Living Lab: Looking differently at sustainable maize cultivation together

Province of Noord-Brabant, the Netherlands & Flanders, Belgium

Province of Noord-Brabant, the Netherlands & Flanders, Belgium

The aim of the Dutch Belgian living Lab is to contribute to more sustainable maize cultivation, creating awareness among farmers with respect to nitrate leaching and the individual influence of each farmer and enabling farmers to improve their maize cultivation.

PROAKIS findings say that the Dutch AKIS is a very dynamic system, presenting private extension services with direct payments from farmers, coupled with state funding for research and for improving different forms of Public Private Partnership and actors networking.

In the region, agriculture consist of intensive livestock production with some dairy farming in combination with arable farming and horticulture. In this context maize is an important feed crop in dairy farming. Many dairy farmers use contractors to take care of the cultivation of maize. Advisory services on maize cultivation are provided by Agrifirm, independent advisors and contractors.

Theme and target group

The theme of the Living Lab is the sustainable maize cultivation.

The main stakeholders in the Living Lab are farmers, advisors and contractors involved in maize cultivation in the south east of the Netherlands. More specifically, we are working with the stakeholders involved in the project ‘Grondig Boeren met Mais’.

Due to changes in legislation and public perception the sense of urgency to improve the sustainability of maize cultivation has increased considerably over the last years. However substantial uncertainty and divergence exists over upcoming legislation, the relations between stakeholders, farmers’ effect on water quality and the feasibility of solutions.

In this field it is the purpose of the Dutch-Belgium living lab to develop innovation support services and tools that supports the ability and willingness of farmers to engage in more sustainable maize production. The Living Lab aims to contribute to the following changes in the perspective of farmers, advisors and contractors: Short term production to long term farm management, general farm solutions to field specific solutions and to broaden the perspective from maize cultivation to sustainable feed production.

Aim of the Living Lab

The aim of the Dutch Belgian living Lab is to contribute to more sustainable maize cultivation, creating awareness among farmers with respect to nitrate leaching and the individual influence of each farmer and enabling farmers to improve their maize cultivation.

Partner and responsible person contact

Wageningen University and Research

Jorieke Potters, jorieke.potters@wur.nl

Both Wageningen UR and Innovatiesteunpunt have plenty experience in supporting farmers and others actors in the agricultural chain in realizing more sustainable production.



Melanie van Raaij, melanie.van.raaij@innovatiesteunpunt.be


The Living Lab story

Working together with farmers, advisors and contractors to develop and test advisory support has provided more detailed insights in the dynamics around agricultural advisory system on sustainable maize cultivation.

In order to multiply resources and be able to build on an existing network, the Living Lab was first established in the Netherlands in the context of the project ‘Grondig Boeren met Mais’. This project supports farmers in achieving sustainable maize cultivation. The first step for the Living lab was a series of exploratory interviews with farmers, advisors and contractors about their perspective on maize cultivation and the challenges and opportunities for sustainability. This gave the interest of the involved stakeholders.

It also showed a weak sense of urgency for improving maize cultivation, the need to change is mostly caused by legislation push in that direction. Also the modest role of advisory system in maize cultivation and of sustainability of this system became visible.

Nevertheless, three possible support tools were identified:

  • Catch crop decision support tool
  • Nitrate tour to provide insight to influence on water quality
  • ‘Sustainability at the kitchen table’: checklist for constructive pre-season talk between farmer contractor and advisor

Through follow up interviews, meetings with the stakeholders and a co-creation session the perspective of all three tools was further explored. The checklist for kitchen table talk was found too big a step from the informal modus that currently shapes this conversation. Due to sensitivity of the subject, the Nitrate tour evolved from an organised bus tour visiting diverse farms, to measurements of nitrate in the fields of the satellite farmers of ‘Grondig Boeren met Mais’, followed by a wider discussion.

For the development of the catch crop decision support tool a co-creation session was organised with the interested stakeholders. This resulted in the insight that though a similar interest existed to develop the tool, competition and different interest made it not feasible to develop one decision support tool together. Instead each stakeholder developed their own catch crop decision support.

In three exchange visits between Belgium and Netherlands the perspective of the developed tools was explored. Though the exchange was valuable by the stakeholders involved, the relevance of the Dutch innovation support tools was considered modest in the Belgian context.

Lessons learned

1Engaging farmersIt has proven quite a challenge to actively engage farmers and advisors in the living lab process on advisory services on sustainable soil management. This has to do with the fact that though sustainable soil management is in the long term interest of farmers, and farmers awareness of it seem to rise, this interest is more of an indirect nature, through government restrictions and prescriptions and pressure from public opinion. Farmers do not directly perceive many problems with maize cultivation.

2Interest and exchangeThe stakeholders (advisors and researchers) are more interested in exchange on the agronomic practices than on the advisory methods used. In this setting it is challenging to organize a living lab on the last issue. Furthermore the central challenge in advisory provision for sustainable agriculture does not seem to be a lack of tools or methods. Instead it is the fact that sustainability is not the main objective of advisors and the existence of an interplay of interests of different parties that does not foster sustainability.

3External factorsExternal factors such as changes in legislation, social pressure, concerns about the farm and climatic conditions have a huge influence on the functioning of the Living Lab. These are outside the influence of the Living Lab, the challenge is to adapt to arising opportunities and optimally deal with deviating influences.

4Creating a toolThough all stakeholders involved (advisors, contractors and input suppliers) had identified the desirability of a decision support tool for catch crops and the Living Lab provided room to facilitate co-creation process, in practice it did not result in one common tool because of two reasons. Firstly, he stakeholders interest to build and maintain good relations with the farmers favored the development of separate decision support tools by each stakeholder to offer this as support to the farmers. Secondly, in the co-creation session different stakeholders could not agree on the content of the support because their individual interest pushed them towards a certain advisory service that fits their own interest.

5Setting and contextIt is not easy to apply experiences in one setting to another setting as we thought to do in the Dutch Belgium collaboration. The difficulty is to create a meaningful connection between the Netherlands and Belgium. This is inherent to the Living Lab approach as a process involving specific stakeholders which does not match with translating to other contexts. This seems to indicate that a Living Lab process is required in each specific context. The combination with an existing project such as ‘Grondig Boeren met Mais’ is an opportunity and a threat at the same time. The project provides resources and opportunity for interventions, the risk is that the Living lab does not get enough attention and is not visible enough. Improving the visibility of the Living Lab is a point of attention.

More info about this Living Lab

Practice Abstract 8 – Problem solving in Living Lab: Improving innovation support to sustainable soil management in maize cultivation (Stichting Wageningen Research)

Practice Abstract 37 – How is design thinking used in the living lab? (Innovatiesteunpunt)

Article about the Living Lab: