Farmers from across the globe do not just grow food. They also provide society with valuable ecosystem services, such as soil health, biodiversity, and improved water and air quality.
Farmers from Chile, Ireland, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and the U.S. recently shared how they deliver food and nutrition security while enhancing the environment during the Committee on World Food Security (CFS 50) meeting in Rome. The virtual side event, held Oct. 10, was organized by Solutions from the Land (SfL), the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, the Global Farmer Network, and ASEAN Climate Resilience Network.
“Production of agricultural products for farm profitability and the enhancement of the environment are part of a sustainable, whole-farm system,” says moderator Lois Wright Morton, Ph.D., an SfL board member who grows blueberries, asparagus and red raspberries in the U.S.
The common thread among each of the five farmers is that they manage what Morton describes as a circular system. They use and reuse farm products (such as manure, straw, cover crops, recycled water, biogas and seed production) that retain value to the operation as substitutes for production inputs or as additional marketable goods and services.
“Retained value is key to farm profitability, to the improved use of farm-ecosystem resources and to reducing waste,” Morton says. “Retained value actually turns the byproducts of farm products into co-products, which are intentional, planned processes and products that add value by contributing to farm profitability and quality ecosystem services.”
On her 50-acre farm in northeastern Ohio, Morton retains value thanks to a partnership with her brother, who raises cattle. His operation creates excess straw and manure, which Morton uses to add fertility to the soil growing her blueberries.
Other examples of circular management from the farmer panelists include:
Thomas Duffy, from Ireland, is transitioning to a multispecies forage mix for grazing his 100-cow dairy herd. Traditionally, he would apply 150-200 units of synthetic nitrogen on perennial ryegrass, the typical forage base in his region. This year, he planted additional, different forages, such as white clover, chicory and plantain, and was able to produce similar levels of productivity with only 50 units of nitrogen. Using clover, a nitrogen-fixing legume, allows him a biological form of nitrogen fixation that cuts costs, both financially and environmentally. Chicory and plantain may also add drought tolerance to his forage base, and other forage species are being evaluated for potential animal health benefits. Increased plant biodiversity also builds soil health, improving soil structure and drainage as well as potentially reducing nitrogen pollution.
Nicolás Arriagada Méndez, from Chile, minimizes waste on his diversified farm. He grows a diversity of food plants, including organic vegetables, fruits, cereal grains, mushrooms, and medicinal plants. He also maintains bees, which produce honey and pollinate plants. Depending on the quality and size of his harvest, he sells produce fresh or processes and preserves it as value-added products through dehydration, freezing, fermentation and jam-making. For example, some vegetables are dehydrated and turned into vegetable flours to use as food supplements. Any further waste is used by the farm’s sheep, pigs and chickens, which in turn fertilize his crop fields and provide protein. He also captures solar energy for use on the farm.
Antonio Equipado, from the Philippines, lives in a community highly dependent on rice production from both economic and food nutrition and security standpoints. They add value to their farms by going organic. Farmers and partners in the community work together to produce organic rice seed, which creates two opportunities for farmers: organic rice cultivation and the ability to sell rice seed at a premium price. They also raise fish in the rice paddies, which adds fertility and a marketable protein.
María Eugenia Ramírez, from Costa Rica, grows organic coffee beans and raises chickens, pigs and dairy goats with her husband Juan Luis Fallas on their farm Farami. They use minimal external inputs and take advantage of niche markets, including exporting their coffee to nine different countries. Their goal is to create a food chain in which all organic farm waste (including waste from coffee production and from animals) is composted and turned into fertilizer that is reused on the fields. They also create natural barriers on the edges of the farm to prevent runoff and erosion during rains.
Finding Inspiration for Improving the Farm
During the panel discussion, farmers and attendees reinforced the top way they learn how to improve their operations is through direct, farmer-to-farmer interaction. A poll found that 60% of attendees say they find inspiration from other farmers first when asked, “Who are you most likely to look to for new ideas and farming practices?”
The second-most-popular source of education was Extension/government technical advisors (20%), followed by the internet/digital sources (13%) and ag technical advisors from industry (7%). Only one answer could be selected by each participant.
Solutions from the Land is committed to fostering farmer-to-farmer entrepreneurial learning, exploration and collaboration. A white paper will be coming soon to describe examples of farmer innovation around circular system approaches to producing food, fiber and ecosystem services. Our hope is that it will be another tool in the toolbox to help farmers improve productivity and become more sustainable, more resilient and better equipped to improve their livelihoods. A recording of this CFS50 side event, “The Role of Farmers in Concurrently Delivering Agroecosystem Services and Food and Nutrition Security,” organized by Solutions from the Land and partners, will be available in the coming days on the GACSA YouTube channel.