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versión On-line ISSN 2521-9766versión impresa ISSN 1405-3195

Agrociencia vol.50 no.3 Texcoco abr./may. 2016



Ecological agriculture and its inluence on rural prosperity: An agricultural company's vision (Murcia, Spain)

Ignacio De Los Ríos-Carmenado1 

Hilario Becerril-Hernandez2 

María Rivera1 

1Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Avenida Puerta de Hierro No. 2. 28040, Madrid, España.

2Campus Tabasco, Colegio de Postgraduados. 86570. Km. 3.5 Carretera Cárdenas-Huimanguillo, Cárdenas, Tabasco.


Ecological agriculture (EA) is a global tendency that seeks a natural and friendly relationship with the environment to promote plant and animal biodiversity. The debate of the EA in the face of conventional agriculture has been discussed internationally in numerous investigations. However, few studies have focused on tackling the effects of EA in relation with the concept of rural prosperity. This article analyzes, from a learning process of over 40 years of experience of an Agricultural Transformation Company (АТС), the relationship between EA and its influence on l ill al prosperity. The methodology applied is based on the Working With People (WWP) model, integrating the expert knowledge experimented through SAT's actions. The experience is centered on one of Spain's regions with the greatest crop surface dedicated to EA. Results show the effects that EA has on different dimensions of rural prosperity. The creation of trust and working with people are the main premises that help bring about rural prosperity and development with a vision of sustainability.

Key words: Ecological Agriculture; agrarian cooperatives; rural prosperity; WWP


La agricultura ecológica (AE) es una tendencia global que busca una relación natural y amigable con el ambiente para fomentar la biodiversidad vegetal y animal. El debate de la AE frente a la agricultura convencional se ha discutido a nivel internacional en numerosas investigaciones. Sin embargo, pocos estudios se han centrado en abordar los efectos de la AE en relación con el concepto de prosperidad rural. En este artículo se analiza, desde un proceso de aprendizaje de casi 40 años de experiencia de una Sociedad Agraria de Transformación (SAT), la relación entre la AE y su influencia en la prosperidad rural. La metodología aplicada parte del modelo Working With People (WWP), integrando el conocimiento experto y experimentado a lo largo de las acciones de la SAT. La experiencia se centra en una de las regiones de España con mayor superficie de cultivo dedicada a la AE. Los resultados evidencian los efectos que tiene la AE en las distintas dimensiones de la prosperidad rural. La generación de confianza y el trabajo con la gente son las principales premisas que permiten generar prosperidad y desarrollo rural con una visión de sostenibilidad.

Palabras clave: Agricultura ecológica; cooperativas agrarias; prosperidad rural; WWP


In the 1920’s, Rudolf Steiner began debating on ecological agriculture (EA) and biodynamics (Steiner, 2011; Paull, 2011); however, these terms appeared in later decades. Nowadays, biodynamic agriculture is considered a form of EA and both products (ecological and biodynamic) can be certified in many countries if they comply with a series of specific practices aimed at ensuring the sustainability of natural resources (ECC, 1999). What sets biodynamic agriculture and EA apart is the use of new biodynamic preparations, designed to improve soils and increase crop yields (Reganol, 1995; Turinek et al., 2009; Chalker-Scott, 2013).

Ecological agriculture, in the face of conventional agriculture, improves biodiversity and leads to a lower environmental degradation (Howard, 1943; Guzman et al., 2009; FAO, 2014; USDA, 2014). Some authors argue benefits of EA in relation to the greenhouse effect, since it reduces chemical inputs and use of energy (Wood et al., 2006), and it uses water more efficiently (Groot et al., 2010; Lapple and Rensburg, 2011; Altieri and Nichols, 2012). Other studies focused on biodynamic agriculture (Turinek et al., 2009) also show environmental improvements in the production systems. In the case of EA, its limitations in the use of petrochemical products and synthetic methods are its main characteristic (China, 2005; USDA, 2014). In general terms, these two production systems are considered more sustainable than the conventional agriculture systems (Edwards-Jones and Howells, 2001; Rigby and Càceres, 2001; Mäder et al, 2002; Danhofer, 2005; Patil et al, 2014).

From an economie point of view, other investigations have analyzed the differences between EA and conventional agriculture, showing that EA is more profitable, despite being less productive (Lansink et al, 2002; Azadi et al, 2011; Argyropoulos et al, 2012; Patil et al.,2014). The social value of EA was also shown, since it also provides non-food related services linked to rural development (Darnhofer, 2005; Gonzalez y Nigh, 2005; Gomez et al, 2005). However, conventional agriculture is currently necessary to satisfy the world's growing food demands (Robertson and Swinton, 2005; USDA, 2014).

