Agroecology: in farmers’ words

SNH, with other agencies in the Land Use Policy Group (LUPG)*, has published a report on farmers’ experiences of transition to agroecological approaches. The Organic Research Centre undertook the work with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Here, we describe what farmers told us.

Woodland egg production provide an enriched range for hens. ©Organic Research Centre

Woodland egg production provide an enriched range for hens. ©Organic Research Centre

It is a time of great change for farmers and farming in Scotland. Farming has a big effect on our environment – on the landscapes and wildlife we cherish, on the biodiversity, soils, air and water we all depend on – and numerous discussions are underway to make sure we have a sustainable, profitable farming industry. Recently there has been much renewed interest in agroecology, an approach to farming which involves applying ecological principles to the design and management of agricultural production.

As part of the LUPG, we have previously investigated how agroecology can produce more output from the same area of land and increase contributions to our natural capital while reducing negative environmental impacts, a process known as sustainable agricultural intensification. We have also sought to learn from experiences in other European countries where agroecology is more actively promoted than in the UK.

However, we also wanted to hear from the farmers themselves: What is their experience of transitioning to agroecological systems, and why did they do it? What challenges and opportunities did they face?

Pasture-fed cattle. ©Organic Research Centre

Pasture-fed cattle. ©Organic Research Centre

The Organic Research Centre in collaboration with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust interviewed on our behalf 14 farmers across Scotland, England and Wales who had embraced agroecological practices or systems. These farmers used a range of approaches including agroforestry, pasture-fed livestock systems, organic and integrated farming with direct drilling, and integration of livestock in arable operations.

A number of common themes emerged from these interviews. Farmers transitioning to an agroecological system recognized that progression is not necessarily linear: they embraced active learning and carried out experiments, sometimes unintentionally. Many farmers reported cognitive shifts in their understanding of farming, such as the need to “change the mindset” and began “accepting mess”. They also discovered new skills and developed increased self-reliance (e.g. “doing your own budgets” and “finding your own agronomic solutions”). Seeing positive outcomes on their farms encouraged them to further adopt agroecological practices.

Many farmers were looking at agroecology as a way to help future-proof their farm, for example through investment in the natural capital of soil and soil fertility. Some lamented that the grant system was not fit for purpose in terms of what they were trying to achieve as they dealt with technical and financial problems and their own uncertainty with new systems.

Agroforestry system with apple trees in Nottinghamshire. ©Organic Research Centre

Silvoarable agroforestry system* with apple trees in Nottinghamshire. ©Organic Research Centre (*crops grown in between widely spaced rows of trees)

Farmers also emphasised the importance of social aspects, especially relationships. The majority of farmers were first motivated to embrace agroecology by seeing practical examples and meeting other farmers and inspirational people, in the UK and abroad. They strongly valued opportunities to meet and exchange knowledge with like-minded people in the industry. Some also appreciated the level of engagement they managed to achieve with their local community.

These farmers’ stories suggest that farming systems which work with nature can be profitable and productive while providing environmental, social, and personal benefits.

The findings can be found in the report Transition to agroecological approaches: farmers’ experience , with recommendations for further action to boost agroecology including the need to develop a support programme for systems change beyond organic to facilitate the transition towards more sustainable farming systems.

* LUPG comprises Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the Environment Agency and Northern Ireland Environment Agency. The previous two LUPG reports on agroecology can be found on SNH’s LUPG webpage.

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