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.