“I saw lots of innovative ideas, new and different from the methods we use for working the land in Bulgaria. I want to try some of them to see how they will work out at home”, says Stefan Lazarov, a farmer and teacher from Bulgaria, who joined the FarmErasmus Programme.
The FarmErasmus programme offered visiting farmers 4 days full of discoveries and a glimpse of the beauty of ecological farming in Belgium. The Belgian exchange was the last stop this winter on the FarmErasmus project, organised by Greenpeace with 16 farmers interested in sustainable agriculture from right across Europe.
5 farmers took part: 1 Slovakian, 2 Bulgarian and 2 Greek. For all of them, their motivation was to become part of a bigger network and get to know other eco-farmers. In Belgium they witnessed first-hand the organic farming methods used by experienced farmers from a range of different sectors, all working exclusively in sustainable agriculture. They met farmers who strive for diversity and seek to ensure that plants, farm animals and humans work together in harmony.
As one example, the social farm “De Wikke”, which the group visited in the afternoon of the first day, is part of a non-profit-organisation for the integration of people with disabilities. They produce vegetables, walnut oil, chutneys etc. and sell them via a vegetable box scheme on the internet.
“What stays with me from this experience are the cooperatives the farmers have created and how they try to keep as close as possible to their consumers”, concludes Alexandros Karyofillidis, a young fruit farmer from Greece. “I wish that more people would change their agricultural methods and go organic, and I wish governments would give more support to this type of agriculture.”
One afternoon, the farmers got to visit the “Apple factory”, a biodynamic orchard producing mainly apples, but also pears and plums. Organic juice is made with the farmers’ own machines, and, through a cooperative, other local organic farmers send their fruit to have it turned into juice or marmalade. Danny Billens, a pioneer Belgian fruit farmer who hosted the visitors, sends his fruit to the “Apple factory”, where they produce the juice for him. The products of the “Apple Factory” are then sold at their local store. The family also keeps sheep for meat production and offers students internships at the farm. There is also a 1 hectare CSA vegetable garden, based on the principles of community-supported agriculture (CSA), shared by 200 shareholders.
“I think the most important thing I saw were the farms that function the way I’d like our farm to work: widely diversified enterprises, where they grow vegetables and fruit trees, and rear different kinds of animals: one thing complements the other and it all creates a unified whole. To see it in reality, to see something that was common in Slovakia 100 years ago but is rare nowadays, was really beautiful, inspiring and encouraging”, says Michal Krištufek from Slovakia.
In 4 days, the group came across organic, biodynamic fruit orchards; CSA vegetable gardens; milk and cheese producers; all sorts of farming and consumer cooperatives; local shops; a bakery; restaurants; and social projects with agricultural connections. “Farmerasmus was a fantastic opportunity for us to gather together and share our knowledge, experience and the love we have for a more natural way of farming”, says Varvara Thanassia, a farmer from Northern Greece. “This has given me the hope and strength to continue doing what I’m doing and to try to convince more people that this is the right thing to do.”
Vladimir Gotov, from Northern Bulgaria, adds: “In the future, lots more people should embrace organic agriculture. I would like to see us living in a sustainable world, where people know their place and the importance of living in harmony with nature.”
It’s essential for the future of agriculture that knowledge of eco-farming is preserved and that new farmers have access to this sort of knowledge. That’s why initiatives like the FarmErasmus program and the farmers2farmers.org platform have been developed. Learn more about it at https://www.farmers2farmers.org.