Research projects

Farm system health in practice

Farm system health in practice

Code : 2017-24

Contract Period : 01/05/2018 - 30/04/2020

Main Funder : Ekhaga Foundation, Sweden

ORC Staff Contact : Anja Vieweger

This project uses participatory approaches to work with the established network of example farms in the UK, Germany and Austria to jointly develop a set of criteria (a) for farm health measurement and (b) for practical knowledge multiplication.

Project Aims:


A major concern in food systems today is the increased contamination with pesticide residues, resistant pathogens and other harmful chemicals and microorganisms from agricultural production or processing. A recent report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) showed that nearly 44% of all European food tested positive for pesticide residues. However, the health and nutritional value of agricultural food products is strongly linked to, and inherently depended on the production process and farm system in which the crop is grown, or the animal is raised etc. 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 constitute a main reason for consumers to buy organic products, ‘health’ is a topic of utmost importance for the organic sector.

Although there are currently only limited options for transferring and measuring farm-health principles at the farm level, an international group of farmers have collaborated to jointly express principles of how they achieve health on their organic farms. There is a need now to develop tools for transferring this tacit knowledge, and for monitoring and assessing health effects on organic farms; thereby helping farmers to reflect on the potential ways to improve health, but also helping research to identify general drivers of good farm health.

This proposed project will use participatory multi-actor approaches to work with the established network of good practice example farms in different European countries to jointly develop a set of criteria (a) for farm health measurement and (b) for practical knowledge multiplication. The interdisciplinary group will didactically develop the farmer principles further and conceptualise tools for health assessment and measurement of best practice outcomes on farms. Such a set of ‘criteria’ or ‘properties’ of a healthy farming system will be tested and validated by application on three organic farms in Europe, and will also enable the identification of future beacon farms, in different countries and environments. In a second step, the project will coach, provide scientific support and assist farmer-to-farmer learning by developing a variety of stable-schools, workshops or other training events by the example farms. Through these events with a wide range of farmers in different countries, the health criteria and health measurement concept/tool will be under continuous adaptation and refinement. This will allow a flexible integration of farmer knowledge and experience and the identification of criteria for the successful transfer of complex knowledge of farm health management.

Approach and methods

Some of these formerly identified farmers’ principles of health are in fact well known, in line with the IFOAM principles of organic agriculture and already commonly accepted by the organic and agro-ecological farming sector (e.g. soil health is the base for health in the entire farm system). However, a number of ‘new’ principles have been defined by the farmer groups of the project, principles which are normally not often addressed and spoken about in the sector, and which are not yet communicated and explicitly stated as guidelines for organic farmers. These were identified by the farmers to be of particular importance and they include ‘softer’ and more holistic approaches such as:

  1. Developing intuition and the ability for self-observation and self-reflection (and taking time to do so);
  2. Knowing one’s own resources and those of the farm;
  3. The responsible organisation of capacities on the farm, taking its complexity and different processes into account, sharing responsibilities; or
  4. Awareness that best health is achieved when soils, plants, animals and humans are all considered and integrated in the (health-) management of the farm. Download our leaflet Towards farmer principles of health – 10 key statements of farmers to improve health in organic agricultural systems

Our approach to taking this work further will follow the aims below:

  1. The first aim of the project is to develop, together with the farmers, a concept for Knowledge Transfer and Exchange (KTE) for these identified farmer principles, and to critically describe this KTE process. The successful translation of the principles into practice, and the selection of positive ‘control’-criteria of farm system health require a participatory approach; example farms and farmers will jointly agree on the most appropriate and change-inspiring methodology to bring these specific instructions and strategies into the wider farming community. This aim is directly addressing the current lack of practice tools or methodologies for assessing farm system health. Following the method of participatory observation, we will describe optimal conditions and challenges of the successful knowledge exchange, and produce a concept for farmer-to-farmer learning for these farmer principles of health.
  2. Secondly, the project will compare and contrast the concepts and criteria for health assessment stated by different farmers, in different environments or countries. The aim is to identify commonalities and differences in the described instructions or practical success criteria for translating the health principles into practice by the farmers. After an initial analysis of plausible reasons for differing implementation of farmer principles, our work will focus on more underlying/latent reasons that require more in-depth discussion and analysis with the farmers. This could for example result in the assessment/description of different farmer approaches to implementing the ‘softer’ and more holistic principles such as self-reflection and developing and listening to intuition. Further, we will compare the identified instruments for individual, farm-specific health assessment in more detail; aiming to elaborate priorities and importance to farmers, enabling constant adaptation and refinement of these approaches, ensuring a continuous learning and improvement process of farms in the long-term. The final step will be the identification of the stability and consistency of success criteria of farmers’ implementation of these health principles; do they vary considerably between farms and over time, or is there a common ground and approach? This may also allow further insights or conclusions about the non-binding, non-committal nature of the health principle.

ORC's Role:

Project leader

Project leader and partners:

  • Anja Vieweger, The Organic Research Centre (ORC) Newbury, UK
  • Thomas Döring, University of Bonn, Germany
  • Ralf Bloch, Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) Berlin, Germany


The main output of the first project year will be:

    1. A process description for transferring this existing farmer knowledge of health and
    2. A set of potential criteria for successful implementation of health principles in practice.
      These two outputs will be combined for the development of a concept for a farm-school in each country, as collaborative learning course for a wide range of farmers.

The interactive and collaborative farmer knowledge exchange events during the second project year will further improve the health assessment approach on farms, refine the criteria of farm system health and review/feedback on the effectiveness and usefulness of this farmer learning methodology. Collected data and all qualitative information from the initial farmer meeting, the three farm school events, as well as the final farmer meeting with external experts will be analysed and will contribute to the overall results and output of the project, as well as its various publications.