OK-NET Arable aims to improve the exchange of innovative and traditional knowledge among farmers, farm advisers and scientists to increase productivity and quality in organic arable cropping all over Europe, in order to satisfy future market demand.
The complexity of organic farming requires farmers to have a very high level of knowledge and skills. But exchange on organic farming techniques remains limited. The OK-Net Arable project aims to facilitate co-creation of knowledge by farmers, farm advisers and scientists to increase productivity and quality in organic arable cropping all over Europe.
OK-Net Arable is coordinated by IFOAM EU and involves 17 partners from 13 countries all over Europe. The Organic Research Centre is the UK research partner. The project is financed by Horizon 2020, the EU’s main funding instrument for research and innovation. OK-Net Arable is one of the first four so-called thematic networks funded under the umbrella of the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI). This EU policy instrument aims to foster innovation by connecting farmers and researchers.
There are three specific objectives:
- The project will synthesise the scientific and practical knowledge available about organic arable farming and identify the best methodologies for exchanging this knowledge. Based on this easily understandable advisory material will be developed;
- It will create a European network of farmers to exchange experiences and discuss the advisory material developed by the project;
- Finally, the project will create an online platform offering evidence-based advisory material as well as facilitating farmer-to-farmer learning. This platform will be a virtual meeting place for farmers, advisers and researchers that would otherwise not be able to meet.
OK-Net Arable takes a very innovative approach in that in all stages of the project, farmers play a prominent role. Much more than being asked for advice, farmers contribute to a process of co-creation of knowledge throughout the project.
Context of the project
Organic farming in the EU has recorded substantial growth over the last decade, both in terms of production and market demand. The organic area in the EU has almost doubled since 2004; 5.7% of EU agricultural land is now under organic management. Organic farming is a productive form of agriculture which combines food production with care for the environment. However, concerns have been raised whether organic farming is also productive enough. On average, organic yields are 20-25% lower than yields of conventional farms. In addition, organic yields vary a lot compared to yields in conventional farming. This is often due to the level of knowledge of the farmer. Evidence shows that the more experienced the farmer is, the smaller the yield difference with conventional farms. Indeed, organic agriculture works as a complex system which requires a very high level of knowledge. But knowledge exchange between organic farmers and technicians remains limited. Also, the knowledge gap between organic farmers across the EU is considerable. By promoting co-creation and exchange of knowledge, the OK-Net Arable project therefore has significant potential to increase productivity in organic farming.
ORC is responsible for facilitation of knowledge testing with farmer innovation networks in the participating countries and will carry out this work in the UK with organic arable farmers. The overall aim of this work is to form an international network of existing regional farmer innovation groups and to better understand the success factors that make end-user and education materials effective and useful in a practical context.
Farmer Innovation Groups
A network of 14 Farm Innovation Groups was established across the partner countries. These groups of organic arable farmers and advisors enabled the sharing of knowledge and ideas on enhancing productivity in organic farming. These groups gathered for meetings to initially discuss the key challenges.
The first UK meeting was hosted by Richard Gantlett at Yatesbury House Farm. See photos. Weed control and soil health were identified as priorities by the UK group.
Testing of Knowledge Exchange tools
The second meeting of the OK-Net Arable Innovation Group was held at Abbey Home Farm, near Cirencester in 2016. where knowledge exchange tools – such as videos, decision support tools and apps on organic farming were assessed by farmers to provide feedback on how knowledge and information could be better shared. See photos.
Results from tool testing across all the Farmer Innovation Groups suggest that tools which provide details of the context, farmer experience and visual information were particularly well favoured. A full report on the results is available from Katie Bliss
Pulling together the best research and knowledge exchange tools on organic farming from partners across Europe http://farmknowledge.org/ is a hub for information on enhancing organic farming. See news item
The platform also includes new tools developed through the project including over 100 practice abstracts – 2-page summaries of key practices. A number of tools were also translated into English from partner organisations. See ‘Publications’ below for those developed by ORC or visit http://farmknowledge.org/ to see the full library.
The Farmer Innovation Groups were also invited to carry out some practical testing of knowledge presented or specific practices that addressed the issues identified by them. The groups submitted proposals that were reviewed by project steering group and feedback was provided before the actual testing started. In total, 11 practical trials were carried out. The results of this practical testing summarised here have been reported by the farmer innovation groups in the form of Practice Abstracts and/or Videos that are shared on the knowledge platform.
