AGRILINK – Challenges before launching the Living Lab

In the previous blog post I presented the research work I completed about Romanian advisory services, both public and private. Now for the context of the Romanian Living Lab, to reflect on challenges at the start of this adventure.

Romania has a weak and fragmented AKIS and with the dismantling of ANCA (National Agency for Agricultural Consultancy) the small farmers were left with virtually no advisory support. Private (as opposed to state-provided) advice they receive is sporadic, time-limited, mainly provided by NGOs; private consultants, albeit competitive, cannot tailor their offer to these beneficiaries. Collaboration between farmers and public institutions is a rather tense partnership, given the lack of expertise and reciprocal understanding.

There are some 3.9 million holdings in Romania of which 3.6 million (93%) are small-scale (less than 5 ha) subsistence and semi-subsistence holdings farming 30% of the utilised agricultural area (UAA). A significant number of subsistence and semi-subsistence farms – especially in a mountainous / sub-mountainous region such as Transylvania – are also responsible for creating and managing large areas of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland.  These HNV areas are an important component of both Romanian and European agriculture, not only for the conservation of farmland biodiversity and traditional landscapes, but also for cultural heritage, quality products, rural tourism development and local job creation.  

Various economic and social factors continue to threaten the future of small-scale farming in Romania. Small farms are lost every year, as parents fail to hand on their farms to their children, partly since the younger generation can do better by leaving to work on Western farms. There is a pronounced tendency towards land consolidation, with allegations of land grabbing. The remaining farming population struggles, with a lack of proper medical, social and educational services locally. Agricultural secondary education has abruptly regressed – both in numbers of educational units but also quality. In 2010, according to a study of Romanian Centre for Public Policy (only 2.5% of farm managers had any formal education in the field (compared to 7.3% in 2005, well below the European average of 29.6%). On top of that, only 7.27 % of farm managers are young (under 35) (see National Program for Rural Development, page 112).

This is quite a paradox, isn’t it? Having the EU’s largest population engaged with agriculture and HNV farmland, but with no public support to help communities maintain their incredibly valuable skills, hard work and ecological assets?

On top of this, structure to help agricultural / rural innovation is poorly developed in Romania.  Some elements of the EIP-AGRI (support for innovation brokers and operational groups) were put into the 2014-2020 National Rural Development Programme, but putting them into practice is slow, and initial uptake will inevitably be low.

Still, against this gloomy background the demand for local produce is slowly but steadily growing. This is partially due to the law (321/2009) that obliges retailers to acquire 51% of meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, honey, dairy and bakery products from direct partnerships, while taking note of changing consumer preferences. There are some successful examples of urban entrepreneurs investing in agriculture or actually making the switch to agriculture with a focus on quality and niche products. Still, these examples are more a sign of individual bravery than of broader market development. Associations are on the rise as producers come to understand the value of representation and group negotiations.

Our Living Lab will need to find its way within this context. In the initial project proposal we were aiming to set up six Village Laboratories to foster interactive innovation; but given the results of my research into advisory services last autumn, we are thinking about broadening our reach. There are many sources of information to which the farmer cannot get access, and we want to build up a national platform to cut information costs for them – a place to find the most important data. This platform will also encourage peer2peer discussion, not just to learn more from each other, but to give farmers the chance to hear from key experts and to talk to them directly.

Cosmina Dinu, Highclere Consulting

Explanatory note

The aim of the AgriLink Living Labs is to develop and test improved innovation support services with potential to stimulate the transition to more sustainable forms of agriculture. We assume that doing this in a Living Lab (real life) setting, which involves stakeholders and end users in a co-creation process, leads to better results. We also assume that a number of different tools and methods can enhance the process and support Living Labs.