Wetenschap - 29 maart 2001

Communication is the name of the game

Communication is the name of the game

How to make farmers switch to organic farming

It is not an easy task to convince traditional farmers of the benefits of organic farming. It takes clever communication at a personal level and a pioneering organic farmer who can show them the way, says Floor van Ede, MSc student in Ecological Agriculture.

Although there are increasing pressures and demands for organic farming in Western Europe, it is still a very small sector in economic terms. The majority of farmers use 'traditional' methods: large amounts of pesticides, fertilizers and non-organic feed. In Germany, near Munich however some farmers have been successfully persuaded to switch to organic farming. In one area the initiative was a success, but in another it failed completely. Intrigued by this story when she read it in a magazine, Van Ede decided to investigate the farmers' motives as part of her MSc study.

"The water company of Munich has taken the initiative to help mostly cattle farmers switch to organic farming, because the pesticides and fertilizers they use pollute the drinking water. In one area of about 2000 hectares, eighty percent of the farmers took the request seriously and decided to change their traditional way of farming. With some financial aid they started farming organically and with success: they now have the same income as before, and the water is much cleaner than before."

In another area, however, farmers did not respond to the initiative. The water company has accepted this but did not look for the reason behind it. Van Ede therefore went to interview thirteen farmers in the area and found some answers. "I found the biggest problem was bad communication between the water company and farmers. In the area where the project was a success, farmers were invited to a meeting where they were informed about the initiative and where they could negotiate. In the other area however, farmers only received a letter with a request to switch to organic farming. They were not convinced as there was no personal communication."

Working through the difficult Beiern dialect - 'Beiern is a degree worse than normal German' - she heard also that the farmers in the 'successful area' got help from a local environmental organisation and that they had a good example they could follow: a farmer who was a pioneer in organic farming. He switched immediately and could show his results to others. The other farmers were then easily convinced that organic farming was possible and that they would not be worse off financially.

Looking at similar conditions in Holland, where organic farming could also reduce water pollution, Van Ede believes that initiatives to promote organic farming can only succeed when there is a well-thought out communication plan.

Hugo Bouter

Organic dairy farming, here in the Dutch province of Noord Holland, not only produces wholesome milk, but also results in less pollution of water near the farm. | Photo Hans Dijkstra