Newsletter from Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming • December 2004 • No. 4

Landscape and nature quality in the development and profiling of organic farming

By Lene Hansen, Egon Noe, Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences and Katrine Højring, Urban and Rural Development, KVL

In Denmark the agricultural production and its land use plays an important part in the management of our common nature and landscape. The farmers’ attitudes and priorities have consequences for the building as well as the maintenance of our natural resources and values. These consequences can be observed in our surrounding landscape.
Therefore, the nature quality and landscape tied to the agricultural production potentially constitute a great window in the interaction between the agricultural sector and the society in which it is embedded.

Ideology and practice

Organic agriculture is based on a set of values that wants to make a special contribution to ensuring and supporting qualities in nature. At the moment the Organic Association in Denmark expresses these values in the following way (Anonymous 2004; author’s translation):

  • To build and maintain genetic diversity in the production system and in its surroundings including the protection of plants and wildlife habitats.
  • To develop an agricultural practice that works as compatibly as possible with environment and nature.

On the basis of these objectives one could expect organic farmers to take a particular interest in how their production affects their natural surroundings.

At the same time the objectives must be said to have a very general character. No concrete objectives have been set up specifying exactly what specific qualities farmers should strive for, or how these qualities should be achieved. Likewise, the considerations for nature and landscapes have not been directly incorporated into the organic standards. There is an absence of tangible indicators that can be used to observe and describe nature quality in organic farming. In practice this can cause the implementation of the objectives for nature and landscape to be difficult for the individual organic farmer (Højring et al 2004).

In a study under the DARCOF project Nature Quality in Organic Farming we have taken a closer look at how these values are given meaning and put into practice by the individual organic farmer.

Overall there are two central issues. One is whether the organic farmers experience a connection between their choice of an organic production form and a particular attitude and practice towards nature. The other question is whether the farmers have suggestions for possible tangible indicators that could be used to evaluate nature quality on the organic farms. These two questions will be explored in the following.

Interviews with ten farmers

In order to gain an understanding of these issues, we have carried out qualitative interviews with ten organic farmers. Five of the farmers are situated in the Herning area, and five are situated near Randers. The participants are very different when it comes to their agricultural production. Most are dairy farmers, but there are also a few plant and poultry producers represented. Eight of the farmers are full time farmers, while two are part time and both have work outside the farm.

We visited the farmers in January and February of 2004. At the beginning of each visit we went for a walk in the farmer’s landscape. The idea behind this was to give the farmer and his family a chance to show us their own favourite spot in terms of nature and landscape. The walk was followed by the open-ended qualitative interview, where the farmer’s experience and understanding of nature was elaborated further. We asked the farmers how they – based on their own farm – experienced the relationship between their production and the nature and landscape they live in - and manage - in their everyday life. We were interested in learning how they saw the interaction between their production strategies and their considerations for nature.

The ten farmers have been selected to cover a wide range in the organic production, but they are not necessarily representative for organic farming as a whole.

Production, nature and landscape

Taking our starting point in the ten farms, we have chosen to focus on two central themes that are significant to the individual organic farmer’s management: that is size and production intensity. Both themes indicate something about the relationship between production and nature.

Role of farm size

The size of the farms varied between 10 - 400 hectares, which covers a broad span both within the part time and the full time farmers.

On a number of the larger full time farms it was important to have larger adjoining cultivated areas that are easy for large machinery to operate on. This meant several of the farmers faced a dilemma in relation to small biotopes and hedgerows. They felt tempted to remove them in order to establish more rational and accessible cultivation areas. At the same time all the farmers clearly express how much they appreciated having planted shelters and small biotopes on their land. They help to provide a more abundant wildlife and create visual variations in their landscape. ["It is a conflict inside me, I truly am sick and tired of sacrificing that hedge in the holy name of efficiency".]

The majority of the farmers, who had chosen to remove hedges or biotopes, had established alternative areas as substitution. They planted other hedgerows or established new small biotopes on other more marginal areas. One farmer had planted a small wood near his farm; another farmer had bought an adjoining valley. Both actions stem from a wish to have recreational spaces, where the family can spend their leisure time, but they are also done with the intention of attracting a more plentiful fauna to the farm (Højring et al. 2004).

We found a closer and stronger connection between the production related strategies and the nature related strategies on the smallest farms. For the smallest of the poultry farmers and for a small farmer with steer and cheep, nature and production were integrated, that is, for both farmers it was an explicit goal for the farm to develop its nature qualities. The experiences and qualities found in the natural habitats and the surrounding landscape were seen as part of the production strategy and values on both farms. Consequently they both have relatively many small biotopes on their land. It is of great value to them both that their farms have meadows, wooded areas, water holes and little streams that attract wildlife and birds. On both of the farms these strategies were related to an intension of practicing less intensive, small-scale farming.

Role of production intensity

There are very different strategies on the ten farms when it comes to intensity in the farming production. This goes for both livestock and plant production. A number of the full time farmers express an attraction to a less intensive organic farming practice. For the dairy farmers this means that they do not focus too much on milk yields. Instead they try to create a production that requires a manageable workload with few employees and a lower degree of mechanisation. However it is not just the workload they have in mind, they are also aware that a less intensive farming practice provides improvements in nature. They notice the impact on birds and wildlife in particular.

