Skylark: intensive arable farmers moving towards sustainability

Area characterisation: 

This case study focuses on the Skylark foundation: an organisation that unites arable farmers, food processors and stakeholders in the supply chain to stimulate a joint effort to improve sustainable arable farming. In total 388 arable farmers are member of the foundation, man-aging over 45.000 ha (8,7%) of arable land in the Netherlands (Annual report 2015). An indi-vidual sustainability plan is the core element used by Skylark members in realising and com-municating sustainable arable farming. Unlike what the name seems to suggest, Skylark does not specifically focus on the conservation of the skylark, but rather on sustainable land man-agement. In summary, the Skylark approach is interesting as governance arrangement, and as private initiative it is relevant in the search for innovative governance arrangements. Interest-ing features of the approach are the focus on intrinsic motivation, tailor-made sustainability plans, social learning among farmers, the involvement of food processing industry, and the attempts to get recognition for the farmers’ sustainability efforts in CAP greening.

As the organisation is rather large and sub-divided into regional farmers’ groups, the Pegasus case study focuses on a regional group in Midden Brabant, between the cities of Eindhoven and Tilburg in the south of the Netherlands. This group consists of 9 arable farmers (2016). They have mostly large-scale farms, are not organic, and one of them is a front-runner farmer practising precision agriculture. This case study focuses on the environmental and social benefits linked to soil and water because of the interests of this regional farmers group.

The case study region, the working area of De Dommel Water board, covers approximately one fourth of the Province of Noord-Brabant. The 9 farmers of the Midden Brabant Skylark group together represent approximately 1,900 ha (including land outside the Dommel area) and the area of the Dommel Water board is app. 150,000 ha (

The case study region is a predominantly small-scale landscape on sandy soils, in which farm-land is intersected by forests, small nature reserves and creeks. Because of the main interests of the group, we focus in the case study on water and soil related benefits. Because of the sandy soils, drought is an issue in summer, but in lower parts peek water can be problematic. As a result mainly of intensive farming practices, water quality is poor, as critical loads of ni-trogen deposition are structurally exceeded. Water quality and quantity are related to soil management and farmers acknowledge this relation . According to group members, raising soil organic matter is a main issue in relation to soil fertility and soil moisture. 


34 case studies were planned by the H2020 PEGASUS project in different farming and forest systems and along the supply chain in 10 EU countries, to: 

  • examine the issues faced in ensuring effective provision of public goods/ecosystem services from farming & forest activities; and 
  • find solutions to enable the economic social and environmental sustainability of the EU’s farmed & forest areas.

The Skylark Foundation aims to help the arable sector to become more sustainable. The Skylark approach is based on knowledge exchange between groups of farmers and with the supply chain. Participating farmers are required to draft and implement individual farm sustainability plans.

In the Netherlands, high land prices drive arable farmers to intensify which overtime has led to serious water quality issues in some places. The trend towards growing a limited number of specialist crops, and, linked to this, widespread short-term leasing of land are two obstacles to the adoption of more sustainable practices on a large scale.

The Skylark approach contributes to EU strategic objectives of sustainable growth because of its focus on enhancing sustainability performance of conventional arable farmers, with a broad range of sustainability indicators. Through the involvement of the supply chain, the approach is embedded in the market. However, many Skylark participants choose the less ambitious options, resulting in less than optimal provision of environmental and social benefits. In part, this is due to the low market value of Skylark membership: not all Skylark supply chain partners require Skylark membership of their suppliers or pay a premium price to Skylark participants.

While the environmental regulations have not yet succeeded in achieving a satisfactory water quality in the case study area, they did result in raising awareness with the farmers of the Skylark Midden Brabant group. This is supported by the demand for more sustainable products by the Skylark supply chain partners. Therefore, European, national and regional legislation are useful to support private initiatives such as Skylark and collaboration between private and public parties, such as between De Dommel water board and the Skylark Midden Brabant group of farmers.

