Name of organisation
Pajottenland, Vlaams Brabant, Belgium
Type of organisation
Farmers’ cereal collective
Brewery; organic grains; short food supply chain; agroecology; fair price; heritage cereals
Who is Granennetwerk Pajottenland?
The Granennetwerk is a collaboration between Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen and a group of 10 to 15 local farmers. As hardly any Belgian brewer uses local cereals, this initiative seeks to shorten and strengthen the link between farmer and brewer. Trust, respect, autonomy, knowledge exchange, organic and agro-ecological practices and collaboration are key in this network, as well as the search for and participatory selection of locally adapted landraces of cereals, best suited both for the farmers as for the brewers. Together members of the network developed a new and innovative fair pricing and risk sharing model in order to ensure a long-term relationship that gives perspective and stability to the farmers. Every actor is heard and can take active part in discussions and decision making.
Who does the Granennetwerk work with and how do they do it?
The primary collaboration takes place amongst the farmers of the Granennetwerk and the 3 Fonteinen brewery. However other forms of collaboration are always possible and every farmer has his/her own interaction and collaborations. In addition, there is room to enlarge the network and include other partners such as brewers, bakers, mills and malters. At the moment the focus is on scaling-out instead of scaling-up. The network puts efforts into informing, exchanging, learning from and inspiring other initiatives so as to develop further and learn from its mistakes.
What are the Granennetwerk main challenges?
One of the major lock-ins remaining between farmer and brewer are the malting plants. In the old days a lot of towns had their own malthouse, but nowadays the Belgian market is dominated by just a few large-scale industrial malting plants who produce for the world market at the lowest price. They do not have the flexibility, nor the ambition to malt small batches of locally produced grains. They prefer to process huge amounts of standardised cereals, and are less keen on processing smaller amounts of heritage cereals, which are less predictable in the malt they produce. The network would largely benefit from having a small-scale, ecologically oriented malthouse it could collaborate with. However, developing its own mico-maltery is no easy job and requires some investment.
Another challenge is to raise awareness about price setting. Most processors and consumers are used to world market prices and not always willing to pay more for local and fair products. Therefore more communication is needed so that all different actors within one sector can better understand the reality and production methods of one another.
A third challenge relates to ensuring farmers’ voices are prioritised. Granennetwerk has created a space and process which ensures that farmers’ voices are heard and prioritised in decision making and in planning. However, ensuring the strong voice and meaningful participation of farmers in platforms and processes when other actors are involved is a challenge. Further formalising the structure of the network to a cooperative or a similar structure is being explored to strengthen collaboration and joint decision-making.
In addition to a formalised business structure, there is a need for support structures. This includes the need to expand the development of small-scale malteries that are willing to malt small batches of non-standard cereals. Studies on the work of the Granennetwerk and the production of the old varieties of cereals would also support and validate the work of the farmers, backing up with research and scientific data the impact and the benefits of the work they are doing for the preservation of healthy soils and climate. The network is really pioneering and to a large degree experimenting with reintroducing old varieties of cereals but has little time to take extensive notes and study the outcomes of its work. Its innovative approach to internal governance and ways of organising would also benefit from being better documented. .
A final concern relates to the transition to organic farming methods and to organic certification. Two issues are worth highlighting here. First, it is difficult to encourage conventional farmers to make the transition towards ecologically sound farming methods. This is despite the fact that cereals are an excellent crop to start the journey with, to experiment and to use in rotation plans. Making the transition is hard and should get more support.
Second, it is difficult to involve and collaborate with farmers who produce cereals in an agroecological way, but who don’t (yet) have organic certification. Since the brewery applied for the BIO-label, it has had to let go of some of the organic farmers who didn’t have the label, but were happy to produce cereals in an organic way and sell them to the network. The BIO-label that is used for organic Belgian products is very time consuming to obtain. Organic producers who don’t have certification will find it hard to sell their crop, or will need to have the consumers’ trust (e.g. through their on the farm shop) or a good working relationship with a processor, like the brewery.
What are the priorities for the Granennetwerk?
The following priorities have been identified by the Granennetwerk:
- Finding ways to involve conventional farmers and help them make the shift towards agroecological (or organic) farming
- Addressing the need for/establishing a small-scale, ecological malthouse
- Redefining cereal quality
- criteria specifically adapted to the needs of the brewery and the situation at the farms of the network
- Addressing the generational conflict between older farmers (who are usually more into conventional farming methods, who invested heavily into their farms) and younger farmers (who are more willing to make a shift to agroecological methods)
- Formalising the structures of the network (e.g.. becoming a coop)
- Document the work the farmers are doing through academic research and studies
- Need for guidance in how to deal with the new organic seed legislation and how to register landraces used as Organic Heterogenous Material