Young farmers and the lack of large-scale agricultural innovation projects

Last week I visited a network meeting focusing on rural development. This focus area lies at a somewhat greater distance from direct bio-based developments, but nevertheless will be impacted by the bio-based economy. One of the participants mentioned the lack of larger scale agricultural innovation projects.

agricultural innovation projectsThe reason I attended this meeting was that I am currently working on a project aiming to valorize the side stream of a fruit grower. In addition, visiting such meetings enables me to learn about the state of affairs outside of the inner bio-based circle. The Dutch POP3 program, acronym for the Dutch ‘Plattelands Ontwikkelings Programma’, implements the third European subsidy program for rural development that helps rural areas in the EU to meet the wide range of economic, environmental and social challenges they face. It is part of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Agricultural innovation projects should have a serious impact

The most interesting opinion I heard was that agricultural innovation projects should focus on larger scale projects. I fully agree. Currently, applied agricultural projects, like the projects shown at the network meeting, mostly involve small, local initiatives with relatively limited impact. But only large-scale projects can be expected to result in high-impact contributions to either rural development, or to the further development of the bio-based economy.

Seminars and network meetings that focus on agricultural development do try to boost the impact of innovative projects by showcasing their results. But the reach of these seminars is limited; and the related spin-off projects will not automatically be executed on a larger scale. Therefore, it seems wise to select agricultural innovation projects not on the basis of (expected) success and achievements, but on the basis of reproducibility on a larger scale.

Young farmers want to adapt to new times

Support programs by the government or by other organisations are always restricted to specific domains. It may therefore be a deliberate choice to support agricultural projects of a limited size. Scaling projects up might then be more difficult, as bigger projects also tend to carry more risks. One of the challenges is an increased financial risk for project participants. Hedging this project risk might be required to facilitate larger scale projects. But non-existent or immature markets entail a more serious risk that is more difficult to tackle. It takes a lot of time to solve market issues; and if the project also requires the application of a new business model, a preference for small-scale projects can seem quite logical. But on balance, they are not necessarily better. Successful exploration of new markets, or a new business model, can only be done on a scale that has some significance.

Change is of all times, and young farmers are indeed interested in new technology, new business models and agricultural innovation projects. NAJK, the Dutch contact organization for young farmers, observed during one of the workshops that the farmer’s role is changing: from former manual labourer to present-day entrepreneur to tomorrow’s process manager. Farmers or horticulturists, however, only have limited access to information – and as bigger projects quickly tend to become more complicated, this is a problem. It is important that all committed stakeholders and actors recognize, acknowledge and support not only this desire for change, but also the growing need for information.

NAJK is a member of CEJA, the European council of young farmers, representing 2 million young farmers in Europe. CEJA’s main objective is to promote a younger and innovative agricultural sector across the EU 28.

Also published on Wijnand’s personal blog.

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