A summer at the Farm Experience Internship: an agroecological experience!

Photo credits: Álvaro Micheletti

Interviewed: Álvaro Micheletti (co-organizer of the FEI and Chair of Boerengroep)
By: Anouk Borsboom (MOA-student and member of the Boerengroep)

What is the Farm Experience Internship, why do you organise it?

In the practice of farming there are things that are not reducible to science. The FEI builds on and is structured around this assumption. During the FEI people can be truly present and exchange in a more personal way. Beyond technical or scientific encounters. We spend time together at the Creative Garden, we start with morning stretches, we play games… Why do I start with this, why does it matter? Because it creates an environment where people can consider why they are thinking what they are thinking. It offers space for evaluation and reflection, from a personal place. We had morning circles, people checked-in on each other… and all this around the core of the program about Agroecology.”

With whom and how is Agroecology addressed? 

“Mostly farmers, but also policy makers and professors are involved in the two-week long FEI. With this year’s group, all lectures quickly turned into conversations. In part because of what Agroecology actually is. Of course, pillars and definitions have been formulated, but in essence is it something constructed in practice. Some lectures flirted with teaching technical aspects and practical knowledge. However, in this relatively short time frame, what we did and could do is get people to better understand what is going on, what conversations are being held, which problems are being faced, what solutions are being found, how and why? It’s a crash course into the practices and discussions within the agroecological network.” 

What does it actually entail to be an agroecological farmer?

The agroecological movement consists of people who get together and who want to farm differently, steering away from the technical manuals of the Green Revolution. They try to understand and optimize the ecological relations that make up farming, experimenting to create positive feedbacks and to decrease reliance on external inputs. We do not want to make a strong divide between ‘the conventional farmer’ and ‘the good agroecological farmer’, because there is a gradient of practices. And if you think some people are evil and some are not, then where do you draw the line? Some will be kind of the one thing, some will be kind of the other… It’s pointless. However, what did stand out from the FEI is that the way you farm, and the structure of your farm, set the field of possibilities for what you can do. You can get caught-up in some practices, and there is nothing you can do differently anymore.”

Can you elaborate on the mindset of agroecological farmers, maybe giving an example?

“Throughout the FEI many participants complained about weeding. It is transversal and an important aspect of farming, but they were asking themselves what the point of it actually is. You are working against nature, putting your energy against primary productivity, against the sun’s energy… It is an endless battle. So, what is the point? Well, you want the crop that is sown to grow. If your system is based on maximizing production, and you got loans out that will be paid back out of that production – for example of potatoes -, then you can’t really do anything else than whatever maximizes your potatoes. But in a different system, there could be no weeding, when working with and not against nature. For example in food forest, systems that rely on natural ecosystem succession to create productivity, which explains the growing fascination for it.”

In the example of food forests, what reasoning lies behind the no-weeding?

“There is no weeding because you are interested in maximizing biomass as a whole. With weeds growing, more biomass can accumulate in the soil, feeding soil life, improving soil functions and supporting plant nutrient availability. Of course, you are actively choosing what to grow where, you are choosing species, what you want to eat… But still, you want succession, a complex ecosystem, because that is what is going to give you productivity. In such system the practice of weeding becomes obsolete, but it involves a completely different design and approach to farming.”

Can you explain what you mean with “a different approach to farming”?  

This is a topic of tension. I have no experience of my own, but I can outline some experiences and debates that appeared in the FEI. Food forests, for example, can be defined by some as almost non-agriculture. It fascinates many because of the idea that it requires no work. You do work, of course, but you wouldn’t interfere. For some, even to the extent of not pruning. Which of course you can question, as the tree might have other priorities than optimizing its production of harvestable fruits. This different mindset can be illustrated with the example of a disease or a pest. When it is there, you do not remove it by directly targeting it yourself. It would indicate that your system lacks complexity. The appearance of this pest shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a disaster, but rather as one moment of imbalance that the system will handle if allowed to develop further, or if altered in its initial design. Similarly, an invasive species that spreads through its rooting system would not be dangerous should there be a dense neighbouring rooting system from other species preventing its spread. In that case, it raises the question if you could conceivably sow plants that would otherwise be nasty invaders. This is not hippie. These are ecosystem dynamics working in your favour, instead of against you. It is just energy and resource efficient agriculture. Simplified, the practice of agriculture here is design followed by harvest.”

To what extend is designing for ecosystem dynamics working with nature, and not against it, forcing adaptation? 

“Nicolaas Geijer, owner of a food forest in Brabant, often mentioned elephants and mammoths during his talk at the FEI. His point: mammoths used to live in the Netherlands, which means that there was a complex enough ecosystem that sustained these huge mammals. There was sufficient biomass produced to feed them, which nowadays isn’t the case. The historical moment, after the first Ice Age, illustrates that species that are naturally occurring do not always survive. You have here a reduction of possibilities, there is path dependency. Potentially other plants could have been growing here now. You don’t really control anything. Okay we interfere, we introduce new species, but really what is the problem? It isn’t necessarily bad, although it could potentially be dangerous. The point is, the concept of “natural” is recent, different things were here and will be here”. 

 In a way you could say that the FEI is a place where students, farmers, professors and policymakers exchange about what has been, is now and will be in agriculture. Why is this something the Boerengroep organizes?

