Farm System Health in Practice

10 November 2020

PROJECT BACKGROUND

The health and nutritional value of agricultural food products is strongly linked to, and inherently dependant on, the production process and farm system in which the crop is grown, or the animal is raised. One of the four guiding principles of organic agriculture is the aim to promote health on all levels of the farming system. Since health concerns also greatly influence consumers buying organic products, ‘health’ is a critically important topic for the organic sector. It was recognised that there is a need to develop tools for transferring this tacit knowledge, and for monitoring and assessing health effects on organic farms; helping farmers reflect on the potential ways to improve health, and helping research identify general drivers of good farm health.

This project, led by the Organic Research Centre in the UK, and in collaboration with the University of Bonn, Germany and the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) Berlin, Germany, used participatory approaches to work with an established network of farms in the UK, Germany and Austria to develop a set of criteria for farm health measurement and to increase practical knowledge.

AIMS & APPROACH

Some formerly identified farmers’ principles of health are in line with the IFOAM principles of organic agriculture and already commonly accepted by the organic and agroecological farming sector. However, a number of ‘new’ principles were defined by farmers involved in the project; principles not often addressed in the sector or communicated and explicitly stated as being guidelines for organic farmers. These were identified by the farmers as being particularly important and include ‘softer’ and more holistic approaches - which can be viewed here: Towards farmer principles of health – 10 key statements of farmers to improve health in organic agricultural systems. Using this as a guide, the group looked at developing the principles and conceptualising tools for health assessment and measuring best practice outcomes on farms. The intention was to test and validate the set of ‘criteria’ or ‘properties’ of a healthy farming system and help identify future beacon farms in different countries and environments.

  • The first aim was to develop a concept for knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE) for these identified farmer principles and to critically describe this process. Following participatory observation, the group described optimal conditions and challenges of successful KE and produced a concept for farmer-to-farmer learning for these farmer principles of health.
  • Secondly, the project compared and contrasted concepts and criteria for health assessment stated by different farmers in different environments or countries, with the aim of identifying commonalities and differences in instructions or practical success criteria for translating the health principles into practice by the farmers.
  • The final step looked at how farmers’ implementation of these health principles varied between farms and over time, or whether there was a common ground and approach.

The project also provided coaching, scientific support, and assistance for farmer-to-farmer learning by developing a variety of stable-schools, workshops and other training events with participatory farms. Through these events with farmers in different countries, the health criteria and health measurement concept/tool will be continuously adapted and refined, allowing for flexible integration of farmer knowledge and experience and for identifying the criteria needed for successful transfer of complex knowledge of farm health management.

Also see 'Towards farmer principles of health'

PROJECT OUTPUTS

  • A process description for transferring existing farmer knowledge of health.
  • A set of potential criteria for successful implementation of health principles in practice.

These two outputs will be combined to help develop a concept for a farm-school in each country.

FARMER VIDEOS & PODCASTS

UK-based farmers who were involved in the project have talked about the concept of farm system health; what it means to them, and how they apply the 10 principles of health in their farming practices. Access the videos and podcasts below....

Podcast with Tolly (Iain Tolhurst)

Also access on Spotify or iTunes via this link

 

Video with John Pawsey

 

The information contained above reflects the views of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of Agricology and its partners.