Timeout for the soil and its farmer’s good future

Written by: Nessling Foundation | 22.6.2021 | In category: Ympäristösymposiot

”It’s important to see that you’re not alone with your ideas. It feels nice to have other farmers wonder about the same things in a positive atmosphere. It is inspiring and exciting and gives me confidence for the future.”, says one of the farmers who took part in Timeout-dialogue organized for farmers interested in regenerative agriculture.

Carbon Action carbon farmers have been active during the first three years of the project. A good moment for a Timeout was just before May Day that was cooler than usual. The event was organized via Teams on the 29th of April in 2021, and 21 carbon farmers participated. Timeout-Foundation’s Laura Arikka led the discussion, and the event was organized by the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation and Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG).

In Timeout-Foundation’s discussions, the aim is to create dialogue and to give equal space for different points of view. This time, we concentrated on gaining ideas to create context for the Soil at Risk symposium panel discussion. In addition to that, I will also use the collected material in my doctoral thesis on pioneering farmers’ transition towards regenerative farming.

This time we invited only Carbon Action farmers to participate in the Timeout. During the discussion, ideas about different combinations of participants were thrown around. The consensus was that it would be good to get the different actors in the food chain to sit at the same table. Also, sharing various farming points of view would be fruitful, and the participants hoped for a dialogue between decision makers and farmers. The role of the consumers and the retailers was also seen as central. The experience was so encouraging that there will surely be more Timeouts.

This blog pulls together the most central observations from the discussion in a way that doesn’t make individual farmers identifiable.

Photo: Marjo Aspegren
Photo: Marjo Aspegren

Let’s get enthusiastic about healthy soils

The farmers involved in Carbon Action are very interested in developing their soil management skills and they have been learning about it intensively throughout the project. It came up in the discussion, that the carbon farmers would like everyone to get enthusiastic about improving soil health, because it can be done without subsidies, and it is a great way to improve the fields’ and the farm’s resilience in varying weather conditions.

The farmers find the regenerative farming methods beneficial for the soil health but also for the wider picture; in the long-term, regenerative farming is economical and has benefits ranging from improved biodiversity to improving public discussion. Like one of the farmers said: “One of the pros of regenerative farming is that animals are also seen as an essential part of farming, and they are involved in a positive way.”

Getting information and the need for training and education were also thought to be central. It was noted that agricultural colleges are a  natural channel for spreading information. Making regenerative farming a part of the national curricula is essential. It would promote the spread of regenerative farming methods to a new generation of farmers, which is important for the future. “The new generation of farmers is crucial. The discussions with the young people about the future are very meaningful and fruitful.”

Can I make a difference, and what does the future look like at my farm?

Carbon Action farmers feel that, in general, they can make a difference. They feel they have a very good chance to make a difference at their own farms, whereas the chances outside the farms are seen as more limited. That’s because much of what can be done is dictated by CAP, complex subsidy administration, buyers, and financiers. On the other hand, consumers are ever more interested in how the food on their plates is produced. Thus, real responsibility instead of greenwashing is important. Appealing products are a great way of making a difference. Thus, it is essential to get the whole food chain involved and to build the market together. One of the farmers put it particularly well: “It gives you a sense of control, when you know what the next link in the chain is doing.”

Interest towards farming has grown in general, and the farmers feel it gives them a positive outlook on their work. Intergenerational thinking is important because you have to think about what you leave behind. On the other hand, independence plays an important role for the farmers, when they are developing a farm that is right for them: you shouldn’t concentrate too much on what others think about what you’re doing.

“It feels good to be a pioneer and to be able to set a positive example. When you implement regenerative farming methods at your farm and the yield is good, it may encourage other farmers to improve the soil health. But you do kind of have to be the village idiot to do this”, jokes one of the farmers.

Naturally, all farmers wonder about the next programming period that is now being prepared, and so do Carbon Action farmers. They especially hoped that financial gains would not only come from subsidies. Although subsidies are important for profitability, field optimizing is important too. Regenerative farming methods are seen as a great opportunity to improve the farm’s profitability. In addition to subsidies, emissions trading brings hope to the farmers.

What encourages transition to regenerative farming?

In the discussion, different crises were seen as catalysts for transformational change. Changes may happen for various reasons, but research literature indicates that often the shift of thinking which is needed in transitioning towards transformation is evoked by crises and transitional phases. Death of a loved one, divorce, and the birth of children may inspire change, when acting in line with your own values becomes more important. Thus, developing a farm in the direction that feels right may also become relevant. (1,2,3,

One of the farmers had an interesting idea about courage: ”Everyone doesn’t have limitations. When you are used to doing things in your own way, nothing can really slow you down. There are values in this work that are important to me, and that is why I want to work in a way that is also good for the environment.”

Regenerative farming brings farmers inner freedom in addition to cost savings. Improving the soils while mitigating climate change is beneficial for the farmer and the environment.

