Experiences from multifunctional farming in Europe

1. Multifunctional Farms in Europe


Within the SEMA project 27 case studies from 7 countries were collected. They portray a great variety of approaches to multifunctional agriculture and represent parts of diversity within the European agricultural sector. What most case studies have in common is the fact that the majority of farmers opted for a multifunctional approach as a reaction to the current conditions in agriculture. The productivist model of agriculture, which allows only the most efficient farms to survive, challenges especially small and midsize farms without the ability to achieve economies of scale. As these case studies show, multifunctional agriculture is not only a descriptive concept and theoretical alternative. The SEMA project provides practical examples of multifunctional farms from Europe, which cope with the challenges of the productivist model. The case studies show portray actual enterprises in agriculture and their strategy or multifunctional activities.

Following Van der Ploeg and Roep[1] we think of multifunctionality in terms of regrounding, deepening and broadening:

  • Regrounding: Entrepreneurs try to mobilize existing resources to reduce costs and generate (off-farm/additional) income, e.g. offering additional services to increase utilization rate of existing infrastructure, equipment or machinery.
  • Deepening: Entrepreneurs change the production chain to generate increase added-value, e.g. by specialization in specific sectors, e.g. technical crops, berries, organic farming etc.
  • Broadening: Expanding the share of the added-value chain or developing new products related or outside the agricultural sector, e.g. processing of products or resources, direct marketing etc.

[1] Van Der Ploeg J.D. e Roep D. (2003) Multifunctionality and rural development: the actual situation in Europe, in Van Huylenbroeck G., Durand G. (eds.), Multifunctional Agriculture. A new paradigm for European agriculture and Rural Development, Ashgate, Burlington, VT (USA) e Aldershot (UK).


2. Approaches to Multifunctional Farming in Europe


Most of the presented cases show not only one but a combination of two or all three strategies. Leaving aside crops, it became also clear that most European farmers develop niches in only three business segments: agri-tourism, direct marketing, and food processing.

Agri-tourism can be the umbrella for various forms of services for guests and visitors offering them the opportunity to learn about the production of food or regional culture as well as providing them with leisure time activities from horse riding to hunting among others. Often these activities are combined with a form of accommodation. Rooms or apartments for rent can be included in existing buildings, if they are underused, which reduces the overall costs of such an activity. Offering guests and visitors the opportunity to experience „farm life“ and the „origin of food“ is not only valuable for tourists or guests but can also contribute to the authenticity of products and build trust for direct marketing activities.

As the case studies show, direct marketing offers those farms a great business opportunity, which can offer traditional, regional, and manually produced goods. As these products may be very unique it is important to approach the right target group. Successfully used are marketing traditional marketing channels from like a store on the farm or selling or regional fairs or farmer‘s markets. In addition the internet is a new marketing channel that becomes increasingly important. Social Media platforms or a webstore offer farmers the direct contact to customers across distances. Especially a younger, technically oriented target group, which is interested in sustainably or regionally produced food can be approached using the internet.

Food processing is another very popular strategy. It allows farms to increase the added-value and is often found in combination with direct marketing approaches. Food processing covers different interests of customers from a bigger product variety to products with a higher storage life. Convenience food such das canned products, frozen vegetables but in the same time manually produced jams, cheese, or meet products of high quality are increasing in demand in many European regions.


3. Skills for Multifunctional Agriculture


Know-how is the precondition for a successful business in multifunctional agriculture. Existing skills put at work and constant learning link most SEMA case studies. Also newcomers to agriculture can successfully develop a new business. They often bring some experience from their previous work to the new endeavour that contributes to the success of the new enterprise, e.g. marketing skills gained at a job outside of agriculture. Constant learning about new techniques, and new market developments are important to know how to improve the existing activities. It also allows to evaluate new business opportunities for the own enterprise.

In addition to vocational training many portrayed farmers attend courses for their professional development. Agricultural associations or regional service centers for agriculture provide courses on very specific topics necessary for preparing farmers to introduce new activities and e.g. diversify their business. But they also provide training regarding generally important entrepreneurial skills such as marketing, business planning etc. These services are often needed and used by the farmers portrayed in the SEMA case studies.

But as no one can know everything. A significant amount of farmers used consultancy services to develop their enterprise. Especially in cases where a new field of business was opened up, advisors helped to develop the business concept and business plan. Consultants also play an important role in the introduction of new processes, technics or services. Their knowledge helps farmers establish up-to-date operating procedures for successful business management.


4. Financing Multifunctional Agriculture


The vast majority of SEMA case studies, entrepreneurs needed the loan of a bank to develop their business. A well-developed business plan is a precondition for the support of banks. The second biggest source for outside capital were funding programs. These programs exist on various levels and include EU-funding as well as national or regional support for agricultural and entrepreneurial activities. Agricultural associations and advisory services often provide an overview of existing programs in the field of agriculture, diversification or regional/entrepreneurial development. The SEMA case studies also show that in some cases these organisations successfully supported complex application processes.


5. Establishing Multifunctional Agriculture


The first step to developing a multifunctional approach was the availability of resources or the discovery of a market gap. This combined with the desire of the entrepreneur to change existing work processes often led to the establishment of a multifunctional activity. Resources for a multifunctional approach can be found on most farms, such as underused buildings, the own products, which can be processed, or knowledge and experiences that can be shared with visitors. The portrayed entrepreneurs were all very creative with their resources. Often they were developing their business idea in close contact and exchange with other people. Critical feedback and additional information can help to find out what customers want. Friends, family but also advisors and other can help to point entrepreneurs into the right direction defining products, markets, and target groups.

The case studies also show the relevance or potential of collaborations between entrepreneurs. Joining forces means additional benefits from sharing resources (e.g. marketing). It can also mean that a consortium of entrepreneurs can increasing the amount and/or the variety of products. In doing so, they become much more interesting for the retail sector as well as consumers.


6. Multifunctional Agriculture – A Successful Strategy for Farmers


The examples show that agriculture needs to be thought beyond the provision of food and fibre. Multifunctional approaches not only offer pathways to an economic survival of farms but also contribute to the provision of social and ecological beneficial outcomes from agriculture.

The various forms of multifunctional agriculture can be inspiration. The SEMA case studies present business cases that work. The offer other entrepreneurs the opportunity to transfer the portrayed approach or parts of it into another context. The SEMA consortium encourages to critically engage with the case study content to extract relevant lessons and experiences. This is the opportunity to learn from other European farmers.

In addition the SEMA mentoring platform offers an attractive alternative in case the exchange of experience with entrepreneurs from agriculture and related fields is wanted. Basic information regarding a mentoring process and how to sign up to the platform can be found here: http://sema-project.eu/basicinfo. Additional sources for training can be found on the SEMA training platform, which provides an interactive introduction to entrepreneurial skills (http://sema-project.eu/training-material?language=en).


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