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.

TRANSPLACE research project – connecting people to place

In 2014 the International Social Science Council launched a call for pre-proposals to apply for a ‘seed grant’ on the topic Transformations to Sustainability. Wageningen UR (Ina Horlings from RSO and Paul Hebinck from SDC), the Rhodes University and the University of Viçosa wrote a proposal together and received funding. The seed grant was used to build a knowledge network around this topic, locally in sites in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, the Minais Gerais in Brazil and in three different sites in the Netherlands. Furthermore the research partners met in South Africa in December 2014 to visit some sites and write a full proposal together. In the beginning of 2015 the organisation ILEIA, centre for learning on sustainable agriculture, joined the research consortium and in April 2015 a final proposal was submitted.

Meeting in South-Africapptx

TRANSPLACE addresses concrete problems and sustainability issues across several linked areas of global environmental change in 9 specific social-ecological settings in South-Africa, Brazil and the Netherlands. Sustainability problems emerge from complex interactions between people’s livelihoods, the persistent poverty in the southern countries, growing inequalities between people, social discontent and health.
The integrative sustainability challenge is to support sustainable place-shaping as an empowering force of transformation – encompassing people, practices and policies – contributing to new forms of connectivity and co-creation between people and place. This occurs via, and helps us to understand, re-localization, transformative agency and the re-embedding of daily lived practices in social-ecological systems and place-based assets. This is considered as an empowering perspective and an effective starting point for sustainable place-based development.The central question is: How does place-shaping – understood as processes of connectivity- lead to new seeds of change contributing to transformation to sustainability?


  • address the temporal, historical, spatial, value-led and multi-scale aspects of sustainability in places and to connect people to place (landscape, nature, soil, people’s capacities) by identifying, supporting and replanting ‘seeds of change’ (innovative practices)
  • establish (long-term) knowledge networks on different scales, facilitate transnational research collaboration and social learning and support early career scientists.
  • co-create new knowledge, tools and policy-recommendations on processes of place-shaping as innovative transformative pathways to sustainability.

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