“Stress can’t be measured in money”, said one of the participants.

Carbon Action farmers feel that networking with other farmers has provided them benefits not only in farming practices, but also with stress resistance and mental resilience. Research also shows that positive thinking and cooperation are central to building farmers’ resilience. (3,4,5

There were also factors hindering transition to regenerative farming, and they were in line with what research shows. (1,2,3 According to the participants, the most significant challenge is social pressure. Especially, the pressure from friends, family, neighbours and peers, who have narrow views on the matter, was seen as a limiting factor.

“You have to get past the pressure either before the transition or during it,” said one of the participants.

It is a well-known fact that fear of change is an obstacle for transformation because change is always both a risk and a possibility(1. Fear is also closely tied to financial points of view and to the sufficiency of other resources, and in the discussions, finances came up as one of the biggest factors limiting experiments. On the other hand, the farmers reminded us that finances are also one of the most encouraging factors.

Meaningful things now and in the future

The farmers also feel that regenerative farming brings a new sense of meaning to the work. The participants emphasized the increased appreciation of farming in the society, which has complex effects on the farming business, especially on its profitability.

Regenerative farming can help control costs and create a farm that is profitable enough for the future generations to become interested in continuing the work

The participants thought that an environmentally friendly farm is also appealing to the successors of the farm. Thus, it is also important to pass on a healthy farm and the interest and will to develop it to the next generation:

”I can leave, for example, blooming and biodiverse fields and animals grazing on them to the next generations. The deep-rooted plants improve the structure of the soil and the living conditions of microfauna, which in turn are good for the fields. Consumers are also more demanding, and thus, hopefully, the farmer can profit from the work done for the environment too.”

It was also noted that a farm’s nutrient and energy self-sufficiency are important in the changing world of  tomorrow. It came up in the discussions that a high degree of self-sufficiency and independency from off-farm inputs also improves profitability and provides a buffer for unexpected situations.

“Without off-farm inputs, everything is based on the fertility of the soil and regenerative farming”, one of the participants said.

The farmers’ personal goals included hopes for developing their own know-how and maintaining their health and enthusiasm. Helping other farmers get started and sharing success stories and failures give work meaning:

“It is especially meaningful to see the farming practices develop into a direction that supports biodiversity and carbon sequestration. I also get a sense of meaning from being able to produce products that the consumers want and appreciate.”

Insights and ideas

 

A common consensus was found in stating that there are many ways of acting and they all are equally right. The different ways of working are created by each individual’s own history, experiences, and attitudes towards the experiences. The production line and starting point of production at the farm of are also important factors.

The discussion gave the farmers a sense of affinity and courage to continue developing their farms in a direction that feels right to them. Communication with other farmers utilizing regenerative farming methods is important. Carbon Action is also one of the significant operators supporting the transition.

“I walk away from the discussion with respect towards my colleagues and with gratitude for Carbon Action and the community and know-how it has given me. For many, Carbon Action is a safe discussion platform, where you can share your wildest ideas with peers and get encouragement”, said one of the participants, while another continued:

”Yes. It’s important to see that you’re not alone with your ideas. It feels nice to have other farmers wonder about the same things in a positive atmosphere. It is inspiring and exciting and gives me confidence for the future.”

Read more on farmers thoughts: Policy Brief: Soil as part of climate solution – agricultural policy reform to promote climate-smart agriculture

  1. Gosnell, H., Gill, N. & Voyer, M. 2019. Transformational adaptation on the farm: Processes of change and persistence in transitions to ‘climate-smart’ regenerative agriculture. Global Environmental Change, 59, 101965. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2019.101965
  2. Berquist, M., Nilson A. & Schultz, W. P. 2019. A meta-analysis of field-experiments using social norms to promote pro-environmental behaviors. Global environmental change, 59, 101941. Berquist, M., Nilson A. & Schultz, W. P. 2019. A meta-analysis of field-experiments using social norms to promote pro-environmental behaviors. Global environmental change, 59, 101941.
  3. Dolinska, A. & d'Aquino, P. 2016. Farmers as agents in innovation systems. Empowering farmers for innovation through communities of practice. Agricultural systems, 142, 122-130.
  4. Folke, C., Biggs, R., Norström, A. V., Reyers, B. & Rockström, J. 2016. Social-ecological resilience and biosphere-based sustainability science. Ecology and Society, 21(3), 41. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-08748-210341
  5. Arewasikporn, A., Sturgeon, J. A. & Zautra, A. J. 2018. Sharing Positive Experiences Boosts Resilient Thinking: Everyday Benefits of Social Connection and Positive Emotion in a Community Sample. Am J Community Psychol, 63, 110–121. DOI: 10.1002/ajcp.12279

Author: Sanna Söderlund, Baltic Sea Action Group

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