or ecology. Marketing people also favour simplicity. Telling farmers how to apply 120 kg of NPK to grow a crop is easier than educating them on soil ecosystems with all their complex interactions. And these simple recommendations sell more fertilizer.

The nascent food industry was also quick to latch onto simplistic, chemical reductionism. The same Liebig, who promoted nitrogen as plant food, proposed that animal protein (which contains nitrogen) was the fertilizer that makes humans grow.

By 1847 Liebig had invented a beef-based extract, and he went into business with an entrepreneur who bought cheap land in the pampas of Uruguay. From the new port town of Fray Bentos, about 100 miles up the Uruguay River from Buenos Aires, Liebig’s extract, as thick as molasses, was shipped across the world.

Liebig claimed that his extract contained fats and proteins and could cure typhus and all sorts of digestive disorders. Liebig enlisted physicians and apothecaries to sell his goo. As criticism mounted that there was little nutritional value in his concoctions, the Liebig company changed tack, marketing the product not as a medicine, but as a delicious palliative that could ease a troubled stomach and mind. This change in marketing proved shrewd. By the early 1870s the extract was a staple in middle-class pantries across Europe. Lest you think we are too smart to be fooled by such chicanery today, the original gooey extract is still sold by the Liebig Benelux company, and meat tea lives on as the bouillon cube. The next time you open a flavour packet that comes with a brick of ramen noodles, you have Liebig to thank.

Liebig and other chemists were influential in reducing food  ̶  and the focus of the agri-food industry  ̶  to a few, large, simple ingredients. But food is more than a mere combination of nutrients that can be easily measured and prescribed.

While the meat industry has continued to grow, in the early 20th century dieticians like John Harvey Kellogg strongly opposed eating meat, claiming that animal protein had a devastating effect on the colon. As he laid the foundation for the breakfast cereal industry, Kellogg in turn marketed his products in terms of simple food ingredients: carbohydrates and fibres. While the first packaged breakfast cereals were all whole grain, over the years they have evolved numerous additions, such as dried fruits, lots of refined sugar, and most are now made with white flour. However, they are still marketed as part of a nutritious breakfast.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan provides ample examples of how over the past 150 years consumers have been made to believe that food can be reduced to calories and simple nutrients. As highly processed foods are filling the shopping baskets of billions of people across the globe, cancers, diabetes and vascular diseases become ever more common.

But the food industry is a powerful one.

Although soya bean recipes like tofu have been part of a balanced diet for centuries in Asia and whole maize can be made into healthy food like tortillas, both crops are now being subjected to a new reductionism, as they are refined into fat and carbohydrates: 75% of the vegetal oil we use is from soya beans, while more than half of the sweeteners added to our processed food and drinks is high-fructose corn syrup, from maize. Crops that could be part of a healthy diet for people are now either fed to animals in factory farms, or turned into fats and sugar, contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Since the 1970s, the increased focus on maize and soya beans, with their patented varieties, has served three strongly interwoven industries of seed, fertilizer and food manufacturing. Just four companies now dominate seed and agro-chemicals globally (Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont/Corteva, ChemChina-Syngenta and BASF). While large corporations reap immediate profits, we the tax payers are left to solve the problems they cause in the form of soil erosion, air and water pollution, a drastic decline in biological and food diversity, and public health risks.

Fortunately, consumers across the globe are starting to awaken to the risks posed by industrial food production and eating chemically-processed food with refined ingredients and artificial substances.

The over-reliance of chemical fertilizer in agriculture and chemically-processed food are more than an analogy. They are part of an effort to simplify food systems to a few constituent parts, dominated by a few large players. It has taken society nearly two centuries to get into this trap, and it will take an effort to get out of it. Agroecology with its focus on short food supply chains is pointing the way forward for food that is healthy for the body, mind and society at large.

In March 2021, the European Commission approved an action plan that 30% of the public funds for agricultural research and innovation has to be in support of organic agriculture. The backlog is huge, so it is timely to see that research shall cover among other things, changing farmers’ and consumers’ attitudes and behaviours.

