The French would say ‘contre coeur’, but looking back at the 5 farmers in the past week the main theme was definitely ‘organic versus conventional’. And actually not so much ‘versus’ but ‘and’. I don’t want this to be the topic of my journey, so let’s get it out of the way!
Fate brought me to 3 organic farmers and 2 conventional ones, not really representative of the Dutch and Belgium agricultural sector, but certainly interesting. The one thing that stood out, is that the differences are huge, but not in a fundamental way. All of the organic growers were conventional growers at one point, and the conventional ones said that they could become organic as well. The considerations to change are often practical or economic and sometimes the result of a new belief system developed over time. The conventional lettuce grower, Dirk Boeren said: "Why should I change, when what I do now works well for me? In these 30 years I have learned how to make a good living growing my lettuce and leek. I don’t want to take a risk, even though I believe that the different systems growing closer to one another."
Arie Maris, a conventional farmer with 63 ha of potatoes, sugar beet and chicory and 200 Belgium cows, is also a part-time farm auditor. He sees a growing list of substances that may be used in organic farming, often on a biological base. "But is that the right direction?" he wonders. Alex van Hootegem , who produces, sells and delivers organic ‘boxes’ is clearly unhappy with that trend. He would like to see more investment in weeding equipment and robots. "That is the Achilles’ heel of scaling organic produce. We should have more support to develop efficient, smart weeding machines - but I fear that existing market powers push back." Thierry Beaucarne doubts if his farm personnel would be able to work with sophisticated robots and whether it would even be affordable. He grows 15 vegetables on 40 ha and has a huge number of machines already.
The energy and time needed for weeding , when you do not use herbicides, is enormous. Up to four or five times more than spraying. "But in that case you do not calculate for the embodied energy in Nitrogen-fertilizer", Thierry underlines, "and with the use of synthetic nitrogen the insect pressure immediately increases. I see that happening in the plots that I still farm conventionally.’
Recognition: "Whereas most conventional products are commodities, with hardly any personal connection with the buyer, the organic buyer is usually much more interested in the product, the production and the person behind it." - Thierry Beaucarne
One of the aspects of organic farming that all three mention is recognition. Whereas most conventional products are commodities, with hardly any contact and personal connection with the buyer, the organic buyer is usually much more interested in the product, the production and the person behind it.
The market is tough. Although organic vegetable prices are up to 2,5 times higher, the pressure and risks are huge. For all farmers administration costs and certification audits are a burden, with little added value. If we want to encourage newcomers in agriculture, with new ideas and curiosity, we need to make the rules easier for them, and only when they grow to a certain size the rules should be applied. Some - but not all- rules should be reconsidered anyway, when good practice becomes normal practice. Other rules are simply unfeasible, like "informing all my neighbours when I spray my fields. In summer I sometime spray every week, should I tour all my neighbours every week?" as Dirk says. "Just imagine me stepping into my car every week to see my neighbours…..they don’t want that either!"
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