The agricultural sector has the potential to contribute a number of social benefits over and above affordable produce.

BY JOACHIM PLAETNER KJELDSEN, Organic Denmark 

Countryside stewardship, social enterprises, civic engagement and the repopulation of rural districts are just some of the areas in which growers and farmers of the future can contribute wider societal benefits. This article outlines the Danish project ‘Det Samfundsnyttige Landbrug’ (‘Socially Beneficial Agriculture’), which is devising and describing sustainable agricultural models for Denmark’s future.  

Project: New sustainable business models for Danish agriculture

Grant: EUR 2.2 million from VILLUM FONDEN

Farming was once the economic backbone of Denmark. Now, while farming is still an essential source of foreign currency for Denmark, its exports are continuously diminishing. At the same time, Danish agriculture is under pressure from the ravages of a structural trend that has reduced the number of farms by 85 per cent in just half a century, while those that remain are vast in size and burdened by vaster debts. Efficiency improvements and the industrialisation of agriculture have put the countryside, the environment and animal welfare under pressure and resulted in large-scale holdings and debts, which make it virtually impossible for beginning farmers to buy into the sector. All of these adverse impacts are the result of the agricultural sector’s trends and consolidated structure and do not benefit society at large. 

Egholm Folkefarm was started by Thomas and Sissel. Egholm is an island in the Limfjord, a few minutes from Aalborg city centre, where the city dwellers share ownership and work ond the farm to produce their own local food.
Photo: Weltklasse.

How can we achieve a Danish agricultural sector that in the future will benefit society by doing more than supplying affordable produce? This question formed the basis for a large-scale development project on ‘Socially Beneficial Agriculture’ initiated two years ago by the national organic farming and food advocacy organisation, Organic Denmark, with funding from VILLUM FONDEN. An essential aim of the project has been to improve access for the next generation of organic farmers to the sector and to develop resources for solving society’s major challenges surrounding the countryside, protection of drinking water, depopulation and the social needs of citizens with mental, social or physical challenges. In practical terms, the project has worked with 11 cases: 11 widely differing organic grower/farmer enterprises and initiatives, each representing innovations in Danish agriculture. 

On Samsø, shares in the island’s land have been sold to the public with a guarantee that it would be leased to young organic farmers. In Northern Jutland, an organic grower and two beginning farmers have concluded Denmark’s first sharemilker agreement, a form of sharefarming in which the dairy farmers own their herds, but lease a stable and purchase feed from the grower. At Egholm Folkefarm, a ‘community- co-owned’ farm on the Limfjord island of Egholm, a few kilometres from Aalborg city centre, the city-dwellers co-own and work on the farm to produce their own foods. On the island of Funen, an organic retail nursery also serves as an employment centre for people on work-capacity clarification programmes, and just outside the city of Aarhus, a 45-hectare holding is being converted into an organic farm and social enterprise employer. The 11 cases represent a diverse range of innovative initiatives from generational change in farm ownership, financing and ownership structure to nature conservation, environmental protection and repopulation of rural districts. 

New alliances are key
Organic farms that do not use pesticides and medicate livestock less are intrinsically socially beneficial. But in addition, organic farms also have the potential to benefit society through better countryside ecology, civic engagement and employment, including for disadvantaged groups. of ‘Socially Beneficial Agriculture’ within Organic Denmark, one of the keys to achieving socially beneficial agriculture is new alliances between the various stakeholders who are directly and indirectly involved in growing and farming. 
“Cooperative ventures between growers/farmers, landowners, citizens and, for example, local authorities, are focal in creating new openings for setting up agricultural enterprises that solve challenges for the sector and for society. Social enterprise agriculture, countryside stewardship and sharefarming are examples of the new cooperative ventures”, says Lone Andreasen. 

Four bottom lines
The project focuses on networking and helping each of the 11 cases to facilitate new joint ventures, and with business and concept development. One project-wide theme is the ‘quadruple bottom line’ model: the financial, environmental, social and managerial bottom lines. The project gathers experience from the 11 cases on a dedicated website to serve as inspiration for others who might be interested in engaging in new agricultural businesses based on joint ventures. 

11 SOCIALLY BENEFICIAL AGRICULTURAL ENTERPRISES 

SamsØkologisk – an agricultural foundation in which Danes buy shares in organic farmland on the island of Samsø, the aim being to lease and sell to beginning organic farmers and to increase the share of organically farmed land on the island. 

Bundgård Sharemilker – sharefarming in which beginning dairy farmers lease existing buildings from a grower. 

Egholm Folkefarm – an island farm five minutes from Aalborg city centre in a cooperative between the farmer and a social enterprise that engages citizens at social enterprise workplaces and as shareholders. 

Hegnsholt Hønseri – a cooperative between a poultry farmer, citizens and restaurants on production of broiler chickens and eggs. 

Almende ApS – cooperative farmers allied with a pension company as the owner of land and buildings. 

Westergaards Planteskole – a retail nursery and social enterprise run jointly with the local authority benefitting citizens on work-capacity clarification programmes. 

Topkær Økologi – a farm undergoing conversion to organic farming and providing workplaces as a social enterprise.

Skyttes Gartneri – a Danish pioneer enterprise in organic growing has secured its future by transferring family ownership to a limited company and forming a cooperative venture with the neighbouring landowner. 

Livssalling – a cultural alliance of farmers to revive ten smallholdings in a cluster around the Thise Dairy. 

St. Vildmosens Naturgræsningsfællesskab IVS – a cooperative project between farmers and a state landowner on stewardship and conservation of unique natural features of Store Vildmose, one of the largest contiguous areas of raised bog in Denmark, and increased public access. 

Bisgaard Delelandbrug – a sharefarm to facilitate farm transfer. 

The project is also developing a strategic tool for socially beneficial agriculture – based on the four bottom lines. Another output is an online forum, where beginning and established farmers, citizens and others can interact and connect to form alliances, negotiate a farm transfer or jointly develop new agricultural enterprises. In addition to the 11 cases in the project, in autumn 2016, a networked development scheme was carried out with five new agricultural businesses. This included a drop-in centre for war veterans. 

National organic farming foundation 
One mission in the project is to develop a model for a national organic farming foundation, as a joint venture between citizens and agriculture stakeholders. The purpose of the foundation will be to acquire farmland and lease it to organic farmers and sharefarmers; both existing organic farmland and conventional farmland which will subsequently be converted to organic farming. /