The age of the flexi-farmer
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CTA. 2001. The age of the flexi-farmer. Spore 92. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to cite or share this item: https://hdl.handle.net/10568/46103
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Adapt! Adopt! Be adept! The exhortations of well, of those who exhort rain down every day on the heads of farmers. Out in the field, the flexibility of agricultural systems is not top of the agenda, but just how far should a farmer look ahead?Come...
Adapt! Adopt! Be adept! The exhortations of well, of those who exhort rain down every day on the heads of farmers. Out in the field, the flexibility of agricultural systems is not top of the agenda, but just how far should a farmer look ahead? Come fly with us. Only a bird could do this. Imagine (we exhort you) that you are a bird. You are a bird flying on your annual autumn migration from Finland to the Niger delta in Mali. Your journey takes you over northern seas unnaturally full of algae and empty of fish, over fields of temperate Europe, yellow with the harvests of rapeseed, sunflower and maize, and brown with the ploughed stalks of wheat too dear to harvest, over the quasi-deserts of southern Europe full of subsidised olive trees and hydroponic tomatoes, down over the citrus orchards of north Africa and its reviving vineyards, before crossing the bleak Sahara. Less than a hundred years ago, it would have looked different, very different. Smaller fields, many more woods and forests, less dust in the air, less glare from glass-housed surfaces, the nights unscarred by streaks of light, and more errant insects to snap up out of the airstream. Why the change? Was it man who chose to change, man, that most conservative of beasts? In a way, yes, because the hand of the farmer changed the fields. It was not, though, the farmer who had the idea. His hand was guided by changing markets, in turn steered by interventionist politicians responding to changes in land use, in population, in governance, and to changes in climate (though they are only recently understood, and then only slightly). Come, now, come back down, down to the ground, back to being the farmer. We all recognise the changes seen by the generations of birds. Of our generations, of Spore readers, our adult feet have all trodden and trudged the soils of the second half of the last century and we have all seen changes happen to our countryside, our livelihood and our cultures. The deserted or deserting villages and smallholdings of our youth, the arrival of new land owners, or vacationing visitors, from the town. The building of long sheds by men with strange accents to raise fowl that neither walk nor fly, to sell in town. The demise of your entire groundnut sector because of newly discovered consumer allergies in another continent. The fun of watching strangers telling you how to plough straight, and you beating them in a ploughing competition. The long walks to school and to market replaced, for the fortunate, by journeys on pedal bikes and mopeds and trucks. The intrusion of radio and television, blaring out their, your, reasons to leave and reasons to stay, like a nanny goat unsure what to bleat, but not knowing what else she should do. And they say that nothing ever happens, nothing ever changes, in the countryside. No way. It s in the town that things don t change so much. The crowding, smells, hustle and bustle, the anonymity of city life, and the regret that country life will not, apparently, provide a living for our nearest and dearest. A city life is fuller of shared regrets than it is of shared harvests, yet it is the countryside that they exhort to adapt, to be flexible. Change is always with us Why is there so much talk about change in agriculture at the moment? It is a tad incongruous, is it not, to see so much nervous twitching about change in a profession where it is known that some things just cannot be hurried along. At the level of global macropolicy, specialists are struggling to practise the very imprecise art of balancing agricultural production with masses of other inter-related issues: biodiversity, cultural diversity, economic diversity, ecology, energy, employment, empowerment, food security, gender, health, industry, least-developed, rural life, trade, water to name but a few (in alphabetical order). During these considerations, a recurring concern is that the agricultural systems of the ACP States and other developing countries may not be flexible and resilient enough to face up to the challenges of globalisation, or the threats of climate change. The problems lie not in flexibility, but in being able to look ahead clearly. Globalisation, like climate change, is not the splinter new phenomenon that some people like to pretend. Climate change, with its hot and cold flushes, has been affecting people on the planet for ages. Globalisation, a man-made process, is younger but no babe either. Used as a code word for The Strange, The Innovative and The Opportunity, for a Threat to be tamed and harnessed, communities have been dealing with this reality ever since man first saw a horizon. What is perhaps new is the scale and the pace of each phenomenon; what is surely new is the depth and complexity of our understanding of it, however incomplete it may be. Opposing directions, or rainbow farming? What do these phenomena mean to the farmer? What do they mean in terms of priorities for those who should serve the farmer the scientist, the banker, the trader even though they may describe their role differently. There are routes attracting us whichever way we look, enticing us to serve different markets. A seminal list of attractions was recently set out by Stein Bie, the director general of the International Service for National Agricultural Research, for his own profession of soil scientists, but his routes (ladders) have a general value: the green ladder, which emphasises natural resource management; the equity ladder, stressing fair development aimed at poverty eradication; the eco-label ladder, producing healthy, often organic, food and the cheap food ladder, maintaining high-yielding agriculture. To choose one route to market will mean missing out, in part, on the benefits of the others. They are in part an illusion of contradictions, in part complementary, a sort of rainbow agriculture . Each route requires obtaining and investing various forms of capital, of which the single most important element is probably information, namely on production techniques and the nature and needs of the market. There are countless examples, starting with a farm near you, of the flexibility of the ACP farmer in shifting production towards export of organic, or fair, or dinner-party products, or meeting regional demand. With access to adequate financial, social and informational capital, such a change can be made. But can the next? And the next? Agriculture needs actuaries The smart farmer these days, the one who plays her or his cards right, is the one with ideas about the changes after tomorrow s changes. On some you can take a well-informed guess, if you analyse recurring themes in Spore and other agricultural media: the costs of energy and transport, water stress, and the regulations affecting food hygiene and safety, will be but three key factors of increasing importance in ACP agriculture s choices. There are other, less tangible elements, of which volatile climate changes will probably have the most impact. It may well be that future agricultural practices will need to be more sheltered, perhaps more intensive in management if not in energy input, and more separated from the environment whilst being more respectful of natural cycles. The potential of hydroponics, featured in this Spore, could be a example of such agriculture. How can a farmer plan, how can a policy maker shape an enabling environment , and how can a trader invest in a supply chain, without being able to calculate risk? Each of these players in the food chain is flexible, pliable and adaptable, but they each need to be able to see further ahead. Information systems must start to address the issue of assessing and covering risk. In past issues of Spore we have urged the banker and the planner to join the trader and the farmer. Perhaps the next partner to join in strengthening our agriculture is the insurance agent; few know better than the actuary how to plan for the day after tomorrow. [caption to illustration] What will sell well next year? [summary points]Flexibility To anticipate or to respond to changing circumstances has always been part of agriculture, for the farmer, trader, processor, researcher and other stakeholders Flexibility requires the confidence not to see change as a threat In terms of resources, flexibility requires finance and information The more you can forecast, the better prepared you are
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