Farmers are gardians of the health of the land and its inhabitants

Benoit Haag & Xavier Desclée

However, the challenges to agricultural models and practices are numerous. We are all aware of the impact of climate change on crop yields, the depletion of soils due to certain industrial agricultural practices, the dramatic reduction in biodiversity and the risks it poses to the richness of ecosystems, and the public's distrust of farming methods that are not well understood...

In addition to these global trends, Walloon agriculture is subject to specific constraints: the prices of agricultural products are highly dependent on the fluctuations of international markets over which we have no control, while our labor, land access and investment costs are among the highest in the world. The average size of our farms is around 60 hectares, while some analysts estimate that the break-even point would be above 100 hectares. Under these conditions, it is understandable that the number of farms is constantly decreasing and that their size is increasing, since the total cultivated area remains stable. We can also understand the emergence of subcontracting companies for agricultural work and land management in particular, as well as the development of crops under annual contracts with agri-food companies, which have an impact on the management of agricultural resources.

We also observe the development of a panoply of different "agricultural models", regardless of their qualification (short circuit, reasoned, organic, urban, conservation...), often poorly known or misunderstood by those who do not practice them and by the general public, often presented as opposed or competing, whereas in fact they are often complementary and adapted to different situations.

We have observed these trends closely during the work we have carried out in recent years in the framework of the cooperative sugar factory project led by the CoBT, which was unfortunately abandoned for lack of sufficient support from financial partners. We have also measured them during strategic missions carried out with agri-food companies and large agricultural cooperatives. We also know the situation of our numerous relatives, friends and neighbors who are farmers.

In such a context, how should we view the future?

Obviously, there is no magic formula to free ourselves from all these constraints. However, our observations lead us to envisage several avenues of evolution for the agricultural sector. Strong evolutions are essential and are already visible. Our children no longer run their farms in the same way as our parents, not to mention the changes that await our grandchildren...

First of all, in a context of low profitability - we have all heard a fellow farmer tell us "if you count everything, you don't make anything" - it is essential to base decisions on a precise knowledge of all costs. In spite of this, we note that a significant number of farms still operate under systems that exempt them from keeping complete accounts. While this approach has the advantage of simplicity from an administrative point of view, it does not allow one to know the real profitability of the farm or of the various crops, so that one may wonder whether the flat-rate tax is not excessive in certain cases. Moreover, in addition to the fact that it does not encourage transparency in transactions, this system does not encourage farmers to build up reserves to meet investment needs. Obviously, small farms are more exposed to these risks than large ones.

Secondly, it is highly desirable that the agricultural sector reclaim a larger share of the added value of the entire agri-food chain. Without this, it is unable to fulfill the productive, environmental and societal missions that society expects of it. Studies conducted in France show that agricultural production only represents about 6.5% of the total added value of this sector. This is very little. It is therefore easy to understand why agricultural cooperatives in this country have expanded into the processing and distribution of their members' products. Paradoxically, this is much less the case historically in Wallonia. Opportunities could be seized in different sectors. The ambitious CoBT project is a good recent example; the protein sector could be another. The public authorities could provide their support. On the other hand, more and more of our farms are organizing themselves to process and package their products, and to market them through short circuits in order to increase their margins and reconnect with the consumer, who seems to appreciate this trend. It is not uncommon to hear one or another of these farmers declare that they "make more money in the farmyard than in the field". This trend also reinforces the role of these farms as local economic actors and enhances the value of the farming profession in the eyes of the general public.

Probably the most important evolution in which the agricultural world is engaged is that of the methods of exploitation of the soil and biodiversity to which farmers were pushed during the second half of the 20th century to face the food shortages of the post-war period. No one can ignore the consequences on soil and ecosystem health of these methods, which are based on synthetic chemistry. The European Commission and the FAO are actively campaigning to return to more environmentally friendly methods. The current reform of the CAP is part of this evolution. Even if our region has not experienced the same drifts as some large countries, the transition is necessary and unavoidable for us too. Fortunately, the solutions exist: whatever the name given to them, they are all methods that aim to improve the biological activity of the soil and biodiversity. Of course, the transition to these methods requires a certain amount of risk-taking, perseverance over several years and calls for specialized agronomic skills. To be sustainable and effective, it must be facilitated by an appropriate regulatory framework and, in some cases, by timely support measures. Fortunately, a number of associations have already been formed to provide farmers with the advice they need to succeed, and examples of successful transitions are beginning to multiply in the region. We have not met a single farmer who regrets his or her choices. Young farmers in particular are showing a growing interest in taking this path, despite the many constraints. They deserve to be supported by their elders. The training institutes must also provide them with the necessary knowledge throughout their career

Along with the evolution of methods, the agricultural sector has not escaped the evolution of technologies and in particular digitalization. Digitalization is already present in the day-to-day management of farms, both in breeding and in cultivation. It is becoming increasingly important in modern equipment, and is continuing to be used to help monitor farms in real time and to make decisions. Large-scale data collection systems are being set up thanks to ground-based sensor networks and satellite observation. The processing of these data already allows for detailed diagnoses and recommendations at the plot level. Of course, it is important to invest in these technologies with care and to ensure that their cost/benefit ratio is proven, but their wider dissemination should make them increasingly effective, reduce their cost, and even help reduce agriculture's heavy dependence on oil. It is in farmers' best interest to become familiar with their use.

For a large number of farmers, joining these evolutions to perpetuate their farms requires a significant effort of adaptation, to the point of discouraging many. However, we believe that the strengthening of collaborations within the agricultural world would make it easier to meet these challenges.

In particular, it is a matter of encouraging the exchange of best practices, comparing operating data, and sharing investment in certain equipment and infrastructures. Organizations are evolving or being set up to stimulate these forms of mutualization for the benefit of their members. They must be given the financial and human resources to fulfill their mission. The 58 million collected by the CoBT from farmers and sympathizers for the Seneffe sugar factory project has shown that they were able to mobilize around clear objectives and projects conducted with professionalism. This is an encouraging precedent.

Finally, the positive image of the agricultural sector among the general public could be significantly strengthened if it adopted a more open and positive communication rather than a defensive one. Its credibility depends on the recognition of the limits of certain historical practices and on the expression of proactive commitments in favor of positive practices for the environment, the economy and local employment.

The farmer is a multi-faceted entrepreneur whose creativity and ability to find solutions to complex problems is important. We all know some excellent examples! This capacity to be an actor of change and a force for positive proposals must be further exploited, without necessarily waiting for solutions to come "from the system".

Farmers are guardians of the health of the earth and its inhabitants. Their role is indispensable and irreplaceable. Their fascinating profession is in constant and rapid evolution, as the challenges to be met are so important. Their future will be linked to their ability to successfully carry out the multiple transitions that they face, individually and collectively, in good understanding with society and the authorities.

Written by : Benoit Haag & Xavier Desclée - Passionate agricultural business developers

Link to the article in "Le Sillon Belge" :

Green Deal: Het is cruciaal om op koers te blijven na de verkiezingen