Further reading

Clay Cansler. 2013. Where’s the Beef? https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/wheres-the-beef

European Commission. 2021. Communication from the commission to the European Parliament, the council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the committee of the regions on an action plan for the development of organic production. https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/farming/organic-farming/organic-action-plan_en

Michael Pollan. 2009. In Defense of Food. An Eater’s Manifesto. Large Print Press.

Related blogs

Formerly known as food

Forgotten vegetables

Of fertilizers and immigration

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

A brief history of soy

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

Grocery shops and farm shops

Related video

Making a condiment from soya beans

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

The next generation of farmers March 28th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

Whether in Europe or in the global South, young farmers, unless they are born into a farm family, often lack three key things: land, finance and knowledge. But a new breed of farmers has risen, fuelled by passion to produce food in a healthy way, free from agrochemicals. Their journeys are often difficult, but with support from the community and by helping each other, they are heading towards a fairer and brighter future, as I learned this week on a revealing road trip.

Recently, I joined my farmer friends Johan Hons and Vera Kuijpers on their weekly trip to deliver and buy organic produce from wholesalers and fellow farmers to stock up their farm shop that opens from Friday afternoon until Saturday noon. Johan and Vera have been pioneer organic farmers in north-eastern Belgium.

“When we started some 30 years ago, it was just us and one other family who had a basic food packaging machine. Whenever needed, we could use their machine,” Johan said. In the meantime, the number of organic farmers has grown, and an amazing informal network is coming to life.

The back of the van is loaded with freshly harvested potatoes, a few crates of cabbages and leek seedlings that Johan and Vera had reared for the new season. Having left their farm before 6 am, by 8 o’clock we finished our first delivery. Biofresh, a main organic retailer, bought their potatoes. At the same time, we collect the produce they had ordered online a few days earlier. Vera guides me through the warehouse, explaining how the whole system works.

I see crates of organic pineapples from Cîte d’Ivoire, bright mangoes from Ghana, ginger from Peru, fava beans, artichokes and oranges from Italy, and various local products, including their potatoes, amongst other things.

“At first, our name was mentioned on the label,” Vera says, “but they have now replaced our name with a number, so people no longer know who has produced them. I think it is to protect themselves from their competitors.” This may well be the case, but as we continue our road trip it dawns on me that the effectiveness of this strategy may only be short-lived.

As we load the van in the parking lot, Floriaan D’Hulster, a young fellow organic farmer whom we had met indoors 10 minutes earlier arrives. He has come to buy Johan and Vera’s crates of cabbages and hands over a little carton box. My curiosity triggered, Johan proudly opens it and shows little seed packages.

“This is from our group of farmers with whom we started to produce vegetable seed. The seed has been cleaned, nicely labelled and packaged at the premises of Akelei, the organic farm where Floriaan works, and will be available in our farm shop as of tomorrow,” Johan smiles. Their non-profit association “Vitale Rassen” was formalised in 2019 and regroups organic farmers across Flanders who produce seed under EU organic standards.

On to the next destination. Like Biofresh, Sinature is a wholesaler, but they also have their own greenhouses behind their warehouse. “We like to buy as much locally produced food as possible,” Vera says, “as that is in line with our philosophy and many clients also ask me about this.”

As we walk through the warehouse, Vera carefully goes over various lists. I learn that they are at the same time buying produce for other fellow farmers. “Many of us have started to sell our produce ourselves directly to consumers, whether at farm markets or farm shops,” Vera says, “and it is good to be able to offer clients a rich diversity of food on top of your own produce. As we have a van and a trailer, we provide this service to our fellow farmers against a small fee to cover our costs.”

At Bernd Vandersmissen’s farm I am excited to see how even in greenhouses, they successfully integrate crops and livestock. Two pigs are happily sleeping under a trailer in an area secured by a temporary electric fence. While the pigs feed on the green manure (a mixture of rye and phacelia), they keep the soil loose and fertile.