The term rural prosperity, from its origins, is related to economic aspects, influenced by the doctrines of the founders of classic economics Adam Smith and Sir James Stuart (Smith, 1776). From this economic standpoint, prosperity is defined as people's capability to generate economic growth through the consumption of products and the increase of material goods (Jackson, 2009). The ideal of indefinite progress (Friedman, 1987; Ballesteros, 2000), based on the belief of the unlimited character of natural resources has influenced this economic vision of prosperity (Ballesteros, 2000), promoting disproportionate consumption in modern societies (Arendt, 1998).

These beliefs led to modern economists and society to disregard ecology, deteriorating the relationship of humans with nature, and giving rise to the so-called homo economicus, who seeks to maximize profits (Faber et al., 2002). From this vision, industry is the most dynamic economic activity, and agriculture presents itself as the antithesis of prosperity and modernity (Moore, 1984).

This vision of prosperity related to economic development and the modern project begins to come into question in the 1907׳S (Schumacher, 1976). The failure of the ideology of indefinite progress, as an axis of prosperity from technocratic modernization, is the main cause behind change (Cazorla et al., 2013). Several conflicts arise at the end of the 20th Century along with a deep unrest in society, which seeks new ways to act in the human-nature relationship, giving rise to ecological revindication (Ramos, 1993). Technology-based agriculture falls into crisis, and the values of rural settings are highlighted, therefore these settings stop being perceived as an exclusively productive space (Robertson and Swinton, 2005).

This revaluation of all things rural and environmental makes EA become configured as an alternative system, not only productive, but also aimed at the conservation of the surroundings and the improvement of quality of life (Williams and Jobes, 1990; Lapple and Rensburg, 2011). The use of local varieties also shows a revaluation of all things rural and environmental (Acosta and Rodriguez, 2013). Faced with this sensitization with all things environmental and with health, several groups of individuals are formed in diverse countries with an interest in consuming ecological products (Shepherd et al., 2005) and their demand is increased (Barrett et al., 2002; Gracia and de Magistris, 2008). In this way, EA is consolidated as an alternative production model that influences the prosperity of rural areas from the different dimensions -environmental, social, and economic- of rural development (Azadi et al., 2011; USDA, 2014).

This change in production system is influenced by changes in the attitude of producers and market agents. In developed societies, rural prosperity is no longer equal to simply economic development. However, the increase in income due to the sale of products is a key aspect that continues to be related to the feeling of prosperity (Diener, 1993). Although economic growth does not accurately represent human well-being, the economic dimension is a key dimension in rural prosperity and farmers consider that economic resources increase the possibilities of improving their quality of life (Baumol et al., 2007). In the face of new tendencies and new values, rural prosperity is associated with the capability of individuals to improve their quality of life, from an integrated point of view, based on Elath, education, personal freedom, and satisfaction with their surroundings (Legatum Institute, 2014).

This new vision requires society and development planners to incorporate contemplation and respect towards nature as key to an integrated vision (Cazorla et al., 2013). From this new vision, the Working With People (WWP) model is presented as a conceptual proposal to address this integrated focus of rural prosperity from the consideration of three dimensions: political-contextual, business-technical, and ethic-social (Cazorla et al., 2013). This proposal incorporates key elements of planning such as social knowledge from collaborative participation, and it is the product of 25 years of experience provided by the GESPLAN Group in projects oriented to improving prosperity in rural areas in European contexts, as well as in emerging countries (Cazorla et al., 2005, 2013; De los Ríos et al., 2011, 2013).

Materials and Methods

SAT Camposeven was chosen for this study, formed by farmers with over 30 years experience in production, transformation, and marketing of vegetable, organic, and conventional crops in Murcia, Spain. This Agrarian Society has the following characteristics: 1) It promotes social learning processes between organic farmers, companies, research organisms, and local and regional governments; 2) it is considered a successful associative experience with an economic and social goal, oriented towards the transformation of ecological products; 3) it has an innovative business strategy with multiple awards (most importantly the Thanit 2007 Award for Development and Technological Innovation); 4) there are several University-business alliances for I+D+i projects, particularly the European project RETHINK of the 7th Programme Framework of the European Commission.

