Many small and medium-size farms grow a diverse set of crops and sell to a wide variety of supply chains, but there is pressure to reduce the number of crops to manage workload, mechanization, and marketing among other things. Farmers that are proud of this diverse product range and keen to maintain this diversity group together and jointly look for solutions.
What are the main problems underlying the emergence of the case study?
It is assumed that diversification is under threat, even if it should be a principle in organic farming, given its potential role in decreasing pest pressure and managing soil fertility.
There is a strong tendency among the larger arable farmers to organize themselves. However, in the last few years, smaller farms also tended to pool together and get organized. A sense of shared problems is emerging. Bionext can help increase awareness and facilitate the identification of ways forward.
How is the problem addressed and which actors are involved?
Bionext is the case study leader and is supported by Wageningen University and Research (WUR) as the case study monitor. At the start, a core group of six organic vegetable growers that grow a wide diversity of crops was created. Together, they identified the main challenge and two main options to address the challenge. The main challenge is to reduce the workload while maintaining the diversity. One option is to reduce the workload by reducing weeding hours. The second one is to scrutinize the handling processes on the farm, including harvesting and see what can be optimized. As a part of the second option, the marketing and supply chains are also taken into account. The core group holds regular meetings at the farm. Part of the meeting is a tour through the farm where the participants discuss the management of that particular farm and suggest improvements. Another part is meetings with external experts or researchers that help them find the solutions. The findings from this process will be shared with a wider audience. In 2019 and 2020, farmers will take focused measures and monitor improvements.
When looking at reducing weed control, the following solutions were investigated:
- Weeding robots: Are there weeding robots that are (almost) ready to use that would reduce weeding labour? It has been identified that, for the moment and the coming years, such a product is not available on the market for arable farms with diverse crops.
- Fingerweeders: Increasing the efficacy of currently used weeding equipment such as the fingerweeder can have many benefits. In the coming years, more peer-to-peer learning opportunities supported by field experts will be organised.
- Smart planting and weeding strategies.
- Rod weeder: Multiannual weeds with long roots can be removed with the rod weeder. See for example www.youtube.com/watch. Despite looking rather simple, it works.
Lessons learned so far include:
- Manual harvesting vs mechanical harvesting needs careful consideration in terms of time investment vs quality.
- When manually harvesting carrots, it is hard to heave the smaller crates high to collect the carrots in the larger storage boxes (one cubic meter). There appear to be storage boxes where one side can be partly removed, facilitating the work. Unfortunately, these are not being made anymore.
- Small sorting belts can be really helpful when sorting produce such as beets or carrots.
- Strawberry picking is physically demanding. An idea is to have a rail with a little cart.
- Pumpkins and zucchinis: should producers buy seedlings or sow them themselves? It can take up to 2 days per hectare to sow the plants in little pots. It can be worthwhile to explore alternatives. It is e.g. also possible to buy the pots with the seeds in them and grow the seedlings yourself. This method is cheaper than buying the plants and saves time.
- Marketing channels: it became clear that online shops are not an easy marketing channel for the farmers. A conversation with an organic online shop owner showed that it is a very demanding task. Existing local online shops can be a good marketing channel for smaller quantities.
The goal of the case study is to share progress and possible solutions and to give the farmers the tools to better manage their workload.
The vegetable growers will be able to better maintain a high number of crops through improved marketing and/or farm management.
- Marian Blom, Bionext, case study leader
- Yvonne Cuijpers, WUR, case study monitor
- youtube.com: The rod weeder (in Dutch)
- youtube.com: Film on how to fine-tune a fingerweeder and tined weeder (low quality)