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Recently, the development of organic farming has been made possible by livestock production (baars, 1998). As a result, the most common organic farming system in Europe was based on a large share of fodder crops in rotation, in combination with animal production (Olesen et al, 1998).

Nonetheless, the large demand on organic cereals (Sylvander, 1992), associated with both the development of organic production, thanks to their image of being environmentally friendly practices and the setting up of a public compensation payment system (Lampkin, 1996) create a favourable context to promote an arable farming system. Consequently, conversion to a specialized arable farming system is expected to increase.

Arable farming systems (AFS) will be faced with technical problems such as nitrogen management (David, 1997) and weed control (Thomas et al, 1994), which affect economic viability. Therefore, there seems to be a need for further research, concepts and tools, to enhance conversion and develop a sustainable system.

After a rapid description of arable farming systems in Europe, this introductive paper raises again a state-of-the-art in research on organic arable farming. Finally, the research methodologies will be discussed.


Over the last ten years, the fast growing market for organic cereals has created a favourable situation for specialized arable farming systems.

The earliest organic cereals have been produced by mixed farms. However, the use of imported fertilizers led to further intensification and specialization and induced development of arable farming systems.

In order to respond to the large demand of organic cereals, arable farming systems were recently converted into organic farming systems. Nonetheless, this recent development was divided between country and region, because of climate conditions and agricultural context. Thus, four AFS could be identified.

Table 1. Main characteristics of arable farming systems in Europe




Input Use


% Green Manure
or leguminous


Nitrogen Input

Mixed Farming Systems

  • 50% Leguminous, Fodder crops
  • 50% Cereals

  • Low

    40 - 50%


    North, European
    Arable Farming Systems

  • 40% Cereals
  • 20% Potatoes, Sugar beet

  • Medium


    0 - 80 u N/ha

    Mediterranean Arable Farming Systems

  • < 30% Annual leguminous
  • Cereals

  • Medium


    0 - 150 u N/ha

    Large-scale Arable Farming Systems

  • 40% Cereals
  • 20% Potatoes, Sugar beet

  • Low


    0-50 u N/ha

    in David et al, 1998

    Mixed Farming Systems

    Usually developed in a temperate climate [Western Europe i.e. United Kingdom], these systems are based on a large share of fodder crops (more than 40 percent of the area) in combination with cereals. Within a long rotation (i.e. eight to ten years), cereals are grown after preceding crops such as leguminous, fertilized with farmyard manure. Animal production is reduced (lower than 20 livestock units), composed of dairy, beef or sheep production. The economic viability is ensured by a low level of inputs, self sufficiency and insertion of farm in viable processing and marketing networks thanks to links with livestock farming.

    North European Arable Farming Systems

    Mostly represented in the North European countries (i.e. Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands), this farming system had followed up the intensification and specialization observed in conventional agriculture. This specialization process has been possible thanks to the flexible norms for organic farming, particularly with regard to manure inputs and the external cultivation of roughage and concentrates (Baars, 1998).

    In theses farms, there is currently a move towards high profit crops (i.e. potatoes, sugar beet) grown in short rotations (i.e. three to four years), without any place for Nitrogen fixing and soil improving crops as clover grass. All compensation for mineral off-take and/or loss of organic soil matter, takes place in the form of manure inputs derived from livestock organic farms.

    The impact of nitrogen into organic farms in the form of artificial fertilizer is prohibited or restricted by organic production standards (EC Ref. 2092/91). Nonetheless, off-farm organic fertilizers (i.e. guano-vinasse) are used to some extent despite large fertilization costs (Von Fragstein et al, 1998).

    Mediterranean Arable Farming Systems

    Based on the use of irrigation, cereals (i.e. winter wheat, maize, sunflower) and grain legumes (i.e. soya bean, chick peas) are grown on farms. The maintenance of adequate levels of plant production and soil organic nitrogen sources largely depends on both 'fertility building' by nitrogen fixing leguminous and off-farm nitrogen sources (farm yard manure, organic fertilizers). The appearance of these systems has been made possible thanks to public funds from CAP Reform (direct payment on cereals and oilseed crops) and conversion aid with the accompanying measures (Lampkin and Padel, 1994) completed with interesting sale price levels.

    Large-scale Western Arable Farming System

    Recently, new arable farming systems have been set up on a large scale in areas with available land. Mostly represented in Eastern European countries, these systems are based on restrictive use of inputs, low fix costs and extensive crop production. Therefore, the use of farm yard manure from conventional livestock farms will make possible further intensification (Kovac et al, 1998).

    Due to the appearance of novel arable farming systems, it can be expected that technical problems could appear, thereby affecting the profitability of such specialized systems. Faced with new questions, it is important to focus on the role of research and determine the needs of increased research attention with special emphasis on research methodologies.


    Despite diversity within arable farming systems, these systems are faced with various agronomic problems.

    Nitrogen Management (Von Fragstein, 1998; David, 1997)

    In arable farming, farmers extended or even fully substituted the use of farm yard manure and leguminous by manufactured fertilizers, in spite of large fertilization costs. Thus, the amount of N required often exceeds the amount of N imported, resulting in a negative N budget for the crop (Patriquin, 1986). Consequently, nitrogen deficiencies affect yields and quality.

    Weed Control

    Effective weed control is difficult in arable farming (Rasmussen, 1996). By a low share of forage crops and short rotation, perennial weeds are spread over time (Bulson et al, 1997) which induces, in the long-term, a decreasing yield.

