The EUFRAS conference, held at UL in association with Teagasc, highlighted the importance of collaboration, knowledge transfer and information sharing in working towards sustainability in agriculture.
A panel discussion chaired by Barry Caslin of Teagasc focussed on the issue of diversification in farming.
Some key points raised in the session, included the necessity of “developing awareness of what’s available to farmers within their local area.”
Based in Brussels, speaker David Lamb a senior expert for the European Network of Rural Developments, a contact point for all National Rural Networks over the 28 EU member states. He underlined the importance of good communication in terms of fostering knowledge development. More important again David says, is how the networks communicate within themselves. He expects “to see these networks extend, so that all rural stakeholders have access to necessary information.”
David also explained that he had a hand in modelling the Scottish food and drink advisory board on Bord Bia, using the Irish system as a good example of how an industry integrates, and went on to commend EUFRAS as “a great channel” for exchange of best practice.
Farm policy officer at the European Commission, Inge Van Oost, spoke in relation to the European Innovation Partnership. The partnership, outlined in 2012, aims to have researchers, advisors, agribusiness representatives and other agents, working closely with farmers across the EU, in Operational Groups, to maximise a) effectiveness at farm level and b) the pool of knowledge of methodology and best practice from across the EU.
Ms. Van Oost used the recent example of a successful Operational Group where farmers worked with advisors and researchers to address the problem of dock weeds in pasture, “to find the bio control to attack that weed [effectively]. The key [in utilising research] is to have a systematic approach.”
Her take-home message was a call for more freedom of information and transparency in all areas of the agricultural sector across the member states. “If we go in the direction of keeping knowledge private and exclusive, it can only lead to problems.”
She stressed that it is vital to “make sure that everybody has access to enough basic information, enough to get in contact.”
An audience member informally explained a recent successful grass-roots initiative in France which fostered co-operation and knowledge sharing between farmers.
“The idea was to present innovative farms to other farmers. There was a visit programme, and now there is a huge communication system farm to farm. They began with ten farms, who agreed to be visited in June, and the innovative farmers explained to the interested farmers what they had changed on their farm. The whole region of Brittany got involved with the scheme and it’s nationwide now.”
This is a great example of how farmers who would wish to make better use of their resources can learn from each other. On that note, if you haven’t heard about this new farming resource, it has the potential to be extremely positive and useful.
“To give a flavour for Teagasc is doing at the moment, ” Mary Ryan from Teagasc was invited to give some insight into how the organisation has been working with and for Irish farmers as part of the rural development programme.
“Because we are a network of farmers, we can act as a conduit. We’ve been working more closely with companies and local authorities – be they diversification opportunities, opportunities to upskill, looking at the free training opportunities that are out there. We’re also currently piloting a Web Portal here in Limerick and in Tipperary in order to make farmers aware of all training and upskilling opportunities, and to disseminate the information necessary for diversification.”
She went on to speak about some key areas that Teagasc have identified in enabling low-income farms to diversify. “The three most important follow-on needs [to meet] are more information on farm financial management, then rural tourism and food.”
Speaker Dóirín Graham of Clare Local Development, a community-led organisation, made the point that: “Farmers who are struggling to manage what they have are less likely to take on a diversified enterprise, because there is a risk involved.”
Dóirín was also passionate that in terms of enabling social change in any area, top-down “doesn’t work”. She used the example of the Leader scheme which she has been involved with since its gestation in 1993, and which operates via dedicated Local Action Groups. Leader is a locally led, EU co-funded ongoing initiative for rural development.
“There’s a recognition that locally-led, bottom-up decision-making is a very effective solution. Top down schemes, can be very effective and have been very effective, but diversification,” Dóirín maintains, “requires engagement from ground level.”
More from the EUFRAS event to follow.
Main Picture: Shown during a break in the programme are Inge Van Oost, European Commission, Directorate General Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI), Professor Tom Kelly, Teagasc, and Chairman of EUFRAS, and Ulrich Ryser, Agridea, and President of IALB.