75th Anniversary: 51) Family Farming Futures: A research agenda

Henk Oostindie

Family-farms’ responsiveness to societal change plays a prominent role in my research interests. Initially, I focused on the societal significance of differentiating ‘farming styles’ in relation to a variety of topics, such as deteriorating farm incomes, agri-environmental problems and loss of rural amenities. Later, I studied agricultural diversification tendencies, guided by notions like resistance, resilience and redesign as integrating insights from various sociological strands. In this wider theorizing of the empirical material collected over previous decades on farmers’ individual and collective reactions to marginalisation tendencies, narratives of their struggles to regain a certain autonomy have been interwoven with active attempts to create alternative, more promising and independent relations through new forms of cooperation (networks, alliances, partnerships, etc.). 

I believe there are good reasons to continue to develop a strongly empirical and grounded approach to research on the resilience of family farming. Here, I will illustrate this with a consideration of ongoing agricultural dynamics in the Dutch setting, which has a particular value also given the relatively little attention afforded to our Rural Sociology Group ‘home situation’ in the other contributions to this anniversary book.

The Netherlands faces a period of serious tensions between its farming population and society at arising from struggles for space, both literally and in terms of agri-environmental pollution rights related to the persistence of agri-environmental climate change issues in a rather vulnerable delta setting. As part of the politically highly sensitive national Nitrogen Dossier, agriculture as an economic sector is increasingly in competition with others, especially transport and housing, with reference to compromises around reduction targets and the (re)allocation and distribution of emission rights. Dutch farmers differ rather fundamentally in their opinions about how to tackle this agri-environmental challenge.

For a significant part of the Dutch farming community, this represents less of a challenge than a fundamental threat to their professional interests and identity – as expressed, for example, in recent farmers’ demonstrations and their accompanying demands. However, as revealed by national surveys, around 40% of farmers are willing to accept cuts in their nitrogen emission rights provided there are accompanying compensation measures. These would include better targeted and more finely-tuned remuneration systems for their delivery of other, non-food ecosystem services ( contributions to biodiversity, landscape values, sustainable water management, etc.). These farmers’ openness to multifunctional, nature-inclusive and regenerative farming futures – or any other alternative to the primary mode of agricultural modernisation – reflect much more positive, constructive and hopeful attitudes to changing societal demands. As confirmed by research insights, something that can and should be at least partly explained by the peculiarities of family-farming logics.

In the Dutch setting, the wider societal benefits of the resilience of family-based farming remain under-recognised, I would argue. Thus, resilience understudied in relation to broader research topics involving the attractiveness of rural life-styles, vibrancy of rural communities, reproduction and preservation of rural distinctiveness, healthy and sustainable foodscapes and rural-urban interdependencies. Probably for the same reason, there is relatively little research attention devoted to topics such as how to deal with the particular vulnerabilities of family-based farming such as inter-generational succession.

Latter’s  increasingly high dependency on external financial resources as well as family-members willingness to accept non-market conform compensation levels, makes it often a critical moment, or break-point, in the continuity of family-farming. The current emergence of financially more accessible and socially more acceptable succession models reflects interesting responses in this context that deserve further research attention. For instance, splitting farms into multiple, smaller business units that continue to collaborate closely but that can be sold and purchased independently of one another might improve farm continuity and expand the social accessibility of farming, including better opportunities for new entrants without agricultural backgrounds.

My own special interest in the future of family-farming encompasses its accompanying policy-practice interfaces, with particular attention to novel forms of collective action. Again, limiting myself to the Dutch setting, this comprises initiatives as agri-environmental and territorial cooperatives, as well as a broad spectrum of other initiatives around the emergence of novel rural markets (green care, agri-tourism, leisure, alternative food qualities, etc.). In short, primarily, although certainly not exclusively, I investigate farmer-led collective responses to societal demands for more integrative agricultural development and more sustainable food systems. Associated social struggles against prevailing policy interventions and market dependencies and attempts to establish more place-based partnerships and alliances, along with the accompanying processes of negotiation, learning and boundary-crossing efforts all structure, motivate and orientate my interest in contemporary rural development practices and initiatives. This is theoretically underpinned by actor-network theory and relational approaches and insights from transition- and governance scholars.