Many of the new generation of farmers have managed one way or the other to secure some land. To gain knowledge and become professional growers, the non-profit organisation Landwijzer has been offering both short and two-year long courses on organic and biodynamic farming for the past 20 years.

The remainder of the day we make various stops to buy and deliver fresh produce at some inspiring farms. As Johan and Vera are pioneers, they know everyone involved in the organic food system. Many of the new generation of farmers have also done their internship with them as part of their Landwijzer course, so they have a strong bond. By providing this weekly service, they also get a chance to chat with their colleagues and exchange ideas and recent news.

When I ask Johan how the new generation of farmers is coping with the purchasing power of large buyers that push down prices, he explains that price formation and market diversification are key aspects covered in the courses offered by Landwijzer.

A few days earlier I had an online meeting with one of the coordinators of the Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation from Latin America. To secure a living income, cocoa and coffee growers are also forced to increasingly look at income and market diversification. While the food industry may gradually come to realize that paying a fair price for food is needed to keep farmers in business, it is reassuring to see that farmers continue to innovate by pro-actively strengthening ties between themselves and the community of consumers. Belonging to a network may make a vital difference for new farmers, who often lack land and a family connection to agriculture.

Related blogs

Grocery shops and farm shops

Forgotten vegetables

Marketing something nice

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

 

De volgende generatie boeren

Of ze nu in Europa of in het Zuiden zijn geboren, het ontbreekt jonge boeren, tenzij ze in een boerenfamilie zijn geboren, vaak aan drie belangrijke dingen: land, financiën en kennis. Maar er is een nieuwe generatie boeren opgestaan, gedreven door de passie om op een gezonde manier voedsel te produceren, vrij van landbouwchemicaliën. Hun reis is vaak moeilijk, maar met steun van de gemeenschap en door elkaar te helpen, zijn ze op weg naar een eerlijkere en mooiere toekomst, zoals ik deze week leerde tijdens een onthullende road trip.

Onlangs vergezelde ik mijn boerenvrienden Johan Hons en Vera Kuijpers op hun wekelijkse reis om biologische producten te leveren en te kopen van groothandelaars en collega-boeren om hun boerderijwinkel te bevoorraden die open is van vrijdagmiddag tot zaterdagmiddag. Johan en Vera zijn pioniers op het gebied van biologische landbouw in het noordoosten van BelgiĂ«. “Toen we zo’n 30 jaar geleden begonnen, waren we alleen met Ă©Ă©n andere familie die een basisverpakkingsmachine voor levensmiddelen had. Als het nodig was, konden we hun machine gebruiken,” zei Johan. Intussen is het aantal biologische boeren gegroeid en is er een geweldig informeel netwerk ontstaan.

De achterbak van het busje is volgeladen met vers geoogste aardappelen, een paar kratten kool en prei-zaailingen die Johan en Vera hadden opgekweekt voor het nieuwe seizoen. We zijn al voor 6 uur vertrokken van hun boerderij en tegen 8 uur zijn we klaar met onze eerste levering. Biofresh, een belangrijke biologische detailhandelaar, kocht hun aardappelen. Tegelijkertijd halen we de producten op die ze een paar dagen eerder online hadden besteld. Vera leidt me door het magazijn en legt uit hoe het hele systeem werkt.

Ik zie kratten met biologische ananassen uit Ivoorkust, mango’s uit Ghana, gember uit Peru, tuinbonen, artisjokken en sinaasappels uit ItaliĂ«, en verschillende lokale producten, waaronder hun aardappelen. “In het begin stond onze naam op het etiket,” zegt Vera, “maar nu hebben ze onze naam vervangen door een nummer, zodat de mensen niet meer weten wie ze heeft geproduceerd. Ik denk dat het is om zichzelf te beschermen tegen hun concurrenten.” Dat kan wel zo zijn, maar terwijl we onze reis voortzetten, dringt het tot me door dat de doeltreffendheid van deze strategie wel eens van korte duur zou kunnen zijn.

