Training sessions analysis of Vlaamse LandMaatschappij (VLM) - Leuven, Belgium

Structure Vlaamse LandMaatschappij (VLM)
Target group
  • Advisors
Duration 8 x half day (preparation tools : 2-6 days extra)
Preamble The modernisation of the agricultural system and the food system has, on the one hand, resulted in sufficient food being produced for a low price. On the other hand, this process has been accompanied by many negative side-effects for the environment, for people in general and, specifically, for the farmer. Today a lot of research is devoted to developing technologies and practices that make better use of external resources (resource efficiency). Agroecological innovation is, on the other hand, devoted to reducing the dependence of the agricultural system and the food system on external resources, by means of the (re)integration of natural and social processes — an ecological systems approach. Agroecology states therefore very clearly that ecological and socio-economic problems are linked and that there must be a joint approach. This approach, however, means that the farmer must acquire different competencies and knowledge (1). In order promote the development of a more sustainable agricultural system in Flanders; the Vlaamse Landmaatschappij (Flemish Land Agency) (VLM) engages advisors who assist the farmer in managing his farming operation in a sustainable manner. This support concerns giving advice on agro-environmental measures, creating a healthy soil structure and soil fertility, the use of manure, and information on current legislation. Due to their close contact with the farmer, advisors can play an important role in the dissemination of agroecological knowledge and practical experience. In order exercise this role optimally, the advisors must first acquire certain knowledge and must develop the required competencies. The training courses described below are intended to contribute to this. (1) From the reference study : Agro-ecologie als hefboom voor educatie voor duurzame land- and tuinbouw : doorlichting van actoren, aanbod, omkadering en aanbevelingen voor het beleid (Agro (ILVO iov LNE, 2016).
Principles of action The training course must take into account the work situation of the advisors. Apart from some training courses on legislation, there is no further opportunity for training. The advisor is immediately put to work with another advisor (which in itself can be considered a training). It is necessary to take into account that the time provided for training and education is limited and it is necessary to ensure that the nature of the training course is practice-oriented. The term “agroecology” is not familiar to farmers and is often interpreted in different ways. The training course is focused on understanding agroecology as an approach to farming rather than as a new form of agriculture. In order to perceive agroecology as an approach, it is important that the advisor can reason critically, is able to observe and analyse, can be creative and can observe the farmer and his farm management with any prejudice. It is important furthermore to understand why a farmer does something in a certain way and to empathize with the farmer and his way of thinking. An additional problem is that the advisor must establish a relationship of trust with the farmer. This is not self-evident given that farmers often perceive (government) advisors as representatives of official controlling bodies. There are only a few agroecological farmers in Flanders where advisors are active. To date, they work almost exclusively with conventional farmers. This aspect is taken into account in the training course.
Phases in the training pathway Three modules are distinguished: 1. Learning agroecology as an orienting concept The goal is to familiarise people with the concept of agroecology from different perspectives. To this end, a farming expert is engaged who can present the different perspectives based on scientific insight and the context within which the term has been created. It is not a question of a precise definition of the term, but rather of a guiding concept. After the presentation of the expert, small groups of advisors investigate in which way they encounter agroecology or aspects of it in their work situation. The other angle of approach is that of an agroecological farmer who has converted the concept into practice. By visiting the farmer, the advisors can observe the practices that are involved. During the visit, there is time allowed to examine these aspects critically in a group discussion. 2. Agroecology and the role of an advisor In this module the role that could be played by the advisor in disseminating knowledge and practical experience of agroecological farmers is examined in greater detail. On the one hand a “self-reflection moment” is organised in the form of a questionnaire to be filled in by the [?farmers?advisors] individually. They are asked questions about how they give advice to farmers. This questionnaire is anonymous so that advisors can give honest answers and can examine carefully their own attitude and actions when they visit the farmers. On the other hand there is a group discussion on the overall results of the questionnaire. The issue is taken one step further and the advisor is asked how he thinks he can disseminate the agroecological knowledge of the farmer that he perceives and what tools, methods or events would be necessary to achieve this. 3. Development and application of tools, methods and events in order to communicate or disseminate the agroecological knowledge and the practical experience of farmers. In this module tools are developed by the advisors and then tested by them or applied in practice. One of the first tools to be developed was a brief video of a sustainable agricultural practice with the commentary of the farmer. The methodology used for making the video is based on the methodology of entretien d’autoconfrontation (self-controntation) as described by Theureau (2). This tool serves, on the one hand, to observe precisely what the farmer is doing and, on the other hand, with the help of the commentary (after viewing the images as presented by the farmer) to understand precisely why the farmer does this. With the application of this methodology it is possible to demonstrate the underlying motives of the farmer. For it is important to identify these motives in order to be able to communicate the practice effectively among other farmers. A second tool to be developed was the establishment of a network of farmers. This tool assumes that farmers learn far better by simply visiting a fellow farmer and discussing the practical aspects between themselves. Advisors can prepare and facilitate such meetings, e.g. by making appointments with the farmer to be visited, preparing themes with questions, or making a report. A third tool or, in this case, event is the bringing together of farmers, advisors, citizens, experts, and NGOs in order to demonstrate agricultural practices and then discuss these from different perspectives. This gives a broader picture of agroecological practice and, moreover, ensures a better mutual understanding and for a possible collaboration between the aforementioned groups. (2)'autoconfrontation.
Observed interest of the training process There exist highly divergent interpretations and opinions concerning the term “agroecology” among the advisors (but also among experts, policy makers,…). They also admitted that farmers are not familiar with this concept and the term can better be avoided in order that no ‘friction’ is created between the advisor and the farmer. The group discussions resulted in interesting exchanges. (Some) advisors experienced these discussions as congenial, promoting a critical consideration of their manner of working or of certain agricultural practices. Advisors undervalue the role that they could play in communicating (agroecological) knowledge and practices.
Limits and difficulties encountered Due to the overfull agendas of the advisors it was very difficult to include them in the training modules. The development of the ‘video’ tool cost more time than anticipated(due mainly to the time taken to assemble the correct images and text). The development of the tool ‘network of farmers’ was complicated by the fact that the advisors were informed that they would no longer be allowed to work as advisors for the organisation. The motivation to continue to work with the project decreased immediately. The organisation of an event concerning agroecological practice based on different perspectives requires the involvement of a lot of people. Contacting these people and persuading them to participate takes a lot of time. The successful involvement of advisors in the process depends to a large degree on their motivation and the time at their disposal.
Recommendations Involve people with different profiles and viewpoints, this enriches the process considerably. It is recommended that advisors who participate only a few times a year in a half-day training course are kept updated, or informed of the progress of the training courses. Otherwise they lose a part of the link with the training.
Speakers Ronny Aerts, Pierre Stassart, Bavo Verwimp, Davy Noelmans, Sylvie Fosselle
Contact email

Location of the training session

Adress Diestsepoort 6
Post code 3000
City Leuven
Country Belgium