Taken as a whole, these research interests are closely related to the research agenda of the Rural Sociology Group as outlined in this anniversary book. Contemporary family-farming dynamics are becoming particularly meaningful in relation to wider societal concerns as sustainable food-scapes and rural, or perhaps better, place-based well-being in a broader sense. This perspective draws on my three decades of participation in European projects addressing these type of interrelations in different ways, ranging from varying sustainable food network trajectories (e.g. within the EU-funded project SUS-CHAIN) to theorising rural competitiveness and quality of rural life through the rural web concept (e.g. EU-funded project ETUDE). I have certainly appreciated these attempts to integrate the research fields of the Rural Sociology Group within European projects, notwithstanding their limitations. One concern in this regard that I would like to address in this anniversary contribution is the absence of opportunities for more longitudinal research.

A mixture of short project time frames and commissioner-led agenda setting makes it difficult to get deeper insights in continuity and change over longer time periods. How did regional farming styles develop in time, or particular sustainable food networks? What happened to hopeful farmer-led collective initiatives, or promising and less promising rural web dynamics? I guess I will keep struggling with, and dreaming about, how to create space for more longitudinal research approaches to further unravel and underpin societal relevance, impact and promises of aforementioned research fields and interests.

75th Anniversary: 48) Research at Rural Sociology: Urban gardens as alternative economic spaces  

Lucie Sovová

My doctoral research explored the role of urban gardens in people’s food provisioning practices, framing them as spaces of diverse food economies operating largely outside the market. In order to understand how gardens work as food sources, I observed the food provisioning practices of 27 households involved in gardening in Brno, Czechia, throughout a period of one year.

The research contributes to the broader discussion about more sustainable ways of food production and consumption, alternative food networks and urban agriculture. Research on sustainable food systems is often biased towards initiatives embedded in market relationships (Rosol 2020). Literature on urban gardening in global North mostly focuses on a specific kind of this practice (community gardens), and it discusses the multiple non-productive functions of these spaces, such as community building (Veen et al. 2016), place-making (Koopmans et al. 2017) or the improvement of urban environment (Timpe et al. 2016). Another stream of literature presents urban gardens as activist spaces questioning the status quo of neoliberal urbanism (Tornaghi 2017, McClintock 2013). This literature recognizes the potential of urban gardens to contribute to localized and sustainable food provisioning (Kosnik 2018). Nonetheless, actual data on food self-provisioning (FSP) in urban areas of the global North remains insufficient (Taylor and Lovell 2013).

Furthermore, some geographical areas seem to be excluded from the debate. FSP is wide spread in the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE): 50% inhabitants of the region grow some of their food, compared to 10% in Western European countries (Alber and Kohler 2008). Despite this potential, lessons from CEE are only recently appearing in the literature on urban gardening or alternative food networks. This discrepancy can be explained by an unequal geography of knowledge production, in which CEE rarely figures as a source of original knowledge (Jehlička 2021). In light of the failed experiment of state-socialism, CEE countries are often regarded as underdeveloped and in need of catching up with the West (Kuus 2004, Müller 2019). This transition discourse results in the framing of local informal economies (such as FSP or informal food sharing) as remnants of the past which will be eventually substituted by market economy (Alber and Kohler 2008, Acheson 2008). My research adds to more emancipatory works showing the relevance of these traditional practices for sustainable food provisioning (Jehlička et al 2020, Goszczyński et al., 2019, Mincyte 2012).

My theoretical approach is further inspired by the diverse economies framework (Gibson-Graham 2008) which points out that economic practices are not limited to capitalist markets and monetized transactions, and which calls for attention to alternative, nonmarket and informal economies. This approach is increasingly adapted in the study of more sustainable food provisioning, which recognizes the importance of economic arrangements fostering social justice and environmental wellbeing (Rosol 2020, Tornaghi 2017, Morrow 2019). It is also particularly pertinent for the post-socialist context, seemingly caught between the gloomy heritage of state socialism and the sweeping neoliberalization of the last three decades.

Recent representative surveys show that the share of Czechs involved in FSP remains steady at around 40% of the population, spread equally across income groups and educational levels (Smith and Jehlička 2013, Jehlička and Daněk 2017, Sovová et al 2021). Unpacking these statistics, my research assessed the role of FSP in terms of quantity of food produced as well as its position within broader food provisioning practices and the diverse economic arrangements they constitute. Inspired by the perspective of social metabolism (González de Molina and Toledo 2014, Burger Chakraborty et al. 2016), I used food logs to monitor the flows of fruits and vegetables entering and leaving respondent households. These flows were categorized based on the type of economic arrangements as non-market, alternative-market or market economies. Using conceptual borrowings from social practice theory (Reckwitz 2002, Shove et al. 2012), I further investigated the meanings and competences these material flows entailed.

The field work consisted of four rounds of data collection of one month, spread over the course of one year. During each round, respondents recorded fruits, and vegetables which they produced at their gardens or obtained from other sources. Next to the amount, type and source of food, they also kept track of the use of these foods, i.e. own consumption, preserving, sharing or other forms of distribution. The purpose of the multi-staged research design was to observe seasonal variations and to gradually build theory with the respondents’ participation, accompanying the quantitative accounts with a qualitative understanding of their food provisioning practices.

The results reveal complex interactions between gardens, other food sources, respondents’ eating habits and dietary preferences. FSP plays a central role in gardeners’ food provisioning practices. The gardens provide a significant amount of food, covering on average one third of fruits and vegetables consumed in gardeners’ households – results consistent with a national survey using self-reporting (Sovová et al 2021). In addition, respondents’ experience as producers shapes their food provisioning practices beyond FSP. Home-grown food is seen as the best in terms of taste, freshness and transparent origin. This creates a hierarchy of food sources, in which FSP and other nonmarket and semi-formal food provisioning practices (e.g. receiving home-grown foods from family and friends, foraging or buying directly from producers) are preferred over shopping for food in conventional venues. Alternative food networks typically associated with conscious consumerism (community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, organic food shops) were marginal in respondents’ shopping practices. Instead, they provisioned food from a number of diverse channels spanning market and nonmarket relations, in which social relations merged with environmental considerations and subjective notions of food quality. The centrality of FSP in these practices also resulted in strong seasonal patterns in both food sources and diets.  

None of the respondents aimed to be fully self-sufficient, nor did they grow their own food in order to save money. Instead, they saw gardening first and foremost as a hobby. The link of this way of food provisioning to leisure, fulfilment, and, broadly speaking, gardeners’ identities, strengthened the position of FSP in gardeners’ food provisioning practices. Similarly, other informal and semi-formal food practices were often grounded in social relations, such as visiting family and acquaintances in the countryside. Gardeners’ food practices also contributed to fostering social relations, for instance when they shared home-grown food with others, a practice which was common for most respondent households. Indeed, FSP is a generous practice in which the joy of sharing and appreciation of home-grown food prevails over expectations of reciprocity or economic considerations, as also documented by Daněk and Jehlička (2017) or Pottinger (2018).

While practiced as a hobby, FSP is mobilized as a food provisioning practice through a number of specific competences. Using the conceptualizations of social practice theory, I interpret FSP as intersection of two sets of practices, those relating to the garden (‘gardening’), and those relating to the kitchen (‘food provisioning’). Based on both quantitative and qualitative data, I identified four different types of relations between gardening and food provisioning. Put simply, some respondents were keen gardeners but did not necessarily integrate their harvest into their diets. Others strived to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables but were not always successful in their gardening efforts. Gardens are multifunctional spaces which hold different meanings for different users. Using the gardens as food sources requires not only gardening and cooking skills, but also coordination and integration of both on a daily as well as seasonal basis.

My research shows that when thinking about sustainable food provisioning, scholars and practitioners need to look beyond market venues and beyond people’s roles as consumers. The search for future-proof urban food systems cannot be restricted to environmentally-minded affluent Westerners, but it needs to consider everyday practices already existing in diverse contexts. I have shown that there is a plethora of under-researched informal food practices whose potential for sustainable provisioning, diverse economic arrangements and mutually beneficial human–nature relations merits further investigation.

Sovová, L. (2020). Grow, share or buy? Understanding the diverse economies of urban gardeners. Wageningen University. https://doi.org/10.18174/519934

75th Anniversary: 25) De Stad-Platteland Tegenstelling

Door Henk Oostindie

In de jubileum publicatie rondom ons 25 jarig bestaan leverde Lijfering een bijdrage onder de titel ‘het rural-urban continuüm in het licht van sociale veranderingen’. In die bijdrage gaat Leifferink in op de zin en onzin van dichotomisch denken en de noodzaak om de begrippen stad-en platteland als ideaaltypen te beschouwen. Vertrekkende vanuit het centrale begrip menselijke nederzetting, verwijst Lijfering naar de volgende drie dominante onderscheidende kenmerken: het fysieke milieu, de sociale interactie en het cultuurpatroon. Naast deze in zijn ogen verhelderende invalshoeken om stad en platteland als anachronismen nader te duiden, komt Leifering met het voorstel om meer expliciet aandacht te besteden aan wat hij benoemt als ‘functionele stad-platteland patronen’. Continue reading

Open letter on the EU’s ‘Farmers for the Future’ Report and the Farm to Fork Strategy

Open letter of European scholars to (in English, French and Spanish):

  • Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission
  • Janusz Wojciechowski, European Commissioner for Agriculture,
  • Norbert Lins, President of COMAGRI of the European Parliament.

Re: ‘Farmers for the Future’

Wageningen, 10th of March 2021

Dear Sirs,

In 2020 the European Commission released ‘Farmers for the Future’ (EUR 30464 EN), a Science for Policy Report, prepared by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission. This policy report is intended to contribute to the further elucidation of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy which is a key element of the European Green Deal. It has, at its core, a description of 12 profiles that are attempt to categorize the likely diversity and range of professional farming styles in European agriculture in 2040. The report asks, and tries to respond to, the following question: “ Who will be the key players of the EU next generation agriculture, the farmers of the future?” Continue reading

Comparing pathways towards sustainability: Lessons on transformative agency from three pioneering farms in Europe – MSc-thesis by Samuel van Rozelaar

Samuel van Rozelaar is a Master student Organic Agriculture has recently completed an excellent and beautifully illustrated MSc-thesis on the transformative agency of three pioneering farmers, all members of the lighthouse farms network, and meticulously reconstructed their transition pathways towards sustainable farming systems. ‘Comparing pathways towards sustainability: Lessons on transformative agency from three pioneering farms in Europe‘ can be downloaded (click on hyperlink). Below the abstract.


This thesis offers lessons on the transformative agency of the farmers behind three pioneering farms. This is done by comparing the transformative strategies they applied in relation to the three-fold embedding of their farms, throughout their pathways towards more sustainable farming systems. To reconstruct these pathways semi-structured interviews and pathway mapping exercises were conducted with the main actors on each farm. This data was then coded, categorized and grouped in dimensions that allowed for a comparison of the interplay between strategies and embedding. The resulting 8 lessons show that these farmers persevered in developing, adapting, and moving towards their dreams and visions, despite many critical moments, by applying a range of transformative strategies. Through these strategies they managed to transform their farms in terms of its practices and relations. Throughout this process of transformation, the farmers continuously moved through a learning process, and as such also personally transformed in terms of thinking and doing, which in turn further enhanced their transformative capacities and strategies. Finally, the lessons show that these farmers have managed to create and navigate complex sustainable farming systems by tapping into the knowledge, skills, and resources of others. This shows the significance of the co-creation of contextual knowledge and the capacities to apply it in the transformation towards sustainable food systems. For future research, it is recommended to test to what extent these lessons resonate with other pioneering farms, but also with conventional farms. In addition, it is worth comparing family farms with non-family farms in their transformations towards sustainable farming systems, with a focus on intergenerational differences. In doing so, the frameworks of resilience of social-ecological systems and the adaptive cycle of transformations could be highly useful. Lastly, future research into transformations should also include the role of the relations to non-humans.