Farmers and consultants learn from practice.
Inquiring into what matters most in organic farming, Conrad Thimm identifies six essentials that need to be taught in organic training and education: continuous learning, understanding the ecology of the location, hands-on research and development, the wider socio-economic and political picture, collaboration and a holistic view.
Learning from nature is a good place to start from in organic farming. Farming, though, is not just about nature but also about constantly facing all sorts of different challenges and changes. The ability to navigate change is becoming increasingly important for all organizations and people. This also applies in organic farming which, contrary to the imagination of some idealistic lay people, is also constantly changing: adapting to climate change, technological and societal changes and so on. Continuous learning is a prerequisite for success in organic farming and needs to be taught by consultants, who are close to both farmers and traders and aware of these changes.
Understanding the ecology of the location
Organic farming works with nature, i.e. with the ecological cycles of a location. These have to be understood for any given location. They run somewhat deeper than just looking at healthy soils, plants, animals and human beings. The bottlenecks for growth in a specific place have to be identified and tackled. Each location has different climates, different soils etc., and organic farming needs to be appropriate for these place-specific conditions. What is right in a humid area, where leaching may be a challenge, may be totally wrong in a dry area with salinization. This seems obvious, yet I still see room everywhere for improvement in this respect.
Hands-on research and development
Organic farming can’t be taught like a recipe. It involves applying, testing and developing the concepts of appropriate ecology in daily real-life situations. Universities and formal research stations can be of help here, yet the more “scientific” their standards, the more they focus on analytical specialization taking them further away from the complexities of working in real life, which is exactly what farmers have to do every day. Farmers and consultants are best equipped to do the hands-on research and development for organic farming themselves. Being in charge of their own needs they can also ask scientists questions. This approach holds more promise than scientists setting the agenda and telling organic farmers what to do. The English saying “experts on tap, not on top” expresses this very well.
The wider socio-economic and political picture
Like all farming, organic farming takes place in a societal context. This may or may not be favourable for organic farming but has to be taken as a given. While a farmer’s organization may focus on advocating for better policies and farmers may support this, the farmer’s basis of existence is the success of her own farm under existing conditions. As these conditions are changing, it is essential that farmers and consultants are aware of what is happening in the wider picture. Sometimes the rules might be completely changed, by governments or by technological or market changes. This has to be taken into account.
The organic sector often claims a high level of collaboration among organic farmers, with consumers, or along the value chain. But the reality is not always that bright and improving competence in collaboration is another essential for training in organic farming. And, contrary to many beliefs, training in collaboration is not only essential, but also possible, even for farmers, as long as they are willing and if there is a trainer who really knows the ways of participatory work and walks her talk.
A holistic view
Farming is a complex challenge and organic farming often even more so. It is not only about ecology and technology, economy and sociology but also about how one leads one’s life; one’s purpose and values, beliefs and visions, and community and self-management. In traditional, relatively stable societies these issues were taken care of by culture and religion. In our increasingly faster changing societies more and more corporations and organizations recognize the need to focus on holistic organizational and personal development if they are to be successful. Learning to navigate change is probably the ultimate challenge for training and education.