Promoting Mixed farming systems beyond definitions

The two EU Horizon2020 'sister projects' MIXED and AGROMIX both addresses efficiency and resilience of mixed farming and agroforestry systems. This involves concepts that might be defined differently in relation to the disciplines and contexts, with the possible consequence of an explosion of definitions. The two ‘mixed farming projects decided that they could benefit from a mutual exchange around the main concepts involved - based on discussions that recently took place in a joint webinar discussing frameworks for assessing mixed systems and ‘mixedness’.  


What makes a mixed system mixed?  

"We have defined this as mixedness. This new term refers to mixed agricultural and agroforestry systems, i.e., those systems that combine trees with crops, crops with livestock or livestock with trees in many different forms. We wanted to define a precise meaning of mixedness and, consequently, the transition to mixedness. At the same time, we also wanted to brainstorm possible challenges encountered for achieving mixedness and levers for promoting the transition," explains Francesco Accatino from the MIXED project, Researcher at INRAE.  

Developing a shared definition for mixedness 

The researchers from MIXED and AGROMIX agrees that mixedness is not simply bringing together mixed farming and agroforestry systems. They explain that "there is a risk we hijack already existing definitions. We identified what mixedness is not; mixedness is the opposite to specialisation. Although this might seem obvious, it is good to state it explicitly: Europe is largely characterized by specialized systems and territories; promoting mixedness would push to a shift in understanding Mixedness as more than simply diversity. Although the diversity of the elements involved (trees, grass, livestock, crops,) is a necessary condition, interaction among elements must also occur. Mixedness is also the opposite to simplification, as mixedness increases complexity of farm structure and farming activities". 

Biophysical interactions among diverse elements are a starting point for mixedness 

To give examples, livestock provides manure to annual crops; trees provide nutrients from deeper soil levels, food, shade, and welfare to livestock; ruminants can graze on crop residues. At the landscape level, social interactions also play an important role. Farmers can cooperate exchanging feed and manure, so that biophysical interactions can be created between crop and livestock farms, which, although specialised, contribute to create a mixed landscape. Overall, mixedness refers to systems that are simply more than the sum of their parts. These systems produce more than food, they foster social links, collaborations among actors; they interact with natural land uses and create cultural, beautiful and diverse landscapes. They are in a way similar to ecosystems: ecosystems are also built on biophysical interactions among different elements. However, like ecosystems are never identical to other ecosystems, it is hard to find perfectly identical mixed systems, because mixedness is adapted to its socio-ecological context. Therefore, while the sister projects agree upon general principles and high-level definition, it is hard to have a definition that is applicable to all the diversity of mixed systems. Landscapes with higher mixedness would also be expected to aim for and achieve higher circularity; however, the degree of circularity achieved is a question for ongoing and further monitoring research. 

Challenges along the way 

Farms and landscapes may transition from a specialise farm to a mixed system. But how can we define the transition to mixedness – and embed it in legislation – if a clear definition of mixedness is missing? How can we recognize or promote a transition? Mixedness requires farmers cope with additional complexity compared to specialised systems. In order to persuade them to transition, it is important to provide them with convincing arguments. However, there are challenges and bottlenecks that the farmer needs to overcome for transition to occur. 

Environmental challenges include mixed systems typically being located on marginal land. What mixedness could be achieved on better soils, which are currently often occupied by specialised systems, should be investigated. What is needed to promote mixedness on good soils? There is also the potential of introducing varieties that are not well adapted to local conditions. In addition, not all landscape and environmental context may be suitable to mixed systems, for example, grassland areas in mountain regions where other crops and trees don’t do well. Economic challenges often constitute important bottlenecks: farmers willing to promote mixed farming or agroforestry are blocked by the requirement for high initial investments, lack of knowledge in a new system and the difficulty in using mechanisation, output fragmentation, and the lack of market outlets. Overall, the economy is still dominated by specialised farming and value chains for mixed systems are largely lacking (e.g. processers of products of mixed farming might not often be at a viable transport distance). Social challenges include the lack of good advice and communication to farmers, which leads to poor long-term visions, poor awareness and missing education; switching to mixed systems requires the burden of learning to be familiar with a diverse range of regulations and insurance schemes. In addition, at the landscape level, farmers might be reluctant to collaborate. Institutional challenges encompass the difficulty of accessing loans and funding, the lack of specific subsidies for mixedness and support for cooperation, the absence of coordination and communication strategies, and the presence of laws, which are often targeted to specialized systems and not appropriated to mixedness. 

What changes are required to encourage farmers to transition to mixed systems if such a big effort is needed to overcome challenges and if policymaking is not based on clear definitions? It is important to provide strong evidence, material solutions, and identify the long-lasting drivers of transition. Clearly, financial support is needed to support transition and the farmer income should be at the centre of the debate. Promoting the building of a strong value chain around mixed farms and landscapes is crucial, as well as assisting product marketing involving local producer associations and the social capital of specific locations. In landscapes that are suitable to transition to mixed systems, policies should foster collaboration, promote local synergies and create platforms and tools to facilitate interaction and farmer network building. This should be adapted to local contexts, which can be very specific for each mixed system. The advisory system (if funded by tax-payer money) must provide better technical solutions and promote knowledge transfer. It is also important to find and support the farmers who are transitioning or wish to transition (“light-house farms”). Support is also required for farm association leaders, distributors, advisors, who can influence others to start the change. 

Next steps  

Definitions are vital for setting goals, constructing policies and improving legislation. However, while the sister projects started by looking for a precise definition, they did not get to a clear definition for mixedness which is able to include the specificities of the diverse mixed systems that already exist in Europe or that can potentially exist. Maybe, a precise definition is not required as an open and evolving definition – made of general guiding principles about mixedness – has a strength. They agree, a shift in paradigm is needed to promote a co-learning process in which farmers, policymakers, researchers, advisors, and a whole range of actors come to a shared understanding. Top-down approaches are not appropriate for this kind of paradigm. Policy needs to provide tools in line with the mixedness principles and, at the same time, stay open to welcome bottom-up initiatives and novelties, by adapting appropriate schemes and regulations. 

The researchers from MIXED and AGROMIX concludes that it is important to accept that there are no fit-all solutions but we need to stay open to local specificities and diversity. An example is to update the land use classification to the new forms of agroforestry. By acting and learning, what we mean by mixedness will evolve and step by step, we may embrace mixedness as a normal way of farming. 

 *This article is a joint MIXED-AGROMIX production 

Discussions on the concept of "mixed" took place in a joint webinar.  

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