- Mechanical weed control demonstrations; Bioforum/INAGRO, Belgium
Following on from the use of different machines (see visits above) weed counts (excluding the rotary harrow) were compared. Each machine had advantages under: the rotary hoe breaks up the crust, while the harrow works more delicately. For all machines, multiple or crossed passes increased effectiveness. Most effective in the condition of the trial (hard crust, sandy loam) were two passes of the harrow, or a combination of two passes of the rotary hoe followed by the harrow. At the final farmer exchange workshop interrow hoeing of winter cereals was discussed but considered not suitable under many conditions and some more experienced organic farmers advocated a ‘do nothing’ practice regarding weeds in winter cereals, which works if the rotations well balanced and the soil is in good condition. More.
- Demonstration of the comb harrow, Bioselena, Bulgaria
Many farmers in Bulgaria unfamiliar with using the harrow comb for weed control had doubts about its efficacy, so the group organised a trial to test the effect of harrowing on three cereals, wheat, spelt and einkorn. In the early stages, weeds with shallow roots were successfully eradicated and the presence of others (burdock, stork’s bill) was reduced. Yields increased by 13% for wheat, 17% for spelt and 23% for einkorn. More.
- Using the WUZI dock-cutter in grasslands, SEGES, Denmark
In the grassland phase of the rotation, docks colonies are often present and can only be controlled with additional tillage. The Group tested a dock-cutter that terminates docks and prevents re-growth through re-seeding in the area the dock was cut out. The group found using the dock-cutter more convenient than forking- or digging-out docks, but time consuming for larger fields or field with very high dock infestation as it still needs 20-30 seconds per dock for one person and the machine. The group saw the potential of further innovation in self-driving robots drilling out the docks. More.
- The SEMINBIO® prototype seeder, Con Marche Bio, Italy
This new machine optimises seed distribution in the three axes of space. It was tested in durum wheat and found to ensure a fast soil cover by the crop, a rapid and improved uptake of nutrients, and enhanced competitive ability against weeds. It can be combined with other weed control measures, such as a harrow comb. More.
- Use of the Roller Crimper; AIAB, Italy
Soybean is a challenging crop in organic systems due to its low ability to compete with weeds during growth. The trial in Central Italy tested several methods of sowing soya been into a mulch and found some of them to have good results in terms of weed control, and preservation of soil water and also even during the dry summer in 2016 and yields comparable to traditional establishment. The effectiveness of a mulch depends on the amount of mulch biomass, but this can cause some difficulty for the planter. More
- Roller crimper for terminating cover crops; Bioselena, Bulgaria
The No-Till technology is considered suitable for the conditions in Bulgaria, but so far only used one non-organic farm and the cover cropping is not widely used. The group decided to try the roller crimper technology on two organic farms located in different climatic and soil areas in Bulgaria. The results showed that no-till can work in organic farming in Bulgaria, but several years of trials would be necessary. Also, the size of the machines and weight of the tractors might be limiting its use on small-scale organic farms.
- Testing cover crop varieties (Green manure and cover crops); ITAB, France
Three farmers in Central France (Yonne) tested different clovers undersown in cereals as a cover crops and prepared similar monitoring to share their results. The trials covered different white clover varieties and mixes in winter wheat (Farm 1), two other trials were no successful because of a wet spring. The trial on farm 1 showed interesting differences with regard to the tested cultivars of white clover, when comparing dwarf (Huia and Rivendel) with intermediate ‘Hollandicum’ (Merwi and Jura) cultivars with one intermediate cultivar providing highest biomass. The highlights the important of variety testing also for fertility building crops. More.
- Multi-spectral cameras for on-farm trial assessments; OMKI, Hungary
During the testing a drone was used for imaging field trials. The analysis of the remote sensing images allowed to determine weed infestation, field heterogeneity and SPAD (Soil Plant Analysis Development) and NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) were calculated. The NDVI data did not correlate well with traditional sampling results. More.
- NDICEA (Nutrient management model); ORC Arable group, UK
The UK Farm Innovation Group wanted to improve their understanding of the soils beneath their feet. Together with two researchers from ORC they used a computer-based nutrient budgeting model (NDICEA) to assess individual field rotations on seven farms, using farm specific data. To identify where nutrient surpluses and deficiencies occur over the seasons and rotation cycle. In many cases, the model predicted potential loss of organic matter and encouraged the farmers to reflect on their planned rotations and soil cultivation practises. More.
- Soil Assessment Methods; Bioland, Germany
The groups explored several tools for soil assessment in their workshops (see above) and then opted for demonstrating a quick of soil compaction in the field. A simple and quick test of water infiltration in the soil can be used demonstrate soil compaction in the field. It promotes an understanding of the effects of soil compaction and the importance of soil-conserving cultivation. The quick test is also easy to understand and impressive for non-scientists and can be used in training events, for example for fam staff. More.