    Soil Degradation

    A low proportion of soil improving crops, the existence of intensive cropping practices (e.g. on maize, sugar beet, potatoes) and the low use of farm yard manure, lead to significant soil degradation, particularly in sandy soil and clay soil.

    Plant Protection

    Pests and diseases in cereals are facilitated by short rotation, intensive nitrogen input and sparse crop architecture. Moreover, the large build up of predatory beetles and spiders that occurs in permanent perennial legumes is reduced (Clements and Donaldson, 1998). Pests and diseases should be controlled through preventive methods as mixing varieties, long-term rotations, row spacing and insertion of break crops.

    Water Resource Availability

    Besides climatic growth factors, water is essential for plant growth and development (Elhers, 1997). In the conditions of restricted water supply, the competitive strength of organic farming to conventional farming will be increased with respect to yield and water use efficiency. However, the viability of Mediterranean AFS depends on water and fertilization use efficiency which is influenced by cultural intensity and farmer practices.

    Economic Viability

    Organic farming is usually considered to be a risky alternative method of agriculture. In an arable farming system, farmers should take into account non-profit crops and rarely low harvest thanks to technical problems. As a consequence, such systems require economic viability, provided by high selling prices and the strength of the processing and marketing network. Moreover, on arable farms, adaptations are necessary to achieve collaboration among arable and livestock farming systems.

    In order to solve technical and economic problems and ensure sustainability, research and advisory systems have to give further solutions and develop novel methods to encourage knowledge transfer.


    Agronomic Problems and Solutions - A Need for Further Resources

    Höök (in Wynen, 1997) mentions that in the 1980s the emphasis was on solving short-term production problems. Historically, organic farming has been a bottom-up movement driven by farmers and later on stimulated by state support and market forces. Therefore, applied technical research has been and still is, favoured by farmers (Niggli and Lockeretz, 1996).

    For the last 30 years, research and extension activities in organic farming have been carried out by specialized research teams amongst whom private research stations, founded in Northern European Countries (Wynen, 1997) played a large role. Research has mostly been developed over a long-term period (i.e. Oberwill & Rodale experiments).

    Researchers mainly concentrated on livestock and mixed farming systems. As a result, research has been directed to:

    Nevertheless, recent research on arable farming has been carried out. The main themes which were investigated are:

    Specific problems such as the control of perennial species in crop rotation with a high proportion of cereals and soil degradation, have not been developed recently.

    Little attention has been paid to improving nitrogen management on cereals by the introduction of off-farm sources. Recommendations restricting the use of off-farm sources have been introduced to minimize nitrogen fluxes to the hydrological environment (Kristensen et al, 1995). Hence, organic cereals obtained a low baking quality thanks to nitrogen deficiency (Peltonen, 1993).

    Wynen's report (Expert roundtable FAO, Braunschweig 1997) focused on the need for further research. As a conclusion, this requirement could be reinforced with need for specific references adapted to arable farming systems.

    Basic and Applied Research: Conflicts or Complementary

    Applied research is generally carried out by those who have producers as their clients, for example, farmers' organizations, private research stations. Basic research can be carried out in places such as universities, where there is relatively little direct contact with farmers and often better equipment and research facilities. (From Wynen's Report "Expert Roundtable", FAO, Braunschweig 1997).

    Basic research is partly considered as a means to enhance the researchers' reputations among their peers (Niggli and Lockeretz, 1996).

    Wynen underlined conflict between basic and applied research. Niggli and Lockeretz criticized the role of basic research and recommended the development of holistic approach. Nonetheless, a subject such as plant protection needs further basic knowledge, which requires experiments.

    In conclusion, researchers have to precisely analyse the needs of basic research and to establish a top-down approach which allows rapid transfer of technology.


    At present, resources are allocated to fund experimental research in organic farming. Nonetheless, new methods were recently built up to facilitate the transfer of knowledge between researchers and farmers, by a simultaneous top-down and bottom-up process.

    Role of On-farm Research

    On-farm survey has been developed in England, France and The Netherlands. For example in France, ISARA has set up a research programme on arable farming:

    A survey has been carried out in organic and converted farms. In the same way, on-farm trials were set up on selected fields (selected in each farm according to their semi-permanent characteristics (soil-cropping system practices) (David et al, 1996) to improve:

    As a result, the combination of agronomic monitoring and multifarious/multicoated trials was of undeniable interests. It made it possible to detect relevant practices and testing feasibility of such practices under diverse soil and climate conditions. Furthermore, farm diagnosis and follow-up made it possible to evaluate the feasibility to integrate on the farm new, but already tested management skills.

    Role of the Participatory Approach

    Organic farming development is qualified as a bottom-up movement thanks to the role of 'pioneer' organic farmers in the establishment and dissemination of new management skills and techniques. As a result, researchers should rely on farmers' needs and develop dialogue.

    In France, The Netherlands and Spain, testing of the participatory approach has begun. Farmers' participation cannot be limited to providing information and to verifying the suitability of scientists' technologies or development projects. Researchers have to participate in the project of farmers, in a symmetric manner in order to spread active learning methods and make them widely available.


    In spite of the need of a holistic approach (Niggli and Lockeretz, 1996), there is a certain risk that with the complex and often time-consuming approach one loses ones way in a research project. Researchers still have to define main objectives and issues to facilitate technical and economic viability. In this workshop, actors should establish future collaboration among scientists on integrating and harmonizing current research methods in organic farming. Cooperation and discussion between researchers, farmers and politics should then be enhanced.


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