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Case study 21: Belgium: Crop diversification through inter-farms co-operation

Cluster 5: Diversification of vegetable cropping systems

Specialisation and intensification in organic agriculture puts pressure on nutrient cycles and hence crop rotation. Meanwhile, mixed farms are becoming scarce in the Flemish organic sector. Can ‘inter-farm’ as a model of cooperation between specialised farms in the same region be a solution? Simply pooling together farmers with different needs does not work; collaboration between farmers needs facilitation to understand each other’s needs and to respond in a cooperative way. This case study wants to facilitate and stimulate a mindset change to enhance collaboration, for example by exchanging land, feed, and manure.

What are the main problems underlying the emergence of the case study?

In Flanders, the organic farming sector is evolving with some asymmetries: dairy production is growing, but organic arable and vegetable production is in more trouble. Cycles are short and depend too much on soil nutrient availability, which is often supplied by the livestock sector and external inputs. How do we optimize nutrient cycles through cooperation between specialised livestock and vegetable/arable farmers? Since specialised farmers operate in different sectors, they have minimal contact. Simply pooling these farmers together is not enough. 
In the dairy sector, clover fatigue is observed due to improper crop rotation and grass clover monocultures. To address it, one dairy farm took the initiative to exchange parcels with a vegetable grower to improve and open rotations. Although this showed positive results and proved to be scalable, it did not address the relative prices, and the acreage amplitude was based on intuition rather than ‘scientific’ criteria. There is a need for more rigorous approaches. 

How is the problem addressed and which actors are involved?

Organic and in-conversion specialised livestock farmers and vegetable/arable growers, farmers' facilitators, and technical advisors are involved. Together with John Grin & Barbara Koole from the University of Amsterdam, the RIO methodology, which is an interactive system design method, was implemented. To reach the Flemish specialised farmers, a two-tier approach is used. On the one hand, we follow three pairs of collaborating farmers. We facilitate their communication, dig into understanding the needs of both farmers and help the farmers improve their cooperation. On the other hand, we organize a yearly network/study day to bring together specialised farms from different sectors to discuss topics of common interest. 
Collaboration among farmers is challenging at the farm level, as there is the perception that farmers are often reluctant. Based on our first activities, distance turned out to be a very important barrier to collaboration. In 2019, we thus applied for additional funding to be able to organize regional meetings (city level). At these meetings, organic farmers could meet their organic colleagues who live close by. Currently, an online brochure with ‘lessons learned’ is bring prepared.

Solution investigated

First, we try to understand the mindsets that are enabling or hindering cooperation between specialized livestock and vegetable/arable farmers. Secondly, we work on solutions for practical cooperation. 

Expected outcome

The goal of the case study is to understand and find solutions for the socio-economic and practical constraints that hinder inter-farming between livestock farmers and vegetable growers. At the organisational level, the objective is to learn and to exchange with other case studies about the different possibilities to enhance crop rotation and to learn about new methodologies to create positive change with groups of farmers.

Relevance to the DiverIMPACTS goals

Current legislation can create barriers to collaboration between farms; this project may contribute to progressive responses. 



An Jamart, BioForum, case study leader

Lieven Delanote, Inagro, case study monitor

Further information