“Let me tell you an anecdote: Toekomstboeren, a Dutch organisation and a chapter of La Via Campasina, brings together farmers who did not per se come from a farming background, but often have an academic background. One of the reasons that they gathered under Toekomstboeren is because of the nature of farm work. Co-founder Klarien Klingen told us that they are more than busy during summer and spring, but that they could have some time for other activities during autumn and winter. They want to engage in other things than farming itself, such as education, policy making, discussions, and so on. Their input, coming from practice, would be very valuable. However, farmers do not have the space or energy to also take these tasks upon themselves. What inspires the FEI, is that there is something in the practice of farming that is not entirely considered in scientific approaches to agriculture. There is merit in approaching agriculture from practice, as it unravels challenges and solutions that do not emerge from theory. This assumption is one of the motivations for the existence of Boerengroep, there is a role to play for students and future professionals in the realm of agriculture.”

 How does Boerengroep relate to the WUR?

“Both students and the university have much to gain from truly understanding the problems and need of farmers. The experiences of farmers have something important to add to the questions that are asked in an academic setting. Namely, suggesting different trajectories of research within the university. The Boerengroep, now in its fifth decade of existence, started from these crossroads between theory and practice. The organization hosts a melting-pot of students wanting to understand better what farmers demand and farmers wanting to address the disputes and alternative comprehensions of what farming is and can be. For which there is a lack of, or restricted space for, within the university. Boerengroep wants to bridge this gap by for instance organizing the FEI, but also visits to farms, farmer tales and lectures.”

What ambitions does the Boerengroep have and how is this relevant for students?

“Boerengroep wants to take more assertive steps in participating in public debate, co-producing new insights and knowledge with farmers and academia. The experiences of farmers hold a lot of scientific density that is often not acknowledged in traditional agricultural research. Especially in a place like Wageningen, that is strongly connected to a specific way of farming, specific needs, tools and end-goals. For example, as I was saying, eliminating weeds stems from a specific system of farming. In a different system, that would not even be a question asked. As students we should look at what questions are coming from the field. Why do these questions come up and others don’t, and how do they relate to the technics used, the people involved, etc?

Is this more of a question for the social sciences, or also for the natural sciences?

“Both, that distinction can’t be made that clearly, they are intertwined. In the same way that the opposition between conventional versus agroecology can be disturbing. When is something conventional or an alternative, and if the alternative is better, why isn’t it ‘winning’? I think we should keep away from a moral high ground. You want a system to work and to make sense.”

So how are the social and life sciences complementary in defining such a system?  

“During the FEI, we had a lecture from Meino Smit. He shared findings from his studies saying that from the 50’s to ~2015 the use of inputs in Dutch agriculture increased by 700%; considering fertilizers, feed for food, land use, machinery, resources needed for the aforementioned, and all other related production. Against this tremendous increase in inputs, the total output merely increased by 17%. And this is mostly due to advancement in plant breeding techniques. So, from a social science perspective, one could say that when discussing conventional agriculture, we are not discussing feeding the world. Rather, we are discussing the production and exchange of commodities. In a broad economic sense, conventional farming is about economic growth, not about the most productive way of farming. It is one way of farming, one system that is energetically very inefficient. But the discussion then falls back on what you want to maximize, which is societal matter. In the conventional system a lot of questions raised by the natural sciences are thereby irrelevant. Let me explain this by referring back to an event we helped organize with Godfrey Nzamujo. He is a Dominican priest, a PhD and the founder of a farming network in Benin. He described how soil biodiversity and the interaction between roots, fungi and bacteria influence the natural availability of phosphorus for plant uptake. This is a natural science question: how does this mechanism work? It becomes an irrelevant question in a system where you can just buy and add P. Here is why hard science questions, should be accompanied by the moral and political questions: should you farm in way that you buy P? Or should you farm in way that allows your system and crops to break-down and access P? Mines are depleting, by when is uncertain, but there will be an end. There are ways of farming that have been around for centuries, that do not depend on external P or fossil fuels, and they work. ‘How so’ is something the sciences can further explore and extrapolate. The discussion about resilience is something of both the social and the life sciences. The opposition might come from the presumption that from a technical point of view, conventional farming is the best. But that is a lie, or only true in some systems. If it turns out it’s not so, there’s no point in discussing agroecology and alternative agriculture. Finding alternatives start with asking different questions, which is the prerogative of social science”.

In the end, what motivates you personally to partake in the FEI, in the Boerengroep, in exchanges with other students from different backgrounds and disciplines?

One of the main reasons I am here is because I am curious to know: who are the people who want to explore other ways of farming, what are agroecological ways of working, what do these practices explore, do they work…? In these environments, many of those questions are raised and addressed. Of course, there are not always answers. But the answers I gave here to your questions emerge from this space of exchange, not from my study program. It helps me to see connections between different experiences, I find that quite valuable. During the FEI, representants from the whole agroecological movements were present. Many of them may lack the time to network, to conduct research, to engage in discussions, etc… but we as students can. Farmers would benefit from students taking this position in the field, at university and engaging with different networks. The Boerengroep for me is a space to actually do just that. It is an association that wants to take up that role and welcomes anyone that wants to do so too”.