The Skylark approach of social learning, involvement of the supply chain, and challenging farmers to improve in terms of sustainability represents a set of governance arrangements that have the potential to contribute to a better provision of a wider range of environmental and social benefits than only food. It has that potential because the approach is aimed at behavioural change, and is acces-sible to all willing farmers, regardless of their performance level. At the same time, this is the weakness of the approach, since the focus on efforts makes it very difficult to show the differ-ence made at farm and national level in terms of impacts.

Potential impacts/benefits: 

In De Dommel area, intensive arable production has led to poor water quality. Arable farmers specialise on a limited number of crops. Crop rotation cannot be completed on own land. Farmers spend the winter period on finding land for next season, including land of livestock farmers. As a result, ‘land rotates’ instead of crops. This has consequences for soil management: uncertain quality of hired land, only short-term investments in soil health, and low interest in multi-annual buffer strips. To improve water quality, the Skylark MB group wants to layout buffer strips in exchange for water board land. According to the group, raising soil organic matter is important for soil fertility (better production), soil structure (less stagnant water) and storage of moisture in the soil (less irrigation needed). This would also result in less leakage of nutrients to ground and surface water. Barriers to raising soil organic matter, according to the farmers, are the practice of ‘land rotation’ and rules limiting use of fertilizer and especially animal manure (national legislation based on Nitrates Directive).

Transferability of the result: 
  1. kylark shows that conventional arable farmers can be willing to move towards more sustainable systems. Skylark takes the approach that influencing the behaviours of conventional and intensive farmers has a lot of potential in delivering beneficial environmental outcomes.
  2. Knowledge exchange and understanding farmers’ motivations are critical to ensure a sustained delivery of public goods and ecosystem services. Peer-to-peer learning in a self-organised farmer network has proven to be effective in raising awareness and willingness of farmers to adopt more sustainable practices.
  3. The demand from actors of the supply chain for more sustainable products is also an important driver for farmers to take actions.
  4. The principles of knowledge exchange, involving actors along the supply chain, and monitoring improvement through individual sustainability plans can be transferred to other types of initiatives including in other countries, but they need to be tailored to the local needs and culture.

The Skylark approach is based on collaborative learning among farmers, involvement of the supply chain, and challenging farmers to improve through the yearly sustainability plans. In England and in Poland, initiatives have started to develop a similar approach. In both countries the initiatives are tailored to the local needs and culture. Farmers and supply chain parties are brought together to design their own set-up with respect to sustainability indicators, meetings and organisation. In Poland, there is more focus on capacity building of the farmers, while in England the initiators focus on precision agriculture, water quality and soil health.

We believe that the learning approach is transferable to many other regions in Europe, even – or maybe especially - to regions where collaboration among farmers is less frequent than in the Netherlands. Social learning may be a step before collaboration because it is less threatening than full collaboration, while it still builds social and human capital.

In addition, a strong feature is the focus of the Skylark approach on conventional farmers. In order to enhance the provision of environmental and social benefits, a growth of the number of organic farmers is not sufficient; also conventional an intensive farmers will have to change their practices. For such behavioural change, innovative public and private governance arrangements are needed. In our view, the Skylark approach can be an inspiration for such governance arrangements aimed at conventional farmers throughout Europe.

Lessons learned: 

Intensive arable production and the practice of ‘land rotation’ has resulted in poor surface water quality and concerns about soil health in De Dommel area. Soil is becoming a ‘common pool resource’ for which collective action is required. Land seems a key factor in governance for sustainability.

The Skylark approach seems effective in motivating farmers and building their capacity. In De Dommel area, the Midden Brabant group develops measures for improving soil health and water quality in interaction with the water board. Effectivity in outcomes is unknown because in the Skylark approach, efforts are monitored, not results. In the case study area, more fine-grained monitoring of water quality by water board would be welcomed by the farmers of the Skylark Midden Brabant group.