The farmer’s priority towards grazing of the marginal areas is one example of the intensity issue. Grazing is of particular importance on the meadows, which a lot of the farmers have on their property. From a biological point of view it is important for these areas to be grazed in order to keep them open and light, since this ensures a high botanical quality. But grazing of the marginal areas requires a lot of work and can therefore be hard to tie in with an intensive production strategy. Despite this the participating farmers see it as their job and their responsibility to ensure the maintenance of the meadows and valleys. Keeping the landscape open and making sure that the valleys are accessible is of great importance to them. Only one of the farmers have chosen not to let his cattle graze the marginal areas. He feels that it is too difficult to shift his cattle since he has a lot of small separate meadow areas. He is of the opinion that it is a public matter to manage the common landscape.

Finally, the farmer’s strategy towards his plant production also potentially has great impact on the appearance of the landscape. For several of the dairy farmers their cattle greatly affect the way they look upon their plant production. To them the primary aim of their plant production is to supply their cattle with good forage. This is noticeable in their cultivated areas where the crop rotation, as a result of this strategy, is strongly dominated by grass clover fields. Others take pride in having a varied crop rotation with lots of different crops. The explanations for this strategy varies between the farmers, some highlight the crop rotation in itself, others the sales value of the crops. But the expectation that organic farmers generally have more variation in their crop rotation is challenged by some of the participating farmers.

The study shows that the choices one makes as an organic farmer is closely related to the production strategy on the specific farm. Being an organic dairy farmer therefore is not necessarily automatically linked to grazing ones meadows – although most of them do – it depends on a number of production-related considerations and practices on the farm.

The farmers’ suggestions for possible indicators of nature quality

We asked the ten farmers whether they had experienced a change in nature on their farms after their conversion to organic farming. They had different opinions. Some did not feel that they had neither a different nor an improved nature quality. Others had experienced a change, but felt that the differences were mainly in the cultivated areas and primarily visible during the spring and summer seasons when the fields had crops growing and their livestock was outside.

If we disregard the cultivated area, only a few of the participating farmers felt that they had gained a better nature quality. There are more, however, that point out that they are no longer as keen to utilize and cultivate every corner of their area as their conventional colleagues. They also believe that they are more likely to take nature into considerations (Højring et al 2004).

On the basis of the changes the farmers described, we then continued to ask them if they had any suggestions for possible indicators that characterize the nature and landscape produced in organic farming.
Most of the farmers experienced serious difficulties in wording concrete suggestions and the following statements should therefore be seen as incipient attempts to put values into words. Values that for most of the participants are still not reflective experiences.

With regard to the cultivated areas the farmers had these suggestions for a noticeable difference between the organic and conventional farms:

  • Livestock: The animals graze and spend time outdoors in organic farming. This is good for their welfare, but it also has aesthetic qualities. It is nice to see the animals present in the landscape. At the same time the grazing animals have an important effect on the maintenance and preservation of meadows and commons.
  • Flora: The farmers experienced a more divers and multicoloured weed flora on the fields and in the farmyard.
  • Soil: Some farmers experience a change in the structure of their soil. They notice that they now have a more lively soil with more microorganisms in it. For example some describe how the number of earthworms in the soil has gone up in the years they have practiced organic farming.
  • Crop rotation: Some of the dairy farmers mention their crop rotation as characteristic. They have more grass and clover fields then their colleagues in conventional farming.

On the uncultivated areas the organic farmers point to:

  • Fauna: A few of the farmers notice that they have a different and more diverse fauna. They mention more toads, frogs and birds – both smaller birds and birds of prey. One farmer now has more swallow nests. Others notice, with satisfaction, a rise in the game population on their farm.
  • Environment: In general organic farming provide a more environmentally sound production especially with regard to improvements in the aquatic environment.

The participating farmers stress that it is new for them to think of organic farming in a nature and landscape perspective. So far they have not been provoked into looking at their farms in terms of landscape qualities. But several of them see it as a possible perspective in the future development of organic agriculture and the organic image.

If organic farming wants to commit to improving nature and landscape qualities then it is absolutely crucial to set forth tangible expectations and indicators of observable values and goals.

Conclusion

The interviews show that there are a number of connections between production, nature and landscape. They also show that the farmers’ considerations on nature and landscape are not necessarily affected by, or seen in connection to, having chosen an organic production. One of the participants express this by saying, "that it is the person not the production" that decide the matter. It is the individual farmer who decides. It is not an automatic by-product that comes along with an organic farming practice. For the majority of the participants the organic production is still primarily associated with environmental improvements.

Perspectives for nature quality in organic agriculture

The study indicates that it would be beneficial to have a debate internally in organic farming on whether there in future should be a connection between organic agriculture, nature and landscape. As we mentioned in the beginning nature and landscape constitute an important and useful window in the interaction with the surrounding society. However if organic agriculture want to underline nature quality in its image and in the organic profile, then it is important that the expectations are put into words first - both internally in relation to the organic farmers, but also externally towards the outside world. This process is important for the expectations to be put into practice. The farmer needs tangible values that he can observe and improve on his farm. The interviews indicate that the expectations have not yet been subjected to a thorough reflection and debate in organic farming. The farmers’ own suggestions for indicators can be a possible starting point in this debate.

References

Anonymous (2004): Værdigrundlag for økologisk jordbrug [in Danish].

Højring K., L. Hansen, E. Noe (2004): Organic Farming – Nature conceptions, Management and Cross Compliance. In DARCOFenews no. 2. Newsletter from Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming.