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A reduction in vulnerability for farms transitioning to organic

The transition period from conventional to organic farming comes with risks. How do farmers view these risks, and why? Scientists at the AGIR unit conducted a series of interviews over time and quantitative analyses with farmers who are converting to organic, in an attempt to answer these questions.

Photo Matthieu Chanel [Agrobio 35]. © Photo Matthieu Chanel [Agrobio 35]
Updated on 11/29/2018
Published on 10/29/2018

The end of milk quotas in 2015 generated a marked downward variability in milk prices which attained a historic low in 2015-2016. This resulted in growing economic vulnerability for a number of conventional dairy farmers, who saw their activity weakened. During the same period, the organic milk market offered good prospects and security due to strong demand as well as higher and more stable prices paid to farmers. In regions like Aveyron, the number of conversions to organic farming increased considerably. Until 2015, only 40 of the region’s 1,200 dairy farmers had turned to organic farming, whereas in 2016 alone, 50 decided to convert.

The conversion period itself is not free of risk, and can last up to two years, during which practices are modified without the initial possibility of extracting value from this transition. Scientists at the Joint Research Unit for Agroecology, Innovations and Territories (AGIR) conducted interviews with a group of farmers in the transition phase in order to understand their strategy and better grasp their motivations. These interviews were conducted between 2016 and 2018 at 19 farms in the Aveyron region. Researchers found that the decision to convert was made based on very subjective and personal factors: not only the expected economic gain and improved environmental impact, but also on the ability to maintain a family-run activity, imagine better working conditions, and benefit from collective learning opportunities and build on personal skills. In sum, the farmers interviewed perceive this “wager on the future” as a chance to farm in phase with their personal values. Another outstanding result of the survey is the fact that the farmers viewed this model as less risky than conventional farming in that it moves away from a logic of systematic upscaling for the purpose of achieving economies of scale.

In another study, conducted over a 13-year period at 51 already organic farms, the same researchers sought to explain why some organic farms were more exposed to risk than others. Results showed that differences primarily stemmed from farming practices (e.g. diversification, land use and husbandry practices). Inversely, differences in exposure to climatic or economic variations, even marked ones, did little to explain variation in vulnerability between farms. In this case too, the human factor is central.

This research paves the way to new approaches to reduce vulnerability for dairy farms undergoing a conversion to organic farming. It also generates data which agricultural consultants and policy makers can use to better support farmers.

references

Maëlys Bouttes, Ika Darnhofer, Guillaume Martin. Converting to organic farming as a way to enhance adaptive capacity. Org Agric. July 2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13165-018-0225-y

Maëlys Bouttes, Ika Darnhofer, Guillaume Martin. Vulnerability to climatic and economic variability is mainly driven by farmers’ practices on French organic dairy farms. European Journal of Agronomy. January 2018 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eja.2018.01.013