Smallholder and family farms dominate EU' s agriculture, as two-thirds of the 10 million farms are less than 5 ha. This proportion is going to be even higher if we take into account the accessing countries of South-East Europe. Nearly one-third of all active farmers in the EU are over 65, while only 5.6% are under 35 years of age. This phenomenon is described as the “greying of Europe’s farmers”. Smallholders' local knowledge, experience, tradition, attitude, mindset can be tremendous resource and obstacle at the same time.
The "wise farming" concept is introduced and used by the project, and can be conceived in two dimensions: 1) the value of local experience in farming in general: a personal behavior where “The wise farmer learns from the experience of others” and as opposed to “The smart person who uses
his mind and intelligence, the wise uses his experience and experiences of others to solve problems”, and 2) thinking one step further the well-known term of "Smart Farming" (re. digital agriculture) to "Wise Farming", where the introduction of agriculture 4.0 tools are to be put into local context, to match experience, attitude, cultural habits, to validate usefulness not only at the level of business return but also taking care of social, environmental, sustainability and data ownership aspects.
The direct objective of the proposal is to bring together the younger and elder farm generations in a common programme for the exchange of knowledge, access to high quality learning opportunity, facilitation support and sustained collaboration for increased competence, from one side in the use of digital tools, from the other side the crucial farming practices based on local knowledge.
The target group consists of smallholders and family farmers, where personal participation in farming is inevitable, the current level of skills and qualifications are generally low, both on the elder side - lacking digital skills, and the younger farmers - missing key competencies in the practice of farming. Elderly farmers have local knowledge that is indispensable in the successful entrepreneurship at the farm level, while younger farmers are more advanced in the use of digital devices, but also lack their specific use in farming, as gaining local (“slow”) knowledge takes a considerable amount of time.
Peer-to-peer learning - as farmers main and most trusted source of information are other farmers - and knowledge co-creation can give the generations an opportunity to learn in pairs, and circumvent existing obstacles by mentoring each other, therefore the skills of using digital tools can be successfully transferred in the local context as they are connected and matched with local farmer knowledge.
Besides piloting the learning process itself, the project will develop and execute all supporting materials:
- Conducting a comprehensive, regional needs analysis and knowledge assessment in every
participating country, and developing a matchmaking methodology for the selection process of mentor pairs.
- Creating an online collaboration platform with learning content elements, proven good practices and new digital tools (relevant for the region) and with communication features that enable constant share of ideas and knowledge.
The skills of using digital tools can only be successfully transferred in the local context, at the specific farm level, and it should be matched with local farmer knowledge. Given the importance of the local characteristics, starting from the exploration of needs, developing and conducting the training and continuing with sustained support, the collaborative - mentoring and facilitating - component of the overall process is crucial to glue all the necessary actions together. Therefore, the project will involve facilitators who are already in the field, working for many years supporting farmers, being trusted, experienced, competent and neutral from business interests. They are primarily professionals accredited and working under the national farm extension services, in accordance with the EU Farm Advisory Service network. In this way, the project will have a positive impact on agricultural knowledge systems as making better use of networks for informal knowledge exchange.
Project results will demonstrate the viability of the approach and methodology, as one of the possible techniques to overcome crucial challenges in the agricultural and rural sectors. The experience can be utilised in a wider strategic context for policymaking, to cope with the abandonment of farming activity especially by young people, the succession of farming, attracting new entrants into agricultural activities, the introduction of digital innovations in a responsible and effective way, suitable for smallholders' and family farmers' needs.