Blogpost: PREPSOIL Dairy Sheep Farming

29 September 2023
Enrico Vagnoni
Enrico Vagnoni
Blogpost: PREPSOIL Dairy Sheep Farming

The PREPSOIL Workshop was designed in order to characterize perception and co-create a common vision of participants concerning Soil health in Sardinia, linked to agrosilvopastoral systems, facing experience and scientific evidence.

The Workshop was held on the 23th of June at the “Museo dell'Asfodelo di Ollolai”, Province of Nuoro, Sardinia (Italy). Ollolai is a village of about 1700 people, located in the historical homonym subregion of Barbagia, an inland and mountainous area in central Sardinia, upper valley of the Tirso river.

The choice to manage PREPSOIL Workshop in this territory is mainly linked to its centrality within the study area, but also to the agro-pastoral context of reference and further issues that characterize this community, emblematic for the majority of the inland context. The strong depopulation phenomenon, due to low births and abandonment in favor of other areas, encouraged local policies in recent years to attract new residents in the area prioritizing those that would bring new agricultural engagements or protect environmental and cultural resources. Among these elements is the precious resource of natural soil capital, on whose capacity the performance of human activities depends, and vice versa, the effects on the capacity to preserve and/or improve soil characteristics depend on the proper management of the latter.

The location of the activities, the Museum of Asfodelo (Asphodelus ramosus, in the local dialect “s'iscraria”) is more than a symbol within a symbol: the asphodel and asphodelets in general, constitute a vegetation 'selected' by grazing, especially sheep grazing, an indicator of phenomena such as frequent fire and plant selection by overgrazing activities. However, in the art of weaving, “s'iscrarionzu”, transforms the stems of this plant into warp and woof of handmade baskets, the traditional “corbulas”, elements of material culture of peasant activity, still used in everyday life and recently valorized as precious traditional design’s products.

The Workshop was attended by twenty-two stakeholders, selected among local farmers, decisions and policy makers, “early-stage soil scientist” and students, professional trainers and agricultural teachers, scientists. In particular, the relevant end-users and stakeholders were: i) local authorities (Municipalities mayors and Agriculture Councilor from local town halls); ii) local farmers and land owners; iii) researchers from CNR and University of Sassari; iv) Soil’s Teachers (high schools, university); v) forest consultants; vi) directorate for Nuoro's province of Regional Forest and Environmental Safeguarding.

Participants were contacted at local level from regional networks, due to their engagement in soil health’s topic, or as local experts, but also as potential multiplier stakeholders in other contiguous networks (farmers’ associations, schools, policy makers, environmental managers, firefighters, activists for common lands, etc.).

The Duca degli Abruzzi School in Elmas (Province of Cagliari) was contacted because a class of soil chemistry students won the national award on the regeneration of soils after wildfires, with the implementation of cyanobacterial substrates aimed at favoring the natural availability of substances useful for life and attracting microfauna, as well as favoring the establishment of pioneer plant species for the reconstitution of the turf on bare soils. Local companies with significant experience in trade associations and consortia producing typical products such as “Fiore Sardo DOP” cheese, as well as Slow Food members were invited to share their knowledge of soil’s management practices. The discussion was also supported by decision makers, many of which are also farmers in dairy sheep and/or swine farming, that are responsible for agricultural or environmental governance and contributed to the comprehension of the complex issues related to Soil Health including the social challenges. Among the shared experiences, which enriched the debate, those related to the Pratobello’s peaceful protest of shepherds and local communities nearby Orgosolo village, year 1969, to defend agrosilvopastoral uses from the land/soil occupation by the military for drills (Province of Nuoro). In that event, 3500 people fought peacefully occupying the common pasture lands earmarked pro tempore for military exercises, showing great solidarity to support pastoralism and land, protecting commons from the possible pollution from military wastes that could have occurred - and a potential long-term occupation of those areas. The issue of access to land, also through the defense of the rights to “commons” (just under 40,000 heads of cattle would have had to find other grazing destinations) in the summer of '69 with a strong and meantime peaceful demonstration, represents the rising of a societal awareness for the “access to land”, especially in inland areas in the Province of Nuoro, where there is a strong dependency of local communities form ecosystem services provided by those public common lands.

The planning of the workshop consisted of preparing few introductory talks to circumstantiate the discussion and materials for the workshop activities to be made available to the participants, encouraging interaction and discussion through facilitation. The Workshop started at 10.00 o’clock. First 40 minutes were devoted to introducing each other and to briefly framing knowledge concerning Soil Mission EU, Soil Health’s concept and PREPSOIL project goals, by CNR researchers. In particular, the CNR staff prepared the translated version of the Project dissemination materials, which were presented in a few minutes at the start of the work by Dr. Enrico Vagnoni. The introduction was then followed by a second short speech from Dr. Pasquale Arca, which disseminated briefly the results of scientific research concerning how to improve soil conditions in agroforestry contexts, e.g. through improvements of pastures based on local seedings for permanent “cover crops”, both blended for alkaline and sub-acidic soils, useful to improve self-productions in farms and increase the economic efficiency of sheep farms. The digression by Dr. Simone Mereu briefly explained the DPSIR elements on Soil Health’s based on a preliminary literature review and knowledge of the studied area. After this task, at 11.30 activities with participants were dedicated to a deeper exploration of topics emerged and discussed through a DPSIR approach, using a participatory approach. Participants were asked to form four groups and discuss a chosen single topic among those clustered earlier in the workshop and as shared by researchers summarizing the DPSIR analysis. Groups were harmonized ensuring a farmer and at least one student and one researcher in each group, and were let free to choose the topic they liked the most. The objective was to co-create possible targeted solutions and new goals for conserving and restoring Soil Health in case study area.

At the end of the activities, the facilitator asked each group to present a summary of the work carried out. Ideas presented were four, as the numbers of groups.

Setting the common knowledge of participants concerning critical points affecting Soil Health in Sardinia, especially linked to agrosilvopastoral context in upper valley of Tirso river, the following key topics were highlighted:

  • land abandonment and soil losses (in term of not natural and no agricultural uses, occupied by other urban or anthropic uses, as well as polluted soils);
  • soil organic carbon losses (erosion, fertility loss);
  • not optimal management of land resources for farming (fodder, irrigated land, other);
  • climate uncertainties such as drought as well as floods and extreme wildfires;
  • bugs’ pest phenomena such as the recent locust infestation;
  • biodiversity loss;

Additional outcomes of the workshop included:

  • Brainstorming through brainwriting;
  • Dissemination of science based eco-innovation from researchers to farmers;
  • Opportunity of co-learning, through contamination of expertise and exchanging knowledge among participants es. farmer’s knowledge towards students, setting empathy and socio-cultural cohesion for co-designing processes;
  • Creating and tuning a button up Soils’Health community from the Ollolai’s Workshop.

In order to keep the Workshop comfortable, coffee, biscuits and fresh drinkable water were made available to participants during the activities, ending at 13.30 o’clock with a light lunch based on typical Ollolai’s Barbagia Food. A little gift was also given to each participant as a way of thanking them for their contribution.