As the role of technology increases in farming and food, and corporate powers use this to extend their power, we need to strive for technological developments that are appropriate for farmers, for eaters and for the planet. Welcome to #AgTechTakeback.
ARC2020 and IATP are seeking informed opinions on this topic in September and October 2018, as we run our #AgTechTakeback debate. Interested in contributing an article? Email oliver[at]arc2020.eu
L’Atelier Paysan is French non profit cooperative. We started in 2009 in South of France as project with a group of organic farmers dealing with a new global appropriation of farm technology.
Based on the principle that farmers are themselves innovators, we have been collaboratively developing methods and practices to reclaim farming skills, achieve self-sufficiency and a technical sovereignty in relation to the tools and machinery used in organic farming.
Our goal is to make farmers imagine, and collectively create, adequate equipment and the means of production on the farm. This is in contrast to a trajectory of over-investment, over-indebtedness and over-sizing.
We believe we can make technical choices and invent sophisticated low tech solutions. We don’t want to be overwhelmed by trendy, plug-and-play and miraculous high-tech tools that will only make us more dependent, will be more intrusive and less controllable.
In 2011, we set ourselves up as a staffed organisation working to promote farm-based inventions. Our aim was to collectively develop new technological solutions adapted to small-scale farming, and to make these skills and ideas widely available through courses and educational materials.
We have also been offering resources and guidance to farmer-driven projects involving the building or renovation of agricultural buildings.
We have five trucks equipped with the machinery and materials we need to run about 80 practical training courses on farms and workshops across France per year.
More than 2.000 farmers have participated in our workshops in six years. We provide advice and guidance for small-scale farmers on agricultural tools tailored to their needs, and accompany them through the trials and tribulations of their farming journey, individually or collectively, whatever their area of production – be it no till, direct seeding, processing tools, tractor, horse or hand power.
The development of tools and self-built machinery adapted to small-scale farming is a technological, economic and cultural instrument which has been little explored within agricultural development in France, although it can provide a significant impact on the growth of organic farming and contribute to improving organic farming practices.
Supporting farmer-led research and development In France, like every country where agriculture is kind of a mining industry, technological practices and tools are mainly driven by the agro-industry, and correspond to its particular needs. Farms are somehow a substrate that nurture the profitability of a whole industry that capture most of the value.
Farms and farmers are involved in a strong path dependency to a socio-technical system. After decades of over mechanization and specialization, the new promise now is robotics and digital technologies. These will supposedly allow to us get rid of labour and vernacular farmers skills and decision making. This process is likely to continue, until farmers using these technological practices which are not tailored to their real needs, reassert ownership of the system-wide design of their farms.
We know that small-scale farmers are well placed to provide appropriate solutions to the challenges within agricultural development. What’s more, in groups and networks, or with the support of a technical advisor, farmers can collectively develop solutions which are adapted to their own needs.
We believe that technological practices need to be made with/by/for farmers, and that technology needs to be collectively reclaimed to serve those who use it. We recognise the importance of social and technical farmer networks, both for production and knowledge-sharing.
On farm innovations
We identify and document inventions and adaptations of tools, created by farmers who have not waited for ready-made solutions from experts or the industry, but have invented or tweaked their own machinery. We seek to promote these farmer-driven innovations. Our internet forum, which acts like a collective sketch-book, is designed to make these contributions visible and accessible.
Farmer-led initiatives are gathered by our team and compiled into technical factsheets with photos, videos and testimonies documenting the tools and infrastructure developed by farmers. More than 800 technical factsheets have already been compiled and are freely available.
A collective approach—Farmers working with engineers to design replicable machinery
We are also equipped to support and assist working groups who wish to develop tools adapted to their agricultural practices. Together, we compile a specification sheet for the tool we want to create. L’Atelier Paysan has a team of five to six mechanical engineers. This team can facilitate sessions with farmers and, employing their engineering skills and the use of computer aided programmes. We produce a draft design which is then corrected by the working group. After a feedback and responses, we begin prototyping.
Depending on the tool, prototyping can involve a training course where the group can learn or build on their metal working skills. The
prototype is then tested on farms and further design developments are made.
This expertise is essential in order to develop designs which can be replicated by anyone, using only metal bars and standard parts available in any hardware store as raw materials. Once the group has reached a consensus on the final design, Atelier Paysan can produce an open source design and begin to disseminate the tool through workshops and training courses. You can find on our website more than 50 tools with blueprints available.
Leading training sessions to create self-sufficient farming systems
We provide training courses for farmers to learn to make their own tools. In the course of 3 to 5 days, agricultural tools are created in the workshop. We rent workshop spaces across France where we organise training courses in response to the needs that have been voiced in that local area. Every participant in the course, whatever their level of expertise, is involved in the different stages of the tool’s creation, from drilling to cutting and welding. At the end of the course, those who wish to can pay for the costs of the raw materials and leave with a finished tool that they can go on to use on their holdings.
As well as building a tool, farmers gain in autonomy as they learn metal work. A farmer who has built rather than bought his/her tool is better placed to repair or adapt it in future. We have witnessed how the development of farmer-driven technologies and workshops allow farmers to gain skills and confidence, and engage in discussion on appropriate farm machinery.