The methodology for the gathering and systematization of the analysis was designed by a panel of experts composed of 38 researchers from 14 EU countries, in the framework of the European project Rethink (Darnhofer et al, 2014). This common methodological framework was based on the analysis of rural prosperity through elements of the WWP (Cazorla et al, 2013; De los Rios et al, 2013). This proposal goes beyond the traditional technical and economic vision, trying to influence the behaviors and competences of individuals in their context. The methodological framework, from the WWP model, integrates social learning processes for the analyses and the construction of rural prosperity from three dimensions, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Dimensions of rural prosperity from the WWP model. 

The ethic-social dimension considers the context of behaviors, attitudes, and values of people that interact throughout the production, transformation and marketing processes. The business-technical dimension focuses on the generation of products and services for society from quality standards and with differentiating elements. The political-contextual dimension helps organizations adapt their priorities and projects in the contexts in which they work, in order to achieve success from a sustainable administration. Finally, the dimension that integrates the three dimensions is social learning (Friedmann, 1993).

From this common methodological framework, the results of the investigation incorporate different information instruments and sources. On one hand, the gathering and revision of numerous secondary sources (scientific literature and historical information on SAT) regarding the concepts above, and regarding Camposeven. Also, the investigation incorporates empirical information through interviews.

For the gathering and systematization of the expert and experimented knowledge, two complementary participatory processes were used: 1) Direct interviews with the parties implied; 2) WWP seminar-workshop. For the direct, in-depth interviews, a questionnaire was designed from the European project Rethink (Darnhofer et al, 2014), which was validated from the panel of experts from 14 countries. Questionnaires included four sections with questions regarding the different dimensions on rural prosperity: 1) The first was aimed at knowing the vision of interviewees on the concept of prosperity and its relation with the agricultural company; 2) a second block contained questions on the ethic-social dimension of prosperity in order to analyze behaviors, attitudes, and values of the people who make up the Agricultural company; 3) a third block on the business technical dimension of prosperity, with questions related to production, transformation, and marketing; 4) a final section on the political-contextual dimension, with questions focused on the analysis of relations between agricultural organization and its socioeconomic and political context.

Fieldwork was carried out between March and December, 2014 by the research team of the Rethink project, and 42 in-depth interviews were carried out: 100 % of the associates of SAT (17) farmers and owners of fields; 100 % of the SAT executives (5); 90 % of the suppliers and collaborating companies (8); key agents of the public-administrative scope of governments were also interviewed (4) as well as from civil society and business associations (8). A seminar-workshop was also carried out on professional competences with executives and workers responsible of the different departments of SAT. Sessions were held for four workdays in their own facilities, from the WWP techniques, applied in different projects with rural organizations (De los Ríos et al, 2013, 2015; Cazorla et al, 2013). These workshops helped reflect upon the aspects analyzed in the interviews, and give profound knowledge of other aspects in relation to the ecological products and the strategies of the organization.

The people chosen in this project cover a learning process of more than 30 years from the knowledge acquired in the agro-industrial sector of EA. This process analyzes the earlier experience of farmers before SAT was formalized in the year 2007.

Results and Discussion

Here we analyze the strategies on which SAT's activity is based to succeed and achieve sustainability in the organization, as well as the elements considered the most important to reach rural prosperity. The results generated from the application of the methodology exposed are presented in a logical order, from the three dimensions of the WWP model (business technical, political-contextual, and ethic-social).

The scopes of the social relation system in rural prosperity

The processes observed show an influence on rural prosperity from the agents that come from the different scopes of the social relations system: civil society, private business, public administrative, and political. The scopes of civil society (36 %) and the business sector (36 %) stand out (Figure 2), as having greater influence on the generation of rural prosperity. The interaction between the agents of these two scopes produces relationships of trust, creating a network of great social value, and with scarce dependence on public aid.

Figure 2 Scopes of socioeconomic relations. 

This cooperation with agents of civil society and of the business scope helps SAT Camposeven participate in networks and I+D+i projects that focus on the improvement of EA. Actions linking agents and productive sectors also facilitate new urban-rural relationships that give rise to new projects from an integrated and multifunctional approach of EA. The large number of suppliers (4.5 per product) and of logistics companies (9 companies) linked to ecological products that interact have a direct influence on the socioeconomic development of the region. Also, agents of the political and public-administrative scope are considered less relevant, despite the public administration (national, regional, and local) being responsible for the regulations related to EA and the certification of products. The greatest influence of the scopes of civil society and businesses coincides with the new vision of rural prosperity, which prioritizes the need to strengthen relations between people (Jackson, 2009; Kasser, 2009; SDC, 2009).