- Using spade test with farmers; ITAB, France
The French group carried out a demonstration of the spade test using a French description of the approach. More.
In-field events and exchange visits
- In total seven exchange visits were organised, where the practices partners invited farmers from their own and/or other countries to visit and see for themselves the results of some of the practical experiments or take part in field and farm demonstrations. Where necessary, Informal translation was organised by the project partners and some videos were produced. More
- A group of Belgian famers visited SEGES to learn about organic farming in Denmark in September 2016 and met with Danish farmers and advisors to learn about the organic cropping and farming practises.Watch video
- Demonstration of Mechanical Weed Control, Belgium. INAGRO demonstrated machines for mechanical weed control in cereals (31 March 17) for a group of 20 organic farmers: A classic tine harrow (Carré), a precision tine harrow (Treffler), a rotary hoe (Carré) and a rotary harrow (Einböck). With some 20 organic farmers they discussed the machines and their effectiveness in the field, which was followed by weed counts (see below).
- No-till demonstration, Austria. Fibl Austria hosted an event organic no-till and regenerative agriculture in Absdorf, Austria (24-26 April 2017). Key topics covered were Roller-Crimper, Organic No-Till method, presented by Jeff Moyer (from the Rodale Institute, Pennsylvania, USA). The day included a farm visit and presentations on soil health, agroforestry earthworms/vermicomposting and cover crops, attended by farmers from Hungary, Italy, France and Denmark. The farmers enjoyed seeing a roller-crimper in action and were inspired to try new practices at home. Danish farmers voiced concerns about the suitability to their climate, where timing can be difficult, and they would like to see implementation in their country. The fact that the learning was farmer-to-farmer based was especially appreciated. A journalist covered the visit in a Danish farming newspaper article.
- Intercropping field day, UK. ORC hosted a visit on an organic farm in Suffolk (6-8 June 2017), bringing together the OK-Net arable group with other English and French (ITAB) farmers and researchers. The day included experiences with relay cropping (buckwheat and oats/peas), undersowing and companion cropping (camelina and oats), the use of the Cameleon combi drill system at Shimpling Park Farm and a visit to Wakelyns Agroforestry. Andy Howard’s presentation was shared on Agricology.
- Roller Crimper demonstration, Italy.
AIAB hosted a visit from the farmers from the ConMarcheBio (12 July 17) to the practical trials with terminating cover-crops and using the roller crimper in Friuli, carried out by them. The farmer saw the trial results on a two-farm tour and had the possibility to see some field operations and exchange ideas about conservation agriculture techniques applied in organic farming in Italy.
There was lots of positive feedback from farmers on the exchange visits and an appreciation for the opportunity to exchange with peers from across Europe. They suggested that more similar events should be arrange in future and many felt they were willing to pay their costs if the organisations were willing to coordinate the exchanges.
Key elements the farmers valued in the co-innovation workshops and exchange visits were the opportunity for direct visual observation, deeper understanding of the context in which the practice was being tried and discussing with other farmers and practitioners what worked and what didn’t work. This highlights that the things that farmers value in direct face to face exchanges are also what they are seeking in on-line KE tools. Videos, decision support tools and interaction on existing social media could thus provide useful mechanisms for taking KE online, if these elements of ‘in the field’ are integrated into online KE. Online KE cannot and should not be expected to replace direct face to face knowledge exchange, but there are opportunities to take these critical success factors online to complement sharing in the field to enhance KE and improve organic farming.
Project leader and partners:
- IFOAM EU group Project leader
- The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Switzerland (FiBL)
- Bioland, Germany
- International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS), Denmark
- Assocaiazione Italiana per L’Agricoltura Biologica (AIAB)
- European Forum for Agricultural and Rural Advisory Services (EUFRAS)
- Centro Internazionale Di Alti Studi
Agronomici Mediterranei – Istituto Agronomico Mediterraneo Di Bari, Italy</a.
- FiBL Projekte GmbH, Germany
- Okologiai Mezogazdasagi Kutatointezet Kozhasznu Nonprofit Kft (ÖMKi), Hungary
- Estonian Organic Farming Foundation
- Bioforum Vlaanderen
- Institut technique de l’Agriculture Biologique, France (ITAB)
- Videncentret For Landbrug Ps, Denmark
- Fondatsiya Za Biologichno Zemedeliebioselena, Bulgaria
- The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Austria (FiBL)
- Con Marche Bio, Italy
All sources of funding:
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 652654. This communication only reflects the author’s view. The Research Executive Agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information provided.