Ján Šlinský, a farmer living in Hrubý Šúr near Slovakia, is a man who thinks out of the box. With an open heart and inquisitive mind, he designed a machine that blends the efficiency of industrial agriculture with the sustainability of organic small-scale farming.
On their only 2 hectare large farm, Ján’s family now grows enough to provide 60 families with organic quality vegetables. After only one year, other farmers started adopting a technology that could change our understanding of organic agriculture.
As a studied agronomist, Ján appreciated the productivity increase that mechanisation had brought for farmers. But tractors and sprinkler irrigation for example can significantly deteriorate the quality of the soil, lead to erosion, a less beneficial bacterial composition, and so on. Witnessing the destructive practices while working in conventional agriculture, he wanted to find a way to work the soil without destroying it.
“Physical exertion very quickly and very effectively diminishes all the ideals of ecological agriculture.” Ján Šlinský
But without machinery and automatisation, farming becomes a back breaking task. Ján is convinced that the drudgery of farming is one of the main barriers for a more pervasive ecological agriculture.
Farmers have tried to solve this dilemma with special machinery, known as gantry technology which uses bridge-like constructions from which farming tasks can be performed.
But for Ján gantries are too expensive, complicated and fuel intensive to be feasible for a small family farm. With his engineering degree and his practical experience Ján thought he could find a solution. More than 20 years ago, he decided to create something much more effective and practical that would significantly reduce the amount of physical labour necessary while conserving the soil.
His motivation was not just to reduce the environmental footprint of farming, but to align economical with environmental prudence. After all, preserving or even enhancing the quality of soil results in a permanently better yield.
Agrocircles, machinery that respects the soil
Ján’s invention was to take the concept of gantries one step further by making one end fixed, creating interconnected circular installations. The construction functions as a frame for various types of tools and rotates above the cultivated patch.
(Click “CC” for subtitles. Source: farmlandia.sk)
Ján’s “Agrocircles” (AgroKruh® in Slovak) allows cultivating soil without the destructive effects to its structure and with minimum energy consumption.
Less manual labour
Most tasks can be automatised, from the basic preparation of the soil, to weeding, irrigation and finally soil cultivation after the harvest. This eliminates almost 70 per cent of the physical work.
Cultivating the soil
The Agrocircles allow a trickle irrigation directly to the root of the plant. Not sprinkling the water over the plants requires less water. It also reduces the risk of fungal disease since the plants’ leaves are not being wetted.
The triangular areas between the cultivated circle patches help to increase biodiversity and ecological stability.
By minimising the physical labour and improving the soil, the production costs of organically produced vegetables can be significantly reduced. Ján sells his organic vegetables to prices that people would pay for conventional produce in a supermarket.
Through the automisation the size of the land than can be cultivated is larger than what manual labour would allow. Compared to farming with the help of traditional machines, the quality and quantity of the yield from each hectare will likely increase.
Crafting a dream
Ján Šlinský’s journey from having a promising idea to actually building and using a functioning technology was far from easy.
The scepticism of agriculture experts was no setback for Ján who says,
“So long as it works in the fields, I don’t care if experts think it’s a good idea or not.”
A bigger problem was finding land for a family farm. His plan was to start a farm on his own and to develop and improve the Agrocircle technology based on the practical experience. However, a large portion of agricultural land in Slovakia is owned by large companies. Lending part of such land for a sustained period of time failed several times.
“In Slovakia, 96 per cent of the soil is leased and the emotional bond to the soil, the essential condition that makes you able to overcome all the obstacles in farming, is lost.”
Luckily, Ján found a friend who could help.
Peter Balasov had worked most of his life with his own business. At some point, he decided to leave the company to his children and start ecological-farming. But without any experience he was not very successful. When Peter found out about Ján, he immediately saw the potential and donated 2 hectares of land in Hrubý Šúr, about 30 km from Bratislava.
Peter and Ján started working together, Ján dealing with designing and testing the machinery and Peter assisting in organisational issues.
Besides these organisational challenges, it took 20 years to develop and test the technology, making sure it is reliable, complies with legal standards and offers all the capabilities required to make ecological farming much less strenuous.
Witness Ján’s wit and passion during this TEDx presentation in Bratislava. (Turn on subtitles in the video settings.)
Making a living as part of a community
Ján’s family farm can produce vegetables for about 60 families. Rather than offering them on an open market, Ján was looking for more stable distribution channels and wanted to be in contact with his customers. Direct communication, close relationship and trust are essential because the amounts and terms of production can vary.
That is why Ján started a Community Supported Agriculture scheme (CSA) in which consumers can order their vegetables in the beginning of the season based on a calendar of production that Ján prepares.
Placing an order for the entire year can be a challenge for consumers and Ján struggled to find families joining the scheme. He still sells part of his vegetables on a local market. But the families who joined his scheme appreciate the fact that they receive high quality seasonal products at a stable price that has been agreed in advance.
Communication instead of certification
Ján has developed strong reservations towards the certification of organic agriculture. In his view, what may have been a good idea is being turned inside out and is increasingly influenced by marketing and bureaucratic decisions.
Ján says that while agro-businesses should be paying for the ecological degradation they cause, it is organic producers who have to pay for the certification.
Therefore, rather than paying extra for an official organic certificate, Ján decided to work and communicate directly with consumers. He invites them to visit his farm, see his work and decide for themselves.
Spreading the dream
There is a fairly big community of people interested in buying organic vegetables from family farms and Ján is actively promoting his model among consumers and farmers. Duplicating his set-up always begins with a community of consumers that, once it is big enough to make a farm economically sustainable, reaches out to interested farmers.
To help facilitate the communication between potential consumers and farmers, Ján established a so-called “Field Academy for Growing Vegetables with the Agrocircle System”. Potential consumers and producers can meet and discuss their expectations, and at the same time see the technology in operation.
In order to help the establishment of new Agrocircle family farms, consumers can give a farmer a 10-year loan to build the infrastructure and the machinery necessary for the farm. (The costs are at about EUR 70,000.) Farm equipment is being held as collateral and after about 5/6 years, farmer begin paying back the loans with their produce.
So far, two more farms are preparing to use the Agrocircle technology and (partly) sell their produce in a community scheme.
The next generation of farmers
The Agrocircle system was trademarked as Agrukruh® in order to ensure the quality of vegetables from the new farms. Jan only allows farmers to use Agrokruh® if they are willing to be trained in the proper use of the system and stick to the standards.
The technology was finalised only in 2013, but already now two other farms are planning to use the technology and partly also the community consumption scheme as well.
Ján hasn’t thought about exporting his Agrocircles to other countries, but he has presented the technology to farmers and activists elsewhere. With his invention, Ján could have taken ecological farming in a whole new direction. Similar to recent trends towards consumer generated renewable energy (so-called pro-sumers) the Agrocircle technology has a potential to decentralise and localise organic vegetable farming. Small family farms equipped with the technology could provide a much bigger share of the agricultural market.