Table 1 summarizes the global valuation of each one of the dimensions of the WWP model in rural prosperity. In the subsequent sections, the elements with the greatest influence on rural prosperity are analyzed.

Table 1 Influence of the WWP dimensions on prosperity. 

Influence of the ethic-social dimension in rural prosperity

The most valued dimension is ethic-social (global valuation of 37.8 %), from which mutual trust is produced for teamwork and the organization's success. Within this dimension, interviewees highlighted the following aspects regarding their prosperity: personal satisfaction, happiness and quality of life, culture, and education.

Associates argue that since 2007, the main objective of creating trust amongst associates was maintained, giving people the highest value within SAT People's conduct and behavior are considered key elements, laying the foundations for teamwork. Camposeven is constituted on the principles of mutual trust and support, and its actions are guided by values shared by all its associates. These values are gathered in the company's mission: promoting people's health by developing lines of organic products with the use of sustainable techniques (De los Rios et al., 2015). This dimension also integrates actions by SAT for the formation and development of competences of its employees with certification processes in directing projects according to standards by the International Project Management Association. In this way, in the face of the technocratic and economic vision of prosperity, Camposeven promotes an organizational culture that incorporates and promotes the formation, values and ethics.

Figure 3 shows the valuation of the different ethic-social elements, and the most important element is leadership in the territory. This valuation is due to the fact that in SAT a leadership is exerted that inspires trust and promotes common values amongst its associates, allowing the transformation from conventional to ecological agriculture. Leadership is also a key element for the marketing of its products.

Figure 3 Elements of influence on the ethical-social dimension of l ill al prosperity. 

Associates consider that the capacity of negotiation is important when it comes to marketing products in national and international markets. This has been key to overcoming obstacles in times of crisis, helping to considerably increase sales since 2007·

Another very well-valued key aspect is the open attitude for cooperation and collaboration. Farmers consider that the way to manage and direct SAT is based on an "open attitude towards participation, cooperation and collaboration, allowing for collective decision-making and solving conflicts that arise to reach a satisfactory solution for everyone" (Associate of Camposeven). Figure 3 shows all the elements identified as engines of change and that influence on rural prosperity.

Influence of the political-contextual dimension on rural prosperity

The political-contextual dimension (31.6 %) incorporates a series of actions and basic aspects to allow EA producers generate and strengthen urban-rural relations. Rural prosperity is related to the capacity to generate organizational and structural change processes that promote an adaptation to priorities and needs of the parties implied (Jackson, 2009). In this dimension, I+D+i stands out as a strategic element of STA since 2007, and develops actions aimed at achieving innovations in the field of ecological production. With this aim, in 2009 SAT broadens its relationship with diverse organizations, creating the Plataforma Agroalimentaria (Food Agriculture Platform) with the UPM and companies in the sector. Later, SAT joins the Food for Life European Platform, forming a work group with companies and research centers in the fruit and vegetable-producing sector. In 2013, the Cátedra Fundación Ingenio is created in collaboration with the GESPLAN group, developing new projects to improve cultivation techniques, innovate towards energy self-sufficiency and efficient water use.

Figure 4 shows the results of the valuation of the influence of different aspects of this political-contextual dimension, with the international market (11 %) standing out as the most influential element. This is because 90 % of SAT's ecological production is exported, and the international market is one of the foundations of the organization's success and of the prosperity of the associated farms.

Figure 4 Influence on the political-contextual dimension of rural prosperity. 

International and national competitiveness is another of the factors of high influence to be able to face the growing international competition. Experience has shown the need for SAT products to be able to compete in the international market for quality and price, and stand out through ecological and biodynamic certification. Biodiversity and protecting the environment are promoted in Camposeven through actions aimed at a sustainable management of natural resources and foster the use of sustainable techniques amongst its associates (maintenance and increase of soil biodiversity). This sustainable management also contributes to set SAT apart from the competition, continuously generating small innovations.

The elements of the least influence in rural prosperity are public policies and national subsidies. SAT farmers, from their accumulated experience, strongly believe that the prosperity of the farms must be based on competitiveness and the feasibility of the products themselves. In other words, they must be self-sufficient and depend as little as possible on the public administration.

Influence of the business-technical dimension on rural prosperity

The influence of the business-technical dimension, valued at 30.6 %, is centered on the possibilities offered by EA products to generate a flow of goods and services to society. Throughout the years, Camposeven has become specialized, both from a technical and a business standpoint, in the ecological and biodynamic line. SAT's strategy is to ultimately transform all their products to ecological and biodynamic (currently, 65 % of the surface planted is ecological and 35 % is conventional). This specialization comes from the family farms, which have an average surface of 57.10 ha, and properties shared by at least two people. Specialization in tasks has led to differentiating two types of associates: farmer associates, dedicated to farming full-time, and some non-farmer associates, dedicated to SAT management. In both cases, all the family incomes of the associates come from agriculture and SAT's activities (De los Ríos et al, 2015).

From this technical specialization, Camposeven has been able to design a strategy with a clear entrepreneurial function (Friedmann, 1993), oriented not only at generating ecological and biodynamic products with a high degree of competitiveness in markets, but also at expanding environmental an cultural knowledge and values (Kasser et al, 2009). Its business and commercial strategy also reaches, as a factor behind SAT's success, for the social integration of all actors: farmers (as the main actors in EA production), civil society (through awareness-raising activities), and I+D+i agents (to jointly develop innovations, new products, and sustainable techniques). The WWP model, integrated into the management of SAT, helps the organization behave and act as an "open system," capable of initiating relationships of dialogue and of work with people to generate innovations (Cazorla et al, 2013).

The results of the study show that the existence of three types of business-technical strategies (Table 2) adopted from SAT and that have had an influence on rural prosperity and on the sustainability of the organization.

Table 2 Business-technical Strategies. 

From the beginning, and to move towards its goals of differentiation, Camposeven has taken actions related to the sustainable management of natural resources (43.5 %), with water use standing out as an extremely important resource in Murcia due to its scarcity. The adopted techniques that stand out include drip irrigation, planting under the protection of plastic sheets, the construction of reservoirs, canals for collecting water, and the use of multi-tunnel greenhouses. In regard to the conservation and soil improvement strategies, these are based on crop rotation, integrated control of pests and weeds with biological means and avoiding pesticides, mechanical control, the use of organic fertilizers, and solarization in greenhouses.

Camposeven's strategies have focused on obtaining a differentiation of their ecological and biodynamic products (34.8 %) from different certification systems at a European level. Actions oriented towards the diversification of products and services have allowed Camposeven to increase its sales by 16 million euro from 2007 to 2013, despite the crisis in Spain, during which many companies of the sector shut down (Figure 5).

Figure 5 Evolution of sales of Camposeven ecological products. 

Other differentiation actions have also focused on the distribution of SAT products SAT. In this way, to reach a wider audience, Camposeven created the brand Freshvana, aimed at the sale of ecological products online, directly to the consumer.

Finally, the strategies for a sustainable self-management (21 %) have the goal of generating in the same farms the raw material necessary to make biodynamic preparations for production by recycling plant residues and sub-products to be reused as fertilizer. All these strategies are implemented from a collaborative and organized and collaborative planning between the associates of Camposeven.


The conformation of a social organization (SAT) from the WWP model, and aimed at ecological agriculture, has generated necessary innovation processes to persist in the face of adversities in the context of rural development.

From the ethic-social dimension of SAT, a great influence on rural prosperity can be observed. Interpersonal relations and conducts lay the grounds for farmers -and other actors in the public and private scopes- to work and advance towards rural prosperity. These processes help improve people's capacities and competences, with ethics and values as basic elements to overcome moral conflicts, and to work as a team. Rural prosperity requires a change in the mentalities of farmers that helps them establish public-private alliances, as well as links with civil society.

Ecological agriculture influences the business-technical dimension of rural prosperity, giving way for the creation of solid business structures that generate goods and services to society. The sustained success of these environmental organizations is achieved when they not only seek profitability, but also generate other values that have an incidence in the improvement of people's quality of life. Agro-environmental businesses also incorporate social and environmental values, and optimize a means of subsistence for producers in rural areas.

Ecological agriculture also influences the political-contextual dimension of rural prosperity, it contributes to a territorial strategic vision, it improves the management of natural resources in a contextual scope, and helps coordinate activities and create synergies. These synergies are very efficient when carried out through cooperatives based on trust, commitment, and reliability between associates, creating environments that favor good governance. The capacities of these associations to establish interrelations and negotiations between regional, national or international public and private agents, and to form strategic alliances, is a key factor for rural prosperity. The SAT experience generates an action strategy that influences the dimensions of rural prosperity: the need for a balance between these dimensions of rural prosperity is confirmed, and the transformation of conventional systems towards EA is oriented.

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Received: May 01, 2015; Accepted: November 01, 2015

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