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.

Call for papers for special issue on ‘City region foodscapes’

This is a call for papers for a special issue about ‘City region foodscapes’ of the open access journal Sustainability – Section Sustainable Urban and Rural Development.

There is increasing broad recognition that food is an integral part of the urban agenda. Cities in different parts of the world are developing policy and programme initiatives related to urban food provisioning. The 2007-2008 food price hikes, and climate-induced disruptions to food supply, have triggered a call for more resilient urban food systems. In addition, alarming increases in diet-related ill-health require cities to ensure access to sufficient, affordable, healthy and safe food to their population. Continue reading

Seminar Per Olsson on Resilience and Socio-Ecological Transformations on 24 Feb

The WASS PhD Masterclass on methods is full! You can no longer subscribe for it. Of course you are welcome to attend the public lecture.

We have invited dr. Per Olsson from the Stockholm Resilience Centre to visit Wageningen and give a public lecture on the 24th of February. He will give a public lecture on his primary field of research which is focussed on linked socio-ecological system dynamics and resilience. In this lecture he will be putting sustainability transitions central, while discussants from the groups RSO, KTI and PAP will reflect on the lecture taking their own research in mind.

Poster Seminar closed

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RETHINK – Farmers from Salzburg (Austria) explain diversification as a strategy to strengthen resilience

RETHINK is a transdisciplinary research project supported by the European Commission and funding bodies in 14 countries under the umbrella of FP7 and the RURAGRI ERA-NET. The Rural Sociology Group has a seat in the RETHINK Advisory Board.

Researchers from BOKU have made three short films (also with English undertitles) in which farmers explain their family farm strategie in terms of strengthening their resilience.

Resilience refers to the capacity of social, economic, and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function(s), identity, and structure

1. Resilience needs diversity – Diversity needs balance

Five farmers form Salzburg (Austria) farmers talk about the advantages of having different income sources (both on- and off farm) to strengthen their resilience. But they also point out the challenges related to managing diversity. They talk about what it takes to successfully manage diversity, especially to ensure that the workload for the various family members is not too high and that quality of life does not suffer.

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MSc course Sociology of Food Provisioning and Place-based Development

On the 16th of March 2015 the MSc course ‘Sociology of Food Provisioning and Place-based Development’ (RSO-31806) starts. Students that want to participate in this course can contact the course coordinator Han Wiskerke (han.wiskerke@wur.nl) as the deadline for online registration has passed.


The course aims to provide a theoretical, empirical and methodological understanding of place-based development processes, with an emphasis on food provisioning and rural and territorial dynamics in urbanizing societies. The course is based upon recently completed and ongoing research activities within two of the main research domains of the Rural Sociology Group:

  1. The sociology of food provisioning;
  2. The sociology of place-based development.

Being based on recently completed and ongoing research projects implies that this course provides an up-to-date  insight into current theoretical debates and research findings. These are mainly derived from international collaborative research programmes (see ‘our projects’), carried out by multi-disciplinary research teams in different countries inside and outside Europe. Within and linked to these programmes the Rural Sociology Group has approximately 30 ongoing PhD projects. Some of these projects will also feature during this course.

The course is divided into four main themes: Continue reading