Terwijl we het busje inladen op de parkeerplaats, arriveert Floriaan D’Hulster, een jonge bio-boer die we 10 minuten eerder binnen hadden ontmoet. Hij is gekomen om de kratten kolen van Johan en Vera te kopen en overhandigt een kartonnen doosje. Mijn nieuwsgierigheid is gewekt, Johan maakt het trots open en laat kleine zaadverpakkingen zien. “Dit is van onze groep boeren met wie we begonnen zijn groentezaad te produceren. Het zaad is geschoond, mooi geĂ«tiketteerd en verpakt op het terrein van Akelei, de biologische boerderij waar Floriaan werkt, en zal vanaf morgen verkrijgbaar zijn in onze boerderijwinkel”, lacht Johan. Hun vzw “Vitale Rassen” werd in 2019 geformaliseerd en groepeert bioboeren over heel Vlaanderen die zaaigoed produceren volgens de biologische normen van de EU.

Op naar de volgende bestemming. Net als Biofresh is Sinature een groothandel, maar ze hebben ook eigen kassen achter hun magazijn. “We kopen graag zoveel mogelijk lokaal geproduceerd voedsel”, zegt Vera, “want dat ligt in de lijn van onze filosofie en veel klanten vragen me daar ook naar.”

Terwijl we door het magazijn lopen, neemt Vera zorgvuldig verschillende lijsten door. Ik leer dat ze tegelijkertijd producten inkopen voor andere collega-boeren. “Velen van ons zijn onze producten zelf rechtstreeks aan de consument gaan verkopen, op boerenmarkten of in boerderijwinkels”, vertelt Vera, “en het is goed om klanten naast je eigen producten ook een rijke diversiteit aan voedsel te kunnen bieden. Omdat we een bestelwagen en een aanhangwagen hebben, verlenen we deze service aan onze collega-boeren tegen een kleine vergoeding om onze kosten te dekken.”

Op de boerderij van Bernd Vandersmissen leer ik hoe ze zelfs in kassen met succes gewassen en vee integreren. Twee varkens slapen tevreden onder een trailer in een ruimte die beveiligd is met een tijdelijk elektrisch hek. Terwijl de varkens zich voeden met de groenbemesting (een mengsel van rogge en phacelia), houden ze de grond los en vruchtbaar.

Veel van de nieuwe generatie boeren zijn er op de een of andere manier in geslaagd om wat land in handen te krijgen. Om kennis op te doen en professionele telers te worden, biedt de vzw Landwijzer al 20 jaar zowel korte als tweejarige cursussen aan over biologische en biodynamische landbouw.

De rest van de dag maken we verschillende stops om verse producten te kopen en af te leveren bij enkele inspirerende boerderijen. Omdat Johan en Vera pioniers zijn, kennen ze iedereen die betrokken is bij het biologische voedselsysteem. Veel van de nieuwe generatie boeren hebben ook bij hen stage gelopen in het kader van hun Landwijzer opleiding, dus ze hebben een sterke band. Door deze wekelijkse service krijgen ze ook de kans om met hun collega’s bij te praten en ideeĂ«n en recent nieuws uit te wisselen.

Als ik Johan vraag hoe de nieuwe generatie boeren omgaat met de koopkracht van grote afnemers die de prijzen drukken, legt hij uit dat prijsvorming en marktdiversificatie belangrijke aspecten zijn die in de cursussen van Landwijzer aan de orde komen.

Een paar dagen eerder had ik een online-ontmoeting met een van de coördinatoren van de Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation uit Latijns-Amerika. Om in hun levensonderhoud te kunnen voorzien, worden ook cacao- en koffietelers gedwongen steeds meer te kijken naar inkomens- en marktdiversificatie. Terwijl de voedingsindustrie geleidelijk tot het inzicht komt dat het betalen van een eerlijke prijs voor voedsel nodig is om boeren in bedrijf te houden, is het geruststellend om te zien dat boeren blijven innoveren door pro-actief de banden tussen henzelf en de gemeenschap van consumenten aan te halen. Deel uitmaken van een netwerk kan een wezenlijk verschil maken voor nieuwe boeren, die vaak niet over land beschikken en geen familieband met de landbouw hebben.

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