75th Anniversary: 47) Research at Rural Sociology:  Gender and rural development in Europe – once upon a time and now

Bettina Bock

Once upon a time.

It is almost 44 years since my first research project; it considered the position of women in non-academic positions at the University of Nijmegen. More studies into gender and professions followed; in academia and public service, as well as technical and assumedly masculine occupations such as woodwork and firefighters, and eventually farming.

Women farmers stole my heart – first in Italy and later in the Netherlands when working on my PhD on the role of women in rural development practice and policy. They were so creative and courageous, developing new business activities and conquering a position in a sector in desperate need of transition but often so stubbornly holding on to conventions. In this case, the conventional image and success formula of the male farmer running his farm as a modern business striving to increase production and growth, with the farmwife offering assistance. In the early 90s, some women stood up against these beliefs – men being the head of the farms and farming as regular businesses interested in increasing production and profit. There were women pioneers innovating agriculture by initiating a new model and paradigm of farm diversification and multifunctionality. They introduced new income-generating activities and created new markets with direct communication between producers and consumers. In doing so, these women farmers and their partners developed new knowledge and skills and adapted their agricultural production methods, with less monocultural and more environmentally friendly production methods. Hence, women significantly contributed to the continuity of farming financially through such new business activities, others by gaining off-farm income. Initially, the turn towards diversification and multifunctionality met a lot of criticism and suspicion by mainstream farmers and the farm union – this was not real farming anymore, they said. Or this meant the end of agriculture as a real business and profession. As a result, many women farmers downplayed their activities as hobbies or downplayed the importance of their money. In time, however, the success of these new businesses became evident, and multifunctional agriculture became formally recognised even by the farm unions.

In academia, the role of women in multifunctional farming was cherished in two ways: first as a proof of long due empowerment and recognition of the vital role of women in agriculture; second as one of the elements of the transition of farming, with multifunctionality, high-quality production and direct marketing as the way forward, and thirdly as proof of the sustainability of family farming. Studies into gender relations in agriculture confirmed the presence of more equal gender relations on farms engaged in diversified productions and novel production methods. The situation is quite different in most production-oriented farms that remained conventional also in terms of gender relations. The political interest in women farmers diminished over time, at least at the national level. The EU continued to call attention to the position of rural women, stressing their vulnerability and the importance of strengthening their position in farming and rural areas. However, gender agriculture and rural development did not figure prominently in public, political or academic debates for a long time – in Europe. In international development debates, this was quite different, and gender remained a prominent issue and target of policymakers, donors and academics. Women were presented as important actors, able to enhance production and warrant food security, yet needing support to overcome traditions and realise their potential. Maybe, the global South was again ahead of the North when it came to gender debates – as they were when research into gender and agriculture took place in Europe in the seventies.

Most recently, the interest in gender and rural development seems to be reawakening also in Europe. Looking into a recently published HORIZON, the EU expresses high hopes for women’s engagement in innovations. They expect women to ensure the future of agriculture and rural areas and significantly contribute to climate change mitigation and, hence, our future. It is interesting to see that women who figured in agricultural and rural policies so far, mainly as a vulnerable group, become suddenly framed as our saviours. However, as the EU calls for ways to boost women’s innovations, women are still expected to need a hand to realise their potential, with many hurdles arising from what we may best identify as institutionalised sexism.

What does that mean for academics like me who have fallen for these amazing women who experiment with new ideas, innovate new products and methods, and institutions? Should we worry about their instrumentalisation, as some warn us (reference)? I always have difficulty with that argument – because are we instrumentalised if we choose to do what needs to be done? Do we not all carry the responsibility to be instruments in the realisation of a better world? And is women’s agency to innovate against all odds not in itself transforming structures, identities and relations, self-empowering? Is innovation, hence, not their instrument of empowerment? Yes, they deserve more respect, reward, and support. What they do is valuable and critical, and we need to ensure their engagement has an impact.

In my view, it is not up to me as a researcher to protect women from instrumentalisation. However, I can be of more assistance when understanding what drives, enables and hinders them and where change is essential to realise their potential. The transformation of gender relations is part and parcel of that process, be it explicitly or implicitly. We should also not forget that women do not necessarily view their actions as individual or independent; farm women often feel part of the family business, and many collaborate with others and men. The latter does not make gender equality less relevant yet nuances women’s interest in gender transformation. And what about the kind of innovations in which women engage? Many are novel, of course, but not all are about agroecology or climate change. Or that might not be the leading motive. Women’s primary reason is often to assure the business’s profitability, and not all they do is good for the environment. Does that mean we should then not support their initiatives and engagement in innovation? Do women only as saviours deserve support? The right of agenda-setting is another matter to consider. Which issues should politics and science address, and when are women ‘invited’ to join? Even formulating the question is awkward as, of course, women have the right to set the agenda. Reality is more complex. Generally, interest groups are involved in such negotiations, and as studies report time and again, women farmers are hardly represented in farm organisations.

Intriguing questions that are difficult to answer. As an academic, I might argue that my first task is to understand how innovations emerge when ‘female’ agency fights traditional structures, irrespective of their motive. On a more personal note, I believe it is our responsibility as scientists, policymakers, and practitioners to choose which innovations to support, whether promoted by men or women. In today’s world, it is irresponsible to support innovations that add to the problem of climate change and social injustice.

Some suggestions for overviews of rural gender literature

  • Asztalos Morell I. and BB. Bock (2008) (eds), Gender regimes, citizen participation and rural restructuring, Elsevier: Rural Sociology and Development Series, pp. 3-30
  • Bock B.B. and S. Shortall (2006) (eds), Rural Gender Relations: Issues and case- studies, Oxfordshire: CABI
  • Bock, B.B. and S. Shortall (2017) (eds), Gender and rural globalisation: international perspectives on gender and rural development, Oxfordshire: CABI
  • Bock, B.B. and M. van der Burg (2017), Gender and international development, in B.B. Bock and S. Shortall (eds) Gender and rural globalisation: international perspectives on gender and rural development, Oxfordshire: CABI
  • Bock B.B. (2016), The Rural, in: I. van der Tuin (ed.), MacMillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks: Gender, volume 2: Nature, MacMillan, 199-216
  • Cornwall, A. , E. Harrison and A. Whitehead (2007) (eds),. Gender myths and feminist fables: the struggle for interpretive power. Gender and Development, 38(1998) (special issue)
  • Mohanty, C.T. (2003), Feminism without borders; decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity, Durham & London:  Duke University Press (reprint from 1984)
  • Pini B., B. Brandth and J. Little (2015) (eds). Feminisms and Ruralities. London: Lexington Book
  • Plas van der L. and M. Fonte (1994) (eds). Rural gender studies in Europe. Assen: van Gorcum
  • Sachs C. (2019) (ed.), Gender, agriculture and agrarian transformations, changing relations in Africa, Latin America and Asia: London: Routlegde, Taylor & Francis Group
  • Shortall S. and B.B. Bock (2015) (eds) Rural, gender and policy; Rural women in Europe: the impact of place and culture on gender mainstreaming the European Rural Development Programme; Gender, Place and Culture, 22(5), special issue

Better ways to cook up food policy

Recently the article on FoodLinks that you can read below was published on the EU websites Horizon2020 and Research & Innovation. FoodLinks is one of the EU-projects the Rural Sociology Group worked on between 2011 and 2013. If you want to know more about the initial project read here.

Foodlinks_Logo_200pixCan too many cooks spoil the broth? Not if they find the right way to work together. An EU-funded project explored new methods for researchers, policy-makers and civil society groups to collaborate to make food sustainable – for both people and the planet.’  Continue reading

Virtual Issue Sociologia Ruralis – a tribute to the Year of the Family Farm

Being editor of Sociologia Ruralis I’m pleased to announce the publication of a Virtual Issue on Family Farming (= free accessible at Wiley Online Library) to celebrate the UN International Year on Family Farming, which reflects the development of thinking on family farming during the years. The virtual issue gathers a selection of publications on family farming in Sociologia Ruralis between 1969 and 2013. Taken together they reflect the development of thought through continuously returning questions (survival, succession, gender) as well as shifting points of attention.

Articles included:

  1. Social implications of farm mechanization, a final report on cross national research by Anton J. Jansen
  2. Patriarchy and Property by Harriet Friedman
  3. Family Goals and Survival Strategies by David Symes and John Appleton
  4. The Persistence of Family Farms in United States Agriculture by  Nola Reinhardt and Peggy Bartlett
  5. Farm Families Between Tradition and Modernity by Karl Friedrich Bohler and Bruno Hildenbrand
  6. Ageing and Succession of Family Fams: The Impact on Decision-making and Land Use by  Clive Potter and Matt Lobley
  7. Power Analysis and Farm Wives by Sally Shortall
  8. Defining and Operationalizing Family Farming from a Sociological Perspective by Göran Djurfeldt
  9. Family Farming and Capitalist Development in Greek Agriculture: A Critical Review of the Literature by Charalambos Kasimis and Apostolos G. Papadopoulos
  10. Pluriactivity as a Livelihood Strategy in Irish Farm Households and its Role in Rural Development by Jim Kinsella, Susan Wilson, Floor De Jong and Henk Renting
  11. Gender Identity in European Family Farming: A Literature Review by Berit Brandth
  12. ‘Good Farmers’ as Reflexive Producers: an Examination of Family Organic Farmers in the US Midwest by Paul Stock
  13. Subsistence and Sustainability in Post-industrial Europe: The Politics of Small-scale Farming in Europeanising Lithuania by Diana Mincyte
  14. Peasantry and Entrepreneurship As Frames for Farming: Reflections on Farmers’ Values and Agricultural Policy Discourses by Miira Niska, Hannu T. Vesala and Kari Mikko Vesala
  15. Resourcing Children in a Changing Rural Context: Fathering and Farm Succession in Two Generations of Farmers by Berit Brandth and Grete Overrein

The last issue of Sociologia Ruralis later this year will also include a section with several articles on family farming, followed by a discussion between some of the authors about the advancements made early 2015.

FOODLINKS final conference – Sustainable food communities of practice

On 16 October 2013 the FOODLINKS team organised the  conference Sustainable food communities of practice – meet and eat to present the results of its  three-year project. The conference focused on “Good cooperation between science, society and policy promotes sustainable food consumption and production” looking more particularly into:

  • How short food supply chains can effectively work as policy tools;
  • How to maximise the benefits of sustainable public procurement of food;
  • How to implement sustainable food strategies in European cities.

The conference made a special effort to actively engage the participants’ experience and knowledge in the field, and to verify the findings from the project. The conference experiences are summarised in the video below:

More about Foodlinks and the three action plans published:

Foodlinks is a collaborative project funded by the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission with the purpose of evaluating knowledge brokerage activities to promote sustainable food consumption and production: linking scientists, policymakers and civil society organizations. See the www.foodlinkscommunity.net for more information.

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Rural women in Europe: invest in the vitality of rural areas to improve their position

The report ‘Personal and social development of women in rural areas of Europe’, prepared for the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, provides an overview of the social situation of women in the rural areas of Europe. It looks into rural women’s work, political participation and their experience of the quality of life in rural areas. It points at the great diversity between and within Member States but also states that there is no evidence of a general rural disadvantage. Women experience specific problems only in the peripheral rural regions of Europe and in particular the Central-Eastern Member States. These areas are maladapted to women’s needs in terms of employment and services, as well as cultural norms and values. It is also in those areas that young rural women (and men) decide to leave and to search for a better life elsewhere.

Analysis of rural development policies reveals that women seldom participate in the formation of rural development plans or the decision making on the distribution of funds. There are some projects designed for women often focusing on self-employment. There are also some projects aimed at improving the supply of social services. Most projects are fragmented attempts to solve some problems for some women. A coherent plan on how to address gender equality is lacking. 

To improve the situation of rural women it is recommended to focus on the situation in the peripheral rural areas where the low quality of life and lack of work, income and services constraints women’s development and perpetuates unequal gender relations. It is important to invest in the vitality and quality of life of those areas and to improve their accessibility. Upgrading the local quality of life may convince rural women (and men) to stay. It may also help to mobilize individual and collective action for local development.

The Economics of Green care in Agriculture. Edited by Joost Dessein and Bettina Bock

Recently published and available on line The Economics of Green care in Agriculture, edited by Joost Dessein and Bettina Bock.

 

The publication is part of our participation in COST Action 866 ‘Green care in Agriculture’. This COST action brought scientists and practitioners together who are working in the broad domain of ‘green care in agriculture’ with the purpose of increasing the scientific knowledge on green care, its potential for improving human mental and physical health and on the best way to implement green care in agriculture throughout Europe. The COST action consisted of different working groups that looked into health effects of green care, the economics of green care and policies related to green care (http://www.umb.no/greencare/). This publication reflects on the Economics of Green Care and the possibility to measure and evaluate its costs and benefits, taking into account the wide variation in Green Care arrangements throughout Europe. A limited number of free copies is also available at the Institute for Agriculture and Fisheries Research Merelbeke, Belgium (www.ilvo.vlaanderen.be), where Joost Dessein works (email: joost.dessein@ilvo.vlaanderen.be).