Crop production in Europe is intensive, highly specialized and responsible for some negative environmental impacts, raising questions about the sustainability of agricultural systems. The (re)integration of grain legumes into European agricultural systems could contribute to the transition to more sustainable food production. While the general benefits from legume cultivation are widely known, there is little evidence on how to re-design specific cropping systems with legumes to make this option more attractive to farmers. The objectives of this study were to describe the constraints and opportunities of grain legume production perceived by farmers, explain the agronomic impacts of current grain legume cropping, explore technical options to improve grain legume agronomy, and to re-design current grain legume cropping systems in a participatory process with farmers. A co-design approach was implemented with farmers, advisors and scientists on 25 farms in northern Germany, that were part of two large demonstration networks of about 170 farms supporting grain legumes across Germany. We used the DEED research cycle (Describe, Explain, Explore and Design) as a conceptual framework combining on-farm research, crop rotation modelling, and on-station experiments. From it, we identified nine agronomic practices that either were novel or confirmed known strategies under new conditions, to re-design grain legume cropping systems at the field and farm level. The practices included (i) inter-row hoeing, (ii) direct seeding into a cover-crop, (iii) species-specific inoculation, (iv) cover crops to reduce leaching, (v) reduced tillage, (vi) soybean for increased gross margins, (vii) cultivars for food and feed use, (viii) flexible irrigation, (ix) grain legumes with cover crop to enhance subsequent crop yields. We also demonstrate how to complement knowledge of farmers’ perceptions (Describe step) and formal knowledge from classical on-station experiments and modelling (Explain step) with on-farm research including the local views of farmers (Explore step) to identify tailored options for specific farm contexts rather than prescriptive solutions (Design step) to intensify legume production. This approach therefore contrasts with traditional methods that are often solely participatory and qualitative or model/experimental-based and quantitative. Hence, our results provide new insights in how to re-design cropping systems using a combination of participatory and quantitative approaches. While participatory approaches are common in developing countries, this study shows their potential in an industrialized context with large-scale farmers in Europe. These novel findings can be used as a starting point for further adaptations of cropping systems and contribute to making grain legume production economically and environmentally more sustainable.
- Action research
- Organic farming