Social innovation in organic farming to revitalise rural areas

Article originally published in Spanish on Revista Agricultura Ecológica number 35.

Available in Spanish here.// Disponible en castellano aquí.

Traditionally, extensive farming[i] has been one of the activities that has fixed more population in disadvantaged rural areas in Europe and the Mediterranean. Moreover, it creates jobs and shapes most of our ecosystems. However, isolation and depopulation in these areas translate into the loss of their activities and the landscapes associated to it. That is why it is necessary to seek new practices that assure its social and economic sustainability.

In that sense, the European project SIMRA (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas)[ii] shows us some examples. This project aims to make progress in the understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in agriculture, silviculture and rural development and enhance implementation in disadvantaged rural areas in Europe and the Mediterranean. It also understands social innovation as “reconfiguration of social practices, answering social challenges, looking to improve well-being and involve civil society’s actors.”[iii]

Thus, it addresses research into new ways of involving the population of rural areas in protecting and improving quality of life and deal with social challenges that they face (depopulation and ageing, preservation of the environment and natural resources, generation of job opportunities, common resources governance…). Particularly, social innovation stands out as a strategy to care for the most vulnerable groups in rural areas (women, people with special needs, immigrants…). At the same time, environmental issues are dealt with and services that contribute to general well-being are provided. People from vulnerable groups are integrated and empowered through their participation in farm and forest work and technological advances have enabled old traditions in the cooperative management of common resources to be recovered and modernised. These are only some of the trends in social innovation that SIMRA has identified in European rural areas/rural European areas.

SIMRA has a database of examples of social innovation, with more than 350 experiences that include ten noteworthy examples of extensive farming or pastoralism.  Furthermore, these initiatives show environmental preservation, forest fire prevention, local development, entrepreneurship, service provision and social integration involving different types of actors (shepherd’s associations, businessmen, universities and research centres, NGOs and regional and local governments). Here are some examples:

Child interacting with calves in the farm where he is being taken care of. Photo: Mit Bäuerinnen lernen – wachsen – leben

-Mit Bäuerinnen lernen – wachsen – leben (English translation: “Learning, growing and living with female famers”) are a group of female extensive farmers from South Tyrol (Italy) who offer care for children and elders in their farms. This way, they diversify their income while promoting interaction between children, elders and nature. This group’s main objective is to make people conceive the farm as a place for education, moving away from classical environmental and nature education towards a direct integration with farming resources and nature as the main educative elements. This stimulates children’s curiosity about education and develops their awareness on environmental, sustainable and rural resources. Furthermore, this initiative guarantees a fundamental service in a mountain area where access to resources is limited.

-La Bêle Solution (English translation: “The bleat solution”) is a French initiative aiming to offering business parks an alternative to mowers for the maintenance of their green spaces: a flock of sheep. This initiative aims to achieve a more sustainable management of green spaces within business parks by reducing the carbon footprint, the noise pollution, the use of phytosanitary products and green waste.  Moreover, the flock is watched over by people with a disability, thus facilitating social inclusion of this vulnerable group.

Maintenance of a fire-break by directed shepherding.
Photo: Gonzalo Palomo (Mosaic Project)

-In Spain, the “Proyecto Mosaico” (English translation: “Mosaic Project”) seeks to prevent big fires through improved governance of abandoned common land in the province of Cáceres. To achieve this goal, the project promotes agroforestry practices and products thanks to the creation of a participatory network of new land administrators formed by farmers, agriculture workers, members of the regional government and municipalities, etc. After its great success in the first year of the project, it has attracted interests from new bodies that have also joined. The network aims to encourage, advise on and strengthen initiatives to provide land space for growing, farming and making forestry products available (e.g. creating productive fire-breaks), in order to do so, the network’s team carries out informative sessions, acting as a bridge between local and regional institutions. This initiative hosts more than 150 projects in more than 20,000 hectares of land and with the right management, can reduce the risks of fire, while anchoring the local population and attracting new inhabitants.

These are only a few examples showing that there is room for social innovation in the field of organic farming, this being a good strategy for the continued existence of farming in fragile rural areas and the social and local development  of rural communities living in these areas.

More information on:

[i] Organic farming is understood as part of extensive farming taking into account that factors required to consider ‘farming’ as ‘organic’ are varied and correspond to those of traditional “extensive livestock farming” and based on “pasture” as indicated in Diccionario de Pascología (Pasture science’s Diccionary) from Carlos Ferrer Benimeli (2016). [Diccionario de Pascología. Madrid, España: Fundación Conde del Valle de Salazar, ETSI Montes, Forestal y Medio Natural.]

[ii] Project funded for the research and innovation action programme Horizon 2020 according to the grant agreement 677622.

[iii] Polman, N, Slee, W., Kluvánková, T., Dijkshoorn, M., Niknik, M., Gezik, V., Soma. K. 2017. Classification of Social Innovations for Marginalised Rural Areas, Deliverable 2.1, Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA). Available:


Diana Valero (UHI-Perth)
Lucía López Marco (IAMZ-CIHEAM)





Translated by:

María San Juan y Marina González (IAMZ